Beauty in the eye of the beholder? Attractiveness in a virtual world


The current study examines whether traditional offline gender biases regarding physical attractiveness and status transfer to Second Life (SL), a virtual world where residents can easily manipulate the appearance and status of avatars (i.e., graphical representations of the self). Participants (N = 312, 60.58% female, Mage = 29.77, SD = 10.53) reported on demographics, SL usage, and rated the attractiveness of female and male avatars manipulated along physical attractiveness (high vs. low) and status (high vs. low). Mixed measures ANCOVAs were modeled separately for the female avatars and male avatars with within-subjects factors (avatar characteristics: physical attractiveness and status) and between-subject factors (participant characteristics: sex, and intensity of SL usage), while controlling for participant age. Consistent with offline norms, female avatars high in physical attractiveness were rated as more attractive, regardless of status. Participants rated male avatars high in physical attractiveness as more attractive if they were high in status compared to those low in status. We also found opposite-sex preferences and moderations by participant age and SL usage on avatar attractiveness ratings. The results suggest the continuity of offline gender norms and effect of in-world experience on perceptions of avatar appearance.

Virtual worlds; avatars; attractiveness; status; gender norms
Author biographies

Shu-Sha Angie Guan

Author photo Shu-Sha Angie Guan, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Child and Adolescent Development at California State University, Northridge. She is interested in the social, psychological and physical implications of digital media among diverse populations, including ethnic minorities and immigrants. She can be reached at angie.guan(at)

Kaveri Subrahmanyam

Kaveri Subrahmanyam Kaveri Subrahmanyam, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles and Associate Director of the Children’s Digital Media Center @ Los Angeles. She studies the cognitive and social implications of interactive media use and is currently researching the daily use of interactive media among youth as well as the academic and cognitive implications of multitasking. Dr. Subrahmanyam has published several research articles on youth and digital media and co-edited a special section on interactive media and human development for Developmental Psychology (2012) and a special issue on social networking for the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (2008). She is the co-author (with David Smahel) of Digital Youth: The Role of Media in Development (Springer, 2011). She can be reached at ksubrah(at)

Kevin Linares

Author photo Kevin A. Linares, MA, is a doctoral student in the department of Human and Community Development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is interested in understanding the social and economic implications of military service for the adaptation process of children of immigrants. He can be reached at klinares(at)

Roy Cheng

Author photo Roy Cheng, MSc/MA, is a researcher at Lieberman Research Worldwide. He manages an array of international quantitative and qualitative projects to gain consumer insights for strategic business development. His work focuses on toys and games, entertainment, and banking/finance. He can be reached at rcheng(at)

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