I hesitate to talk about this subject because it is one that strangely attracts ire and vitriol from basically everyone along the spectrum. However, it’s something important in the video game industry that I’ve wanted to write about for some time, and a recent post about body size creates a nice platform for this. I also have a 20 month old daughter and I want her to grow up in a society where the video game culture isn’t as toxic, unwelcoming, and harmful to women as it is right now. Recently Bulimia.com, a website that exists to help those suffering from eating disorders, published a post about “Visualizing women from video games with average American body shapes.” The post claims that too many female representations feature “ultra-slim waistlines” that don’t accurately portray the female body. They then altered many iconic female characters with Photoshop, making them represent “the average American woman’s measurements.” So why is this problematic? And why is it well intended but wrong-headed?
What is realistic?
First, before I get into the meat of my post, I want to talk about how their approach to this was somewhat unrealistic. They are taking characters who are, for the intents of story and game genre, supposed to be incredibly fit, strong, and active. Now this doesn’t mean they will all be super skinny and trim because even some athletes can have a larger body type or build. But the fact that they just blanketed all the characters with thicker bodies is somewhat hypocritical as it’s similar to what they are taking aim at. So in one sense, the female characters are “realistic” given their context or back stories, and while it’s unrealistic to have them all with slim waists and skinny, it’s just as unrealistic to make them all “average sized”.
Now, before you read on, hear me say this: I agree that too many female video game characters portray a body image that isn’t helpful to women and especially young impressionable girls and boys. However, I see a larger problem beneath all of this that I would like talk about.
The wrong argument
The most foundational problem with the Bulimia.com post and the message that it sends is that it is continuing the wrong dialogue. Yes, most of the female representation in video games is typically very slim and skinny. But if Bulimia.com wants to help people with eating disorders they should avoid perpetuating the idea that people are judged and valued based on their body size. Taking a bunch of pictures of artistic representations of women and making them slightly heavier can’t possibly be helpful to someone suffering from anorexia, and it certainly doesn’t help the naturally skinny woman who is tired of being told to “eat something.” It also ignores the fact that some of the original images are basically traces and renderings of actual people. And the reality is you are just creating a different body type ideal for young girls to pine after. Women all along the spectrum of body size can look at those adjusted images and see that they are either too skinny or too large to look like what Bulimia is asserting as “more realistic”.
That’s the real problem with all these posts and marketing campaigns about “real women”. You’re just promoting and leveraging the same entrenched ideas with the view that people are supposed to look a certain way. Most of the “real women” stuff that gets thrown around comes off as skinny shaming that feels more vengeful than helpful. And when it is less spiteful and more about liberating women it can passively perpetuate an objectification ideology that seems far too focused on empowering women to wear less clothing. Helping people feel comfortable and confident enough to wear certain types of clothing is fine, but it’s becoming so voyeuristic that it conflates being comfortable in your body with wearing small amounts of clothing and posting pictures of yourself on the internet. In other words, the empowerment of women with larger body types is often playing on the same unhelpful ball field: women are expected to show off their bodies. If women want to post pictures like that, fine, but it’s becoming synonymous with being comfortable with your body. So is a woman not comfortable with her body type because she doesn’t join in by posting bikini pics on Instagram? No. But the current trends make it seem that way. None of this gets at the real problem with how women are treated and represented in video games and entertainment.
My biggest beef with the Bulimia.com post is that it continues to promote the real problem with most female representation in video games. And the sad part is, because it’s well intended and takes aim at something that is problematic, it passively entrenches the root issue. Rather than addressing the fact that every single woman in the post has barely any clothes on, they simply make them slightly larger. This re-establishes what young girls are told to think about themselves by accepting the status quo representations of women in today’s media. In video games, music videos, advertising, and even movies, women are commonly used as what amounts to decoration. Video games are especially guilty of this, and you only need to look at the ridiculous differences between the two characters in the new Metal Gear Solid for proof of this. Quiet, the woman opposite the male lead, is literally entering combat zones and fire fights in a bikini top while Snake, the main character, looks like a grizzled riot gear wearing soldier. The juxtaposition is so sharp that the first time I saw screenshots and game footage I thought it was a joke. The resounding and consistent message sent to women who play video games is that female characters are scantily clad decoration who may be equal in strength and skill, but for some reason came to battle in their underwear.
If consumers of video games and sites like Bulimia.com want to affect real change, we have to demand better. Rather than Photoshop images of scantily clad women to be slightly bigger which passively body shames skinny women and re-asserts the established objectification of women, we should be calling foul on the overwhelming number of female characters who perpetuate the objectification of women. Sure, sometimes in a story you are going to have a man or woman who wear a sexy outfit, but when it becomes as ridiculous as getting into gun fights in a bikini top or fighting dragons with barely enough armor to compete with Princess Leia then it’s time to call foul. To be clear, I’m not saying that women need to cover up and shouldn’t be allowed to wear the clothing of their choice or that all female characters should be totally covered. What I’m aiming at is the consistent and over sexualized representations of women that passively communicate girls ought to wear less clothing and that they are just here to be gawked at. So sure, attack the disproportionate representation of one body type, but attack the issue beneath first. Then people will be more likely to design and accept a more dynamic representation of what people look like. Have you really achieved anything if the objectification continues, but the female characters are a little bit bigger in their waistline? I don’t think so.
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