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What happens to body image in the metaverse

Artist and entrepreneur Izzy Howell explores how we can embrace new digital realms without falling into old social media traps.

What happens to body image in the metaverse
[Source photos: Pikx By Panther/Pexels; Jennifer Enujiugha/Pexels; Lucas Ribeiro /Pexels; Shubham Dhage/Unsplash; aldi sigun/Unsplash; Julius Drost/Unsplash; I.am_nah/Unsplash; ANTHONY SHKRABA/Unsplash; Inge Poelman/Unsplash]

Today, it’s almost impossible to open your phone without scrolling across a mention of the ever-looming metaverse. This convergence of digital worlds—a new realm that grants infinite access to every XR experience imaginable—feels suddenly closer than we ever thought possible.

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That’s because, in the past, we tried to build these worlds with a heavy focus on AR and VR technology, but we were missing the underlying digital economies that would help make users stick. To some degree, we’d built the car without the gas to power it. But that’s where crypto and NFTs come in. These digital assets not only offer novel ways to purchase virtual goods, but also unlock a new set of interactive experiences that have the potential to make our current social media landscape obsolete.

Yet, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from web2 giants like Snap and Facebook-owned Instagram, it’s that social media’s damaging effects are particularly harmful to girls and women.

In fact, internal research from Facebook reveals that 32% of teen girls suffering from poor body image feel worse after using Instagram. What’s even more alarming is that extended time spent on social media leads to heightened suicide rates for girls as they enter adulthood.

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As the metaverse continues to become a very real part of our zeitgeist, the issues of identity and body image need to be top of mind. Will it be possible to create a new foundation that empowers women and truly leaves the traps of traditional social media behind?

How web2 failed women and girls

With a following of nearly 29 million on Instagram, model and author Emily Ratajkowski is the kind of influencer whose platform and reach most people would kill for. However, after publishing her recent collection of essays, My Body, Ratajkowski reveals her complicated relationship with using her physical appearance as the catalyst behind her digital prowess.

“For most of my life, I saw myself as savvy, a hustler,” she writes. “I understood that I had a commodifiable asset, something the world valued, and I was proud to have built a life and career off my body. All women are objectified and sexualized to some degree, I figured, so I might as well do it on my own terms. I thought that there was power in my ability to choose to do so.”

Later in the essay, she admits, “Whatever influence and status I’ve gained were only granted to me because I appealed to men.”

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Ratajkowski—one of the most successful influencers on the planet—still finds herself in the trap that every girl and woman faces: that is, the falsified power that comes with commoditizing one’s body and conforming to the beauty standards that accelerate this very process of commoditization.

The social media platforms we use today amplify this cycle, making it easier than ever for hundreds of millions of women to duplicate Ratajkowski and other influencers who (intentionally or unintentionally) conform to the male gaze. What’s more, the concept of the creator economy—the notion that software-powered platforms can enable financial viability—was nothing more than a form of web2 gaslighting. Instead of artists making a living from their ideas and creations, they’ve become slaves to the market in the form of likes and comments that kill independent thought and urge them to post content that echoes what’s been preapproved by the ochlocracy.

For women, this is especially harmful. The sexist messaging that seeps through (namely, the belief that having a perfect body is the most important thing) bars us from being anything other than objects. That we can be artists, educators, builders, and leaders often comes second to an ardent desire for our digital society’s stamp of approval.

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To build an empowering metaverse, we’ll need an excess of tools and processes that foster nonconformity. But, because our current models for social media reward women for sexualizing themselves with both clout and cash, a new question must be answered. How can we hope to break free and build a metaverse that doesn’t just perpetuate the destructive narrative we’re all adhering to today?

Making good on a second chance to build our digital culture

It’s almost impossible to think about identity in the metaverse without thinking about Aech from the novel Ready Player One. Author Ernest Cline puts forth Aech, a white male avatar in the OASIS (the story’s metaverse). It isn’t until much later in the book that Cline reveals Aech’s true identity: a Black woman named Helen Harris. Aech explains that she hid her gender and race for the same reason her mother did in the OASIS—to avoid discrimination.

Cline’s underlying argument is exceptionally clear: Even though the novel takes place in 2045, the most nefarious elements of our social structure—sexism and racism—are alive and well in his imagined metaverse. The avatars and virtual worlds just offer different landscapes for them to live, proving that the digital world we build tomorrow will just be a culmination of how our civilization operates today.

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However, the ability to augment our physical appearances will not only impact the way we’re perceived by others or allow us to conform to dominant social constructs, but it will also impact the way we see ourselves. In 2007, a group of Stanford researchers discovered that the way in which users operated avatars in a simulated world would, in turn, impact their behavior back in the real world. For example, those who embodied tall avatars in the metaverse began to adopt a more aggressive demeanor outside of it. This so-called Proteus Effect shows that the way our bodies are represented in cyberspace will undoubtedly affect how we operate in our everyday lives. Whether it’s positive or negative, the impact will be unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Identity—and all of the nuances therein—is vital to our experience of being alive. More than anything, our perception of ourselves and others (and how these perceptions influence our understanding of power and value) establishes the blueprint for our social system by designating who does and does not have agency, control, and access. To this end, the solution to our social inequities doesn’t lie in democratizing the ability to adjust our appearances at will. We’re more than just the facade of our flesh and the limits of our physical forms.

For true change to come about, we’ll need to rip the old system apart at the seams. By acknowledging how our old world has fallen short, we just might be able to forge the meta-society we all deserve: one that’s designed to liberate and empower all no matter what their race, sexuality, or gender might be.

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Building a metaverse designed to empower everyone

Our virtual world is still being built. The future of our society is largely in the hands of every individual and protocol dedicated to creating it. However, unlike Facebook when it was first being formed in the early aughts, the metaverse is something that can be influenced by all of us, from the way we choose to operate our avatars within it to the very structure of its code.

One of the major differences between web2 and web3 is that web3 allows us to be more than users. Here, we can operate as contributors and owners of the digital spaces where we spend so much time and attention. We can actively participate in the governance of how they are created, controlled, and changed over time.

If the metaverse (or multiple metaverses) are built with decentralization at its core, we’ll have a much higher chance of ensuring that inclusivity and empowerment are built into its very structure. Truly open cyberspace would be a far cry from our current social networks that are at the mercy of algorithms owned and operated by a select few.

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Here, a true creator economy could emerge. Users could make a living for themselves by engaging even a small number of fans who are willing to invest in them as opposed to banking their careers on likes and the fleeting hope of a brand partnership. Women could have the opportunity to engage in systems that value them for who they are as individuals, not just how perfectly edited their photos are.

Democratized governance makes everyone an artist in her own right, meaning everyone is empowered with the freedom and ability to build a metaverse—and, by way of the Proteus Effect, a physical reality—that’s designed to foster true liberation from the most pernicious components of our social sphere today.


Izzy Howell, a core contributor at Cypher, is an artist and entrepreneur whose work has been featured in Teen Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

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