Self-objectification by embodying sexualized virtual selves (Fox et al., 2013)

From Jurassic Park: Trespasser

From Jurassic Park: Trespasser (1998)

I was going through articles deciding what to review in light of recent developments. I came acorss Jesse Fox (Ohio State University) and colleagues’ article in Computers in Human Behavior that relates well with the Oculus Rift. I’ve seen some youtube videos of people’s experiences with the oculus rift, including an execution with a virtual guillotine. Jesse Fox (whom I co-authored on an upcoming article in the same journal) and colleagues examined the effects of sexual self-objectification within the virtual reality setting, not dissimilar from using the Oculus rift. At present course of gaming development practices towards gender depiction, this is what we could expect in the near future.


Research has indicated that many video games and virtual worlds are populated by unrealistic, hyper-sexualized representations of women, but the effects of embodying these representations remains understudied. The Proteus effect proposed by Yee and Bailenson (2007) suggests that embodiment may lead to shifts in self-perception both online and offline based on the avatar’s features or behaviors. A 2 X 2 experiment, the first of its kind, examined how self-perception and attitudes changed after women (N = 86) entered a fully immersive virtual environment and embodied sexualized or nonsexualized avatars which featured either the participant’s face or the face of an unknown other. Findings supported the Proteus effect. Participants who wore sexualized avatars internalized the avatar’s appearance and self-objectified, reporting more body-related thoughts than those wearing nonsexualized avatars. Participants who saw their own faces, particularly on sexualized avatars, expressed more rape myth acceptance than those in other conditions. Implications for both online and offline consequences of using sexualized avatars are discussed.

Jesse and I have already planned follow-up surveys and hopefully get enough data before I review my own work for the first time.

Prior studies on the representation of female characters generally found that they are sexually objectified. When people play these sexualized female characters, the results are discouraging as two experiments found that women felt less self-efficacious (see Behm-Morawitz & Mastro, 2009) and men reported a greater likelihood of sexually harassing women (see Yao et al., 2010). When encountering stereotyped female characters, men and women reported greater levels of sexism and rape myth acceptance (see Fox & Bailenson, 2009). The authors do note people merely observe the actions of these sexualized female characters from an outside perspective. They examined how the embodiment of sexualized female avatars affect people, that is taking the first-person perspective of an avatar, controlling the body through your own body, and seeing it via a mirror. What would we expect from embodying a sexy female avatar?

The theoretical basis is the Proteus effect in which it occurs when a player’s avatar, and by extension their self-representation, is modified in a salient manner from their actual physical self. The Proteus effect would have players’ change their attitudes, beliefs and behaviours according to the physical changes, especially when they see their own virtual self changed. For example, when a player see themselves as a tall person, they felt more confident in negotiating a deal or see themselves more attractive, they disclose more personal information. When people’s self-representation parameters are changed, they internalized and matched their attitudes, beliefs and behaviours to them. When they are sexualized, they internalize the thoughts of being sexually objectified and this is reflected by increased preoccupation with their body, feelings of self-objectification and rape myth acceptance.


Participants: 86 female undergraduates from a university in Stanford. Average age is 21.16 (SD=3.68). 53.5% were White, 24.4% were Asian. Participants were either given 15$ or course credit for participating in the study.


Manipulation checks: Participants rate their avatars’ dress in terms of how sexy and suggestive it was. Participants rated the sexy avatars as more sexy and suggestive than those of the non-sexualized avatars.

Presence: Because they were immersed in the virtual world, this feeling may vary between individuals. 12 items on a 5-point degree scale.

Rape Myth Acceptance: the rape myth acceptance scale. It is an 11 item on a 5-point agreement scale.

Body-related thoughts: participants were asked to freely write their current thoughts. Two research assistants code these writings and examined for body-related thoughts.

fox-chbAvatars: The authors created four avatars in the experiment. Two were sexualized and two were non-sexualized (see image). Furthermore, photos of participants’ face were taken and digitized into their avatar’s head. The participants thought the photography was for another study and they were taken six weeks’ prior to the avatar experiment because it takes time and effort to digitize these faces on avatars. I asked Jesse if participants were able to see the avatar’s cleavage, she said that they were able to see a bit of it. I just wonder how the results would be if the breasts followed videogame conventions.


Participants were randomly assigned to either have an avatar with a sexualized or non-sexualized appearance and either have their own face or someone else’s face. They wore a head-mounted display in an empty room. Their body movements were captured by infrared cameras and were rendered in real time in the virtual world.

Participants were given sets of instruction for moving in the virtual world. First, they were asked to turn around to face a mirror where they can see their avatar. Then they were given sets of instructions to move their bodies (e.g., drop to one knee and stand back up) to see their avatars in action imitating their moves. After that, they met a male avatar-participant, who was actually a confederate,  where they had a conversation and engaged in a brief task. The confederate left the room, then the participant takes off her head-mounted display and proceeded to complete the questionnaire.


The authors conducted an ANCOVA with presence as a covariate. They found a main effect in that participants in the sexualized avatars reported more body-related thoughts than those in the non-sexualized avatars.

They conducted a second ANCOVA analysis with presence as a covariate. They found that presence was a significant factor and a main effect where participants who have their own face on the avatar reported greater rape myth acceptance than the others, however this main effect is explained by an interaction effect. They found that participants whose avatar is sexualized and have their face on them reported greater rape myth acceptance (M=1.95, SD=.57) than those whose avatar is sexualized with another person’s face (M=1.54, SD=.36) or those with the non-sexualized avatars (M=1.82, SD=.42 with own face & M=1.72, SD=.45 with other face).


The take home message is that women who embodied sexualized avatars self-objectified as reflected by thinking more about their body appearances and reporting greater myth rape acceptance. Over time, this self-objectification would lead to higher rates of disordered eating, depression, and decreased cognitive performance.

The authors argued that women in the sexualized avatar reported greater myth rape acceptance is a form of self-defense. This self-defense is by shifting blame to a rape victim, instead of the perpetrator , as they do not wish to imagine themselves in the same situation. It is a way to reaffirm a sense of security, albeit a false one, from being a raped. A second explanation is that seeing themselves dressed sexy and suggestively in the virtual world reminded them of others’ warning about the dangers of dressing up sexy where such people who do so “are asking for it”.

An important implication is that these self-objectifying effects in the virtual world can carry over to real life. This could lead to greater negative attitudes towards women, even amongst women, further victim blaming in rape cases and exacerbating gender inequality over the long term.

The authors listed some limitations. First, the sample consisted of college-aged women. Second, the interaction with a male avatar might have an impact on the results, the authors noted that the experiment was designed to resemble potential social interactions in an online social world and so it should be viewed in this context. Finally, participants self-reported on the various measures, so it would be nice for future studies to get behavioural data.

If and when head-mounted gaming will be popularized, the results of this experiment show what could happen for women gaming with the oculus rift still living in a hypersexualized culture.

Fox, J., Bailenson, J. N., & Tricase, L. (2013). The embodiment of sexualized virtual selves: The proteus effect and experiences of self-objectification via avatars. Computers in Human Behavior, 29 (3), 930-938. DOI:10.1016/j.chb.2012.12.027

10 thoughts on “Self-objectification by embodying sexualized virtual selves (Fox et al., 2013)

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  2. Pingback: Why Isn't The Oculus Rift Being Used To Allow LGBT Empathy Or Desire? - Indie Statik

  3. It would be fascinating to see what would happen if instead of using only women in their sample they used man as well. Or one step further, create a masculine condition where hypersexualized male avatars are used (big, buff, bulging Duke Nukem types) and see if men experience the same kind of self-objectification and, maybe instead of rape myth acceptace, more of a “might makes right” mentality.

  4. Pingback: Saucy Necromancers And the Psychology of Self-Perception | The Psychology of Video Games

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