Digital Thin Privilege

There’s a lot wrong with Bulimia.com’s recent article on how female video game characters are portrayed.

For those who didn’t see it all over Twitter, Bulimia.com, an eating disorder treatment site, recently posted edited pictures of some of gaming’s most famous women with “average American women” body types.

I can only imagine that the manipulated photos are supposed to serve as an eye-opener to how terrible gaming’s portrayal of women is or something like that, but Bulimia.com’s argument is flawed in too many ways to take seriously.

The article reads, “Some gaming studios boast their hyper-realistic lighting techniques, touting natural cloud movements as the latest features of their games. And with that kind of attention to detail, it makes us wonder, why can’t they accurately portray the female body? If video game creators are going to pride themselves on accurate digital representations, then it’s time for them to get real about women.”

Apparently “getting real” means making all these thin or normal-weight women chubby, like average American women apparently are.

But not much of what the article says makes sense. Let’s start with the word “average.”

I don’t know what your typical American woman weighs, but I know just from walking down the street that the average young woman doesn’t look obese like Bulimia.com’s ridiculous Photoshop of Lara Croft or Rikku. I know the United States is one of the fattest countries on Earth, but I have a hard time believing that typical women look as big as the ones in these photos. If some of these edited shots are what average women look like in this country, I must be living in an outlier. (I’m not. I live in the Midwest.)

rikku.pngNow let’s move onto “American.”

For the sake of argument, let’s say the average American woman does weigh as much as the edited images imply. Bulimia.com says developers should make their female characters heavier like real American women are for the sake of realism, but the site fails to realize that most of these women aren’t even American.

I’ll admit I don’t know the nationality of every female the article listed, but at least half of them definitely aren’t American. Explain to me why a developer would base the design of a female character of foreign or even fictional nationality on the proportions of American women. How is that pursuing “realism”?

lara-croft.pngFurthermore, each character listed is physically active. Lara Croft climbs and runs and swims. Rikku and Jade fight. The “Bikini Girl” from Grand Theft Auto V could be a model, for all anyone knows. And Cortana is an AI who, within her own fictional universe, was created by humans to look the way she does. Designing physically active women who depend on their health to do what they do best as overweight and out of shape isn’t just artistically dishonest but completely unrealistic. Sorry, Bulimia.com, but you’re not doing a great job at convincing me at how wrong it is for video game women to be slim.

Worst of all, the article claims that these digital women are “unrealistically idealized versions of their human counterparts.” To me, that sounds like they’re saying thin, slender, petite women don’t exist. The only woman in the list to look even close to unrealistic is Nabooru, who’s a character in a game with an already cartoon-like aesthetic. Yes, her waistline is close to impossible, but so is her nose, which Bulimia.com failed to edit for some reason. To claim all these women are “idealized versions of their human counterparts” is an insult to women who do have such body shapes and work hard to maintain them.

nabooru.pngBut let’s put all of that aside and pretend for a minute that Bulimia.com is right—that to portray gaming women as thin is indeed unrealistic.

My response is, “So what?”

Video games aren’t real. In fact, many players use them specifically as a form of escapism from reality. I don’t boot up many video games expecting realistic portrayals of anything, from physics to story to combat. Why should what a character look like be any different? The men of Gears of War are ridiculously chiseled, gruff, meaty dudes, with just as “unrealistic” proportions as other games’ women—and that’s part of the fun. When I play Gears of War, I get to be a buff bro with a chainsaw gun instead of a skinny kid with glasses. But I don’t hear complaints that video games’ men are just as “unrealistic” as their women.

Speaking of realism, surely you all remember Ellie from Borderlands 2. If Gearbox was aiming for realism with its game, Ellie, as big as she is, would probably be bedridden or dead, not happily running around without a care in the world. But absolutely no one cares. Because it’s a video game. In fact, many gamers, myself included, love Ellie, “unrealistic” weight or not.

Ellie
So much for no fat female characters in video games, huh?

The article ends by saying young girls could develop unhealthy ideas about what a woman should look like based on video games’ portrayal of women, potentially leading to eating disorders. I have no evidence to back this up, but I highly doubt that’s true just based on the fact that these women are digital, not real. If anything is damaging to young girls, it’s the lewd pop music videos they watch or the highly edited centerfolds of real women in the magazines they read, not the video games they don’t play. Furthermore, most—if not all—of the women featured in the article come from Teen- or Mature-rated games. Maybe parents shouldn’t let their impressionable kids play games not meant for them.

I appreciate what Bulimia.com is trying to do, but their approach is misguided. But what do I know? I’m probably just mansplaining anyway.

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