By Sharon Duke Estroff
In case there’s any doubt over which is more fun – trying on real clothes at Bloomingdales or trying on virtual clothes at a Stardoll department store – there shouldn’t be. The latter is the hands-down winner.
Having survived recent bathing suit shopping trauma, I found dressing up MattieLu, my Stardoll avatar, to be a little slice of shopping heaven. Every frock I slipped onto my virtual self accented my many assets. As far as minimizing my bodily flaws, completely unnecessary, as I apparently haven’t any.
When I created MattieLu during my personal Stardoll design process, I was given the option of shaping her frame by choosing body size 1, 2, or 3 – one extreme presumably super skinny and the other more curvaceous. Upper and lower bodies are modified separately so I could theoretically create an apple (heavier on top) or pear (heavier below) framed avatar.
I was fleetingly impressed. Stardoll’s overriding shopping theme may be shamelessly materialistic, its retail offerings, more than slightly slutty, but at least this youth website is cognizant of the importance of building healthy body image in kids. At least it’s doing its part to counteract the counterproductive message (sent children’s way by skeletal tween idols and such) that fame, fortune, and happiness are inversely correlated with body fat index.
Nevertheless first impressions can be short lived. Upon alternating my avatars body type number, I recognized virtually no change whatsoever in her frame. Perhaps that option isn’t right now working, I reasoned.
After much closer inspection, however, I did notice a very slight puffing and unpuffing of MattieLu’s frame with my ascension and descension of number choice. (ee screenshots). Still, if this was the extent of body-type variation advocated by Stardoll, I might as well hibernate for the entirety of bathing suit season.
Does Stardoll’s perfectly proportioned avatars indeed foster unhealthy body image in the young girls who create them? Does its scant, midriff-baring couture encourage excessive dieting?
I think the Stardoll club message boards speak for themselves. (Stardoll members who cyberswear they’re at least 13 years old are allowed to join clubs; each club has its own message board where members post questions, suggestions, and free associative ramblings.) A disproportionate number of posts revolve around topics of physical appearance, weight loss and eating disorders. I came across several dozen clubs that are exclusively devoted to such subjects (see screenshot), but I also came upon weight issue posting in presumably unrelated forums like the “Animal Lovers” club.
Finally, there are sure to be those who argue that Stardoll’s pro-emaciation message is really no different than that of Barbie who’s plagued generations of girls with an impossibly perfect vision of female physical beauty. But as a former Barbie junkie and current concerned mom/undercover Stardoll member, I am going to have to differ on that one. Where there was never any question that Barbie was an inanimate plastic plaything, Stardoll essentially eradicates the line between fantasy and reality, immersing kids in its appearance-obsessed virtual world. As an adult, I intellectually grasped that the Stardoll experience is a product of state of the art computer graphics and technology. Still, I found it difficult to remain impervious to its overriding superficial mindset. On the upside, sampling life as a size 0 did inspire me to dust off my treadmill and lay off the Girl Scout cookies for a while.
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