Study: Virtual Women Show Twice as Much 'Skin' as Men

In a world of no weather, and pixel-perfect bodies, female avatars are disproportionately bare.


PROBLEM: How hot she feels -- in either sense of the word -- might have something to do with a woman's decision to show a lot of skin. Cultural norms surrounding modesty and fashion factor heavily as well. Environmental influences aside, what can be made of the notion of a "spontaneous human tendency to reveal naked skin"?

METHODOLOGY: In order to overcome the usual limitations on unfettered human behavior, researchers in Canada turned to Second Life, a virtual world inhabited by virtual people, or avatars, in various states of virtual dress. Trolling public spaces, they collected 404 images of male and female avatars and scored them based on how much of their skin was exposed.

To control for the different cultural norms that might exist in the Second Life world, they compared their samples to avatars used in a separate Star Wars role-play. Naturally, "only humanoid avatars that were not covered by fur were included in the analysis."

RESULTS: Female avatars revealed significantly more virtual, naked skin than their virtual male counterparts: The least-clothed category, with up to a quarter of one's skin covered, was occupied by 10 percent of females as opposed to 1 percent of males, while the most-clothed category was occupied by 5 percent of females and 71 percent of males.

2nd life -tiff.jpg

This difference was not necessarily more prominent in avatars that had been hypersexualized -- meaning their bodies were unrealistically proportioned. Instead, skin exposure seemed to be favored by females regardless of body type.

Finally, while male Star Wars reenactors did not differ much from the movie characters, the females showed significantly more skin than their big screen counterparts. 

CONCLUSION: That female avatars were twice as exposed as male avatars. That is, according to the authors, evidence that there is an intrinsic sex difference in human skin disclosure, "outside of external climatic, environmental, and physical constraints." 

IMPLICATIONS: The female avatars (who, it's important to note, might not have been manned by female players -- the authors had no way of knowing) didn't seem to entirely equate naked skin with sexual attractiveness. Even though they were equally able to control their body types and the way they dressed, large breasts and tiny waists weren't related to how much skin they chose to show. And on Second Life, there are no explicit cultural norms for what it is or is not okay to wear in public. So why all the bare shoulders, plunging necklines, and exposed thighs? Maybe women just liking showing off their skin more. And maybe there's nothing wrong with that.

The full study, "Virtually Naked: Virtual Environment Reveals Sex-Dependent Nature of Skin Disclosure," is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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