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Body Image 11 (2014) 146–155
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Avatar body dimensions and men’s body image
Jon-Paul Cacioli a,b,∗ , Alexander J. Mussap a
School of Psychology, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia
School of Psychological and Clinical Sciences, Charles Darwin University, Darwin, Australia
a r t i c l e
i n f o
a b s t r a c t
Article history:
Received 12 April 2013
Received in revised form
10 November 2013
Accepted 17 November 2013
Body dissatisfaction, Drive for thinness,
Drive for muscle
Two online surveys examined the significance of the visual analogues, or ‘avatars’, men (total N = 266) create and use online. Two-dimensional (adiposity × muscle) somatomorphic matrices revealed that avatars
are generally thinner than their creator’s actual body and similar to their ideal, but more muscular than
either their actual or ideal. Men’s ratings of the importance of their avatar’s appearance correlated with
their actual weight and muscle concerns, and disparity between their avatar and actual body dimensions predicted their offline context body change concerns additional to that accounted for by disparity
between their ideal and actual bodies. Together with the observation that men also reported higher
self-esteem, less social interaction anxiety and less social phobia while online (which correlated with
the time they spent online), these results suggest that the physical dimensions of avatars used in social
interactions online may serve a compensatory function.
© 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Sociocultural pressures on body image – from media, peers, and
family (Frederick, Fessler, & Haselton, 2005; Thompson, Heinberg,
Altabe, & Tantleff-Dunn, 1999) – have been implicated in appearance concerns and unhealthy body-change behaviours (Heywood &
McCabe, 2006; Olivardia, Pope, Borowiecki, & Cohane, 2004; Pope,
Phillips, & Olivardia, 2000). Although the focus of previous body
image research has primarily been regarding women there is substantial evidence that some men and boys experience appearance
concerns that can manifest as a drive for thinness and/or a drive for
muscularity (Frederick et al., 2007; Grogan, 2008; Pope et al., 2000;
Ricciardelli & McCabe, 2004). In the present article we examined
men’s appearance concerns in the context of their social interactions online. The primary aim was to investigate the significance of
men’s self-perceived bodies, their ideal bodies, and the bodies of
the visual analogues, or avatars, they create and use to represent
themselves online.
Appearance Concerns, Online Social Interactions, and
Avatar Use
Appearance concerns in men have been linked to a range
of negative psychosocial outcomes including depressed mood
∗ Corresponding author at: School of Psychological and Clinical Sciences, Charles
Darwin University, Casuarina Campus, Ellengowan Drive, Darwin 0909, Northern
Territory, Australia. Tel.: +61 08 8946 6818; fax: +61 08 8946 6151.
E-mail addresses: [email protected], [email protected]
(J.-P. Cacioli).
1740-1445/$ – see front matter © 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
(Tiggemann & Kuring, 2004), low self-esteem (Wade, 2000), social
anxiety (Cash & Fleming, 2002), problems with intimacy and
impaired interpersonal relationships (Nezlek, 1999), and social
phobia (Izgiç, Akyüz, Doğan, & Kuğu, 2004). The central premise of
our research was that these psychosocial consequences may contribute to men’s reasons for interacting socially online and their
motivation for creating and using avatars with particular physical
dimensions during these interactions. This is a potentially important issue as time spent online has increased dramatically in the
past decade (Miranda & Lima, 2012) with online social interactions becoming commonplace (Childress & Braswell, 2006; Cole &
Griffiths, 2007; Martey & Stromer-Galley, 2007), more natural, and
capable of combining anonymity with intimacy (Christopherson,
2007; Walther, 1996; Walther, Slovacek, & Tidwell, 2001; Whitty,
2008). Additionally, the use of avatars has become more common,
allowing Internet users to project, and perhaps even identify with,
a visual identity that is unconstrained by reality (Galanxhi & Nah,
2007; Trepte & Reinecke, 2010).
According to Suler (1999), in an anonymous Internet environment avatars may be used to facilitate more controllable, safe, and
potentially more rewarding social interactions. Galanxhi and Nah
(2007) demonstrated this to be so. In their study participants were
asked to deceive others in online interactions. When deceivers
were permitted to represent themselves with an avatar they
reported no increase in anxiety; when avatars were not permitted
and the interaction remained entirely text-based, the deceivers
reported increased anxiety. This difference was taken to confirm
that avatars potentially enhance confidence and reduce anxiety
in Internet users in difficult social interactions, potentially providing a distance from self. Similarly, Bessiere, Seay, and Kiesler
(2007) proposed that social interactions online may be used to
J.-P. Cacioli, A.J. Mussap / Body Image 11 (2014) 146–155
compensate for perceived personality deficiencies. They compared
personality ratings of participants’ actual selves versus their
avatars and discovered that avatars were rated as less neurotic,
more extroverted and more conscientious. These studies lend
support to the proposition that online avatar use has psychosocial
implications. Given the everyday use of online interactions for
both personal and business purposes, there is a growing emphasis
on the social importance of these interactions which are taking
place online, particularly in regard to the normalisation of this
process and the unique ability to alter one’s appearance in the
online context. In the context of body image research, the question
of interest is whether the physical dimensions of the avatars used
in these interactions are also relevant. We consider this issue in
the next section in light of literature on body image disparity.
Avatar Physical Dimensions and Self-Discrepancy
Self-discrepancy theory (Higgins, 1987) proposes that negative and potentially unhealthy emotional and motivational states
can result from disparity between one’s self-perceived body and
one’s ideal body. Hence, the physical dimensions of avatars that
men create and use online may be manifestations of this selfdiscrepancy. Low adiposity combined with muscularity is both a
male appearance ideal as well as a symbol of masculinity and
male competencies, such as physical strength and athletic prowess
(Oehlhof, Musher-Eizenman, Neufeld, & Hauser, 2009). Therefore,
discrepancy between physical dimensions of self and in the context of avatars may be aesthetic in nature and/or related to aspects
of competency. The physical dimensions of avatars versus those of
their creators may also reflect the avatars’ specific functions/roles
online (Axelsson, 2002). The online physical dimensions may be
realistic or at least self-referential depictions of oneself regardless
of context (Vasalou & Joinson, 2009); depictions that conform to a
particular context, function, role or character (Hussain & Griffiths,
2008; Kafai, Fields, & Cook, 2007; Taylor, 2002, 2003; Trepte &
Reinecke, 2010); and/or depictions that represent a fantasy self,
offering the creator the freedom to adopt a fundamentally different persona, perhaps one that reflects his/her ideal body (Konijn &
Bijvank, 2009; Lawson, 2000; McKenna & Bargh, 2000).
Although each of these contexts and functions is potentially
relevant, the motivation behind valuing the avatar’s aesthetic properties over its functional/practical properties is potentially the most
significant. To the extent that appearance objectification of one’s
actual body is related to increased body concerns and unhealthy
body change behaviours in the offline context (Olivardia et al.,
2004; Schwartz & Tylka, 2008; Tylka, Bergeron, & Schwartz, 2005),
an appearance focus in the context of one’s avatars online may
reflect underlying body image disparity and appearance concerns
(Lawson, 2000; McKenna & Bargh, 2000). Additionally the avatar
could reflect the creators’ attempts to compensate for these offline
world concerns (Trepte & Reinecke, 2010).
These possibilities were tested in two studies with both quantitative and qualitative components. Our general aims were to
identify the psychosocial factors that contribute to men’s use of
avatars online and to explore the relevance of avatars’ physical
dimensions – separately for weight and muscle – to their creators’
body concerns and body change drives.
1. The first study focussed on documenting the diverse uses of
avatars and the relative importance of these avatars – in terms of
aesthetics versus competencies – to their creators’ offline body
image concerns.
2. The second study focussed on the implications of men’s offline
and online/avatar physical dimensions to psychosocial functioning (self-esteem, social phobia and social interaction anxiety),
and the relevance of these factors to men’s motivations for going
Study 1
In Study 1 we examined the importance of men’s physical bodies
and their online (avatar) bodies. An online questionnaire was completed by these men that assessed their body concerns separately
for weight and muscle and the perceived importance of aesthetic
versus competency factors in evaluating their own body and their
avatar’s body. Additionally participants were invited to elaborate
in writing on the meaning of their avatars to their lives.
H1. Based on previous research it was hypothesised that a qualitative analysis would reveal that the physical attributes of men’s
avatars would reflect either a representation of men’s offline self
(Vasalou & Joinson, 2009), their ideal (Konijn & Bijvank, 2009;
Lawson, 2000; McKenna & Bargh, 2000) or be independent of self,
such as to fulfil a role in a particular context (Hussain & Griffiths,
2008; Kafai et al., 2007; Taylor, 2002, 2003; Trepte & Reinecke,
H2. On the basis of men’s body image research in the offline or
physical context, we hypothesised that men’s aesthetic concerns
with their offline appearance would be higher than their concerns
with their offline physical competencies (Arbour & Ginis, 2006;
Grogan & Richards, 2002).
H3. On the basis of literature on appearance self-objectification
(Hebl, King, & Lin, 2004; Morry & Staska, 2001; Strelan &
Hargreaves, 2005), we further hypothesised that men’s aesthetic,
but not competency concerns, would be predictive of their level of
their appearance concerns.
Given the dearth of research on body image online, we could
only speculate that men’s avatar concerns would mirror their concerns with their own bodies. This is an important element of the
study as it allows for an analysis exploring whether the avatar is
influenced by appearance objectification that may be evident in
men’s perception of their own bodies, and if so, to what extent?
Participants. An online community sample of 135 men aged
from 18 years to 62 years (M = 34.17, SD = 11.02) who reported creating and regularly using one or more avatars online participated
in Study 1. Respondents resided in Australia (31.6%), the United
States of America (30.4%), Canada (9.1%) and the United Kingdom
(6.1%). Participants reported currently using an average of 7.58
(SD = 12.53) avatars. In terms of the context in which avatars are
used, a total of 63 software applications were cited. The majority of
these were multiplayer role-playing games, the most popular being
World of WarcraftTM (53.38%). The second most popular application
of avatars was for social interactions such as Second LifeTM (24.1%).
Almost half (45.9%) of the respondents reported using avatars in
multiple contexts.
Measures. In addition to questions about demographics, weight
and height (to calculate Body Mass Index [BMI]), and avatar use,
participants were asked that if they used multiple avatars, and
which one was most important to them. They were instructed
to think of this avatar when responding to avatar-specific items
from the measures described below. Psychometric properties of
the scales used in the Study 1 are reported in the results section
(Table 1).
Self-Objectification Questionnaire (SOQ). A modified version
of the SOQ (Noll & Fredrickson, 1998) was used to assess the
importance of physical appearance versus physical competency,
separately for their actual body and their avatar body. The measure
J.-P. Cacioli, A.J. Mussap / Body Image 11 (2014) 146–155
Table 1
Pearson’s correlations of participant importance of appearance and competency for their real bodies and avatars, with concerns with weight and muscle.
SOQ Appearance (Self)
SOQ Competency (Self)
SOQ Appearance (Avatar)
SOQ Competency (Avatar)
MBAS Muscle
MBAS Weight
Cronbach’s ˛
Note: SOQ Appearance, Self-Objectification Questionnaire Appearance subscale; SOQ Competency, Self-Objectification Questionnaire Competency subscale; MBAS Muscle,
Male Body Attitudes Scale Muscle Dissatisfaction Subscale; MBAS Weight, Male Body Attitudes Scale Weight Dissatisfaction subscale.
p < .01 (2-tailed).
consists of five items relating to appearance (e.g., “How important
to you is your physical attractiveness?”) and five relating to competence (e.g., “How important to you is your health and physical
resilience?”). Although the original measure includes a ranking of
the importance of these items out of 10, in the present study a
Likert scale for each item was used anchored between “Not important” (0) to “Extremely important” (10). The SOQ has been shown to
have good internal consistency (Fredrickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn,
& Twenge, 1998) and validity (Noll, as cited in Greive & Helmick,
2008, p. 292) and has previously been used in male body image
studies (Greive & Helmick, 2008; Hallsworth, Wade, & Tiggemann,
Male Body Attitudes Scale (MBAS). The body weight and body
muscle subscales of the MBAS (Tylka et al., 2005) measure appearance on 6-point Likert scales rated from “Always” (0) to “Never”
(6). Previous research has confirmed that the body weight and body
mass subscales have high validity and reliability in a male sample
(Tylka et al., 2005).
Qualitative questions. At the completion of the questionnaire,
participants were asked to respond to two open-ended questions:
(i) “What does your avatar mean to you?” and (ii) “Is the appearance
of your avatar important to you? Please elaborate.”
Procedure. Permission to undertake the study was obtained
from the Deakin University Ethics Committee. The study was
advertised on Facebook, a social networking site, providing a
brief study description and a link to the study’s Plain Language
Statement. Webmaster’s and moderators of online forums and
blogs that discussed avatar related issues such as online gaming,
avatar fashion and current trends in avatar use online, such as, were also contacted and asked for
permission to display a brief description and link to the study. The
advertisement stated that the study was recruiting male participants over the age of 18 years, who created and used avatars, in
order to examine the relationship between the avatar and their
physical selves. Participants were also invited to provide their email
address, which was kept separately from the collected data to protect anonymity, and these were entered into a prize draw for a $100
Amazon voucher.
Of the 135 men who completed the questionnaire, 2 were
excluded from analyses for failing to meet the inclusion criteria.
The remaining men (N = 133) ranged from 18 to 62 years in age
(M = 32.09, SD = 11.02) with a mean BMI of 28.78 (SD = 7.69) ranging
from 16.20 to 60.80. Quantitative responses were screened for
missing values which were found to be randomly distributed
across items. Less than .01% data points was missing from the
dataset. No participant had more than 5% missing values. Multiple
imputation using expectation maximisation was used to replace
missing values. Variables were created by averaging summed
responses to items. Variable descriptives, including Cronbach’s
alphas, are included in Table 1. There were no outliers. Resultant
variables also met criteria for normality (in relation to both
skewness and kurtosis).
As we had modified the SOQ, a factor analysis was conducted
on the scale for both the offline and online contexts. Bartlett’s
test of sphericity was significant for real world, 2 (45) = 971.95,
p < .01, and online world, 2 (45) = 1085.04, p < .01, contexts. The
Kaiser–Meyer–Olkin measures of sampling adequacy were .88 for
the offline context and .85 for the online context. Communalities were all above .3. For the offline context, two factors were
found. Initial eigenvalues explained 59.28% of the variance on the
first factor and 12.25% of the variance on the second factor. After
Oblimin rotation, one item cross loaded on both factors above .3
while the remaining nine items loaded above .68 on their respective factor and below .25 on the other factor. The online world
condition also showed two factors with initial eigenvalues showing that the first factor explained 56.20% of the variance and the
second factor explained 19.77%. After Oblimin rotation, all items
loaded above .68 on their respective factor and below .25 on the
other factor. The factor analysis supports the factorial validity of
the scale.
Analyses were conducted initially on the qualitative responses
using thematic analysis followed by inferential analyses of
the quantitative data. Thematic analysis involved a theoretical
approach utilising an essentialist paradigm (Braun & Clarke, 2006).
The thematic analysis was conducted based on the guidelines suggested by Braun and Clarke (2006), including the generation of
initial codes and the collation of themes. The predominant themes,
identified across the dataset generated by each of the qualitative
questions, related to the theoretical framework of the study; specifically, the relationship between the avatar and how/if it represents
the avatar’s creator in the online world. Identified themes were
reviewed in regard to the coded extracts then defined and classified based on the primary function of the avatar as identified from
the responses given. A second rater reviewed the results of the thematic analysis against the participants’ transcripts; discrepancies
in interpretation were identified, discussed, and resolved to yield
final classifications.
The significance of avatar physical dimensions. Approximately 99.5% of participants responded to the first open-ended
question concerning the relevance/meaning of the avatar to them,
with the mean response length being 20.73 words (SD = 22.67,
ME = 15). In regard to the second qualitative question concerning
the significance of their avatar’s appearance, 99.98% of participants
responded with a mean response length of 20.95 words (SD = 22.72,
ME = 15). Thematic analysis of these responses supported our
J.-P. Cacioli, A.J. Mussap / Body Image 11 (2014) 146–155
hypothesis (H1) and identified the following appearance-relevant
• Utilitarian/independent of self – avatars that visually conform to
the functional demands imposed by the context, character or role
independent of the user (e.g., the avatar “has to look ‘the part’ to
fulfil its role” and “The avatar is a separate person, which I ‘direct’
from time to time”)
• Actual self – avatars that visually correspond to the user’s selfperceived physical dimensions (e.g., “I identify with my avatar in
any game. I try to make him look as similar to myself as possible to
immerse myself in the game”) and/or their personal characteristics
(e.g., “A representation of my personality” and “it’s my digital self.”)
• Idealised self – avatars that visually correspond to the appearance ideals held by the user (e.g., My SL (Second Life) avatar is an
idealised form of myself, and so it’s an important way of representing myself online. As I am more often in contact with people online
than in person, my avatar is crucial to my interactions with others”) and/or their idealised personal characteristics (e.g., “It is a
visual representation of how I feel about myself on the inside, strong,
capable, and appealing to others.”).
58.02% of respondents indicated that their avatar’s appearance
was predominantly ‘utilitarian’; 21.37% indicated that their avatar
corresponded to their ‘actual self’; and 12.98% indicated that their
avatar corresponded to their ‘idealised self’. The remaining respondents were unable to be classified in the above categories but their
avatar still appeared to have a personal meaning with strong attachment themes; for example, the avatar may represent a significant
person in their life or even a has become a significant person in its
own right through the participant’s interactions with it.
The importance of appearance versus competence. Regardless of avatar type, the importance of the avatar’s appearance
(including its adornments and equipment) was a central theme
(“It’s a digital representation of the player, regardless of how physically similar it is. How other players perceive you (me) depends
largely on the avatar appearance”). To test hypothesis H2, that participants would rate aesthetic concerns as more important than
competency in the offline and online world and distinguish these
aesthetic aspects of the avatar’s physical dimensions from its functional aspects, a 2 × 2 repeated measures ANOVA was conducted
on importance ratings (‘appearance’ v ‘competence’; corresponding to the two subcomponents of the SOQ) and domain (oneself in
the ‘offline context’ v one’s avatar in the ‘online context’).
A significant main effect of domain, F(1, 132) = 29.52, p < .01,
indicated that the appearance (M = 6.11, SD = 2.24) and competence (M = 6.39, SD = 2.01) of men’s bodies in the offline context are
more important to them than their avatar’s appearance (M = 4.64,
SD = 3.11, d = 0.54) and competence (M = 5.59, SD = 2.93, d = 0.32)
in the online world. Furthermore, a significant main effect of
importance rating, F(1, 132) = 11.62, p < .01, indicated that physical
competence is more important to men than appearance. A significant interaction between these factors was also obtained, F(1,
132) = 8.90, p < .01, with the difference between competence and
appearance being most pronounced in the online world. A comparison of offline importance of competency and appearance was
borderline (p = .047) while the same comparison in the online world
revealed that men rated their competency as more important than
their appearance (p < .001) in the online context. This pattern of
results did not support our hypotheses (H2) that aesthetic concerns
would be more important than competency ones both in the offline
and online world.
To examine whether a focus on appearance rather than competence – that is, the tendency to appearance self-objectify (Oehlhof
et al., 2009) – is relevant to men’s weight and muscle concerns,
correlations were conducted. The results are shown in Table 1, and
reveal the presence of strong to moderate correlations between
appearance and competence ratings for self and avatar respectively.
Regardless of the dimension (appearance or competence) explored,
we have interpreted these correlations as reflecting the importance
participants place on their offline and online selves.
The results further reveal that the importance of men’s own
appearance was highly correlated with that of their avatar as was
the importance of men’s physical competency in relation to their
avatar’s competency. To this extent, the results supported our
hypothesis that men’s physical, offline body and those of their
avatar are influenced by similar values.
Table 1 reveals that men’s ratings of the importance of appearance were more strongly correlated with their body concerns,
particularly weight concerns, than were their ratings of the importance of physical competency. More importantly, the same was
also found to be the case for ratings of avatar appearance versus
competency. In order to fully explore hypothesis H3, multiple
regression analyses were conducted examining whether the importance of appearance was a stronger predictor than competency
for men’s dissatisfaction with weight. There was no evidence of
multicollinearity or singularity amongst the IVs (Tolerance > .1 and
VIF < 10). The results of the regression (Table 2), when controlling
for importance of appearance in the offline context, indicated that
participant rated importance of competency did not explain any
additional variance for dissatisfaction with weight. This result was
also found in the online context. Regressions were not conducted
with muscle dissatisfaction due to a lack of significant correlation
between importance place on competency and muscle dissatisfaction. The results support hypothesis H3, with the importance placed
on appearance being stronger predictors of muscle and weight concerns.
Study 2
In Study 2 we examined the relevance of men’s body image disparity to their body change drives. The novel aspect of this study
was that we considered disparity not only between men’s actual
and ideal bodies, but also between their actual and avatar bodies,
and we did this separately for body adiposity and body muscle. We
also examined the extent to which poor psychosocial functioning
– low self-esteem, social interaction anxiety and social phobia –
are related to body image disparity and contribute to men’s motivations for going online. Study 2 consisted of 157 men who did
not participate in Study 1, and who reported creating and regularly
using one or more avatars, completed an online questionnaire in
which they used a 2-dimensional (2D) somatomorph matrix to estimate the physical dimensions (in terms of adiposity and muscle)
of their actual, ideal, and avatar bodies. They also completed measures of self-esteem, social phobia and social interaction anxiety in
the context of their social interactions in the offline and the online
contexts; measures of body comparison and internalisation of the
thin/muscular male ideal, again, separately for the offline context
and the online context; and measures of their drive for thinness
and muscle in the offline context.
H4. In light of previous research showing the prevalence of
the lean/muscular male ideal (Grogan, 2008; Pope et al., 2000;
Ricciardelli & McCabe, 2004), it was hypothesised that men’s ideal
body would be both thinner and more muscular than their actual
H5. Furthermore, based on Higgins’ (1987) self-discrepancy theory which proposes that the disparity which is perceived to exist
between an individual’s actual and ideal body image leads to
unhealthy body change behaviours and poor body image, it was
J.-P. Cacioli, A.J. Mussap / Body Image 11 (2014) 146–155
Table 2
Hierarchical regression analyses of participant ratings of importance of competency in the offline (or online) context predicting dissatisfaction with weight and controlling
for participant ratings of importance of appearance in the offline (or online) context.
R2 change
Step 1
Importance of Appearance (offline)
Step 2
Importance of Appearance (offline)
Importance of Competency (offline)
Importance of Appearance (online)
Step 1
Step 2
Importance of Appearance (online)
Importance of Competency (online)
p < .05.
p < .01.
hypothesised that the disparity between these bodies would predict body concern and drive for thinness and muscle.
We speculated that men’s avatars would combine physical elements of their ideal body as well as elements that are dependent
on the online context. However, the question of primary interest was whether the disparity between actual and avatar physical
dimensions would explain variance in body concern and drive
for thinness/muscle in addition to that explained by the disparity
between men’s actual and ideal body.
Body image has been shown to have a close association with
self-esteem in men suggesting that dissatisfaction with one’s body
can lead to lower levels of self-esteem (Davison & McCabe, 2005) as
well as other psychosocial outcomes, such as depression (Olivardia
et al., 2004).
H6. In relation to psychosocial functioning, on the basis of previous research (Bessiere et al., 2007) it was hypothesised that men
will exhibit higher levels of self-esteem in an online context compared to offline context self-esteem.
In addition to self-esteem, poor body image has also been linked
to issues with social functioning amongst men (Davison & McCabe,
2005) as well as greater social anxiety (Cash & Fleming, 2002).
H7. However, due to the nature of the Internet, such as the control
it provides to users and the anonymity it affords (Galanxhi & Nah,
2007; Suler, 1999), it was further hypothesised that men would
demonstrate lower levels of social interaction anxiety and social
phobia in the online context, compared to the offline context.
H8. Furthermore, it was hypothesised that men with poor social
interactions – those with high levels of social interaction anxiety
and phobia – would be more likely to embrace online social interactions and spend time online.
Participants. Study 2 included 131 male adults with a mean
age of 33.12 years, ranging from 18 years to 68 years (M = 33.12,
SD = 12.06). Participants had a mean BMI of 28.16 (SD = 6.87) ranging from 14.20 to 51.70. The majority of participants were from the
United States of America (33.5%), Australia (16.8%), Canada (8.2%)
and the United Kingdom (7.2%). Participants were asked to record
their Internet use based on frequency. 0.8% of respondents indicated that they spent less than 1 h a day on the Internet; 2.3%
between 1 and 2 h a day; 24.4% between 2 and 4 h a day; 45.8%
between 6 and 8 h a day; and 26% more than 8 h a day.
The Internet Use Questionnaire (IUQ). The IUQ (Campbell,
Cumming, & Hughes, 2006) is divided into two parts and asks participants the activities and applications they use the Internet for,
such as emailing, online gaming and gambling. It also asks participants to rank these activities according to use. The second part of
the IUQ queries participants in regard to the time they spend using
the Internet and the division of time between the activities and
applications used. Psychometrics properties are not available for
the IUQ as its primary purpose is to collect information regarding
to Internet use types and frequency.
The Social Interaction Anxiety Scale (SIAS) and Social Phobia Scale (SPS). The SIAS and SPS (Mattick & Clarke, 1998) are 20
item self-report scales which use 5-point Likert measures anchored
between “Not at all” (1) and “Extremely” (5) and assess selfreported difficulties in various social contexts. Both scales have
high reported internal consistency, validity and test–retest reliability (Orsillo, 2001; Rodebaugh, Woods, Heimberg, Liebowitz, &
Schneier, 2006). In the present study participants were asked to
complete these measures twice, first in reference to their offline
social interactions, then in reference to their social interactions
online using their ‘most important’ avatar. The SIAS items yielded
a Cronbach’s ˛ of .89 in the offline context, and .87 in the online
context, while the SPS yielded a Cronbach’s ˛ of .89 in the offline
context and .95 in the online context.
The Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory Adult Short Form
(CSEI). The CSEI is a 25 item questionnaire designed to measure
self-esteem in an adult population (Coopersmith, 1989). Participants are asked to rate whether each statement is “Like me” or
“Unlike me” in response to statements such as “I wish I were someone else” and “My family understands me”. The CSEI has found to
be a reliable and valid measure of self-esteem in the adult population (Francis, 1997). In the present study participants were asked
to complete these measures twice, first in reference to the offline
context, then in reference to the online context. Cronbach’s ˛ in the
offline context was .87 and in the online context it was .79.
The Somatomorphic Matrix (Modified). The somatomorphic
matrix (modified; Cafri & Thompson, 2004), provides participants
with 34 images of men, arranged in a 10 × 10 grid represents 10
incremental levels of adiposity and 10 of muscularity. The adiposity dimension begins at 4% adiposity and increases by increments
of 4%; the muscle dimension begins at a fat free muscle mass index
of 16.5 kg/m2 and increases by increments of 1.5 kg/m2 (Cafri &
Thompson, 2004). Note, however, that test–retest reliability of this
measure remains in question (Cafri, Roehrig, & Thompson, 2004),
and validity against more objective anthropometric techniques has
not been established. However, the somatomorphic matrix has
demonstrated good construct validity (Cafri & Thompson, 2004). An
example of the 2D matrix, along with superimposed group means
for actual, ideal, and avatar bodies is shown in Fig. 1.
In the present study participants were asked to move their
mouse cursor to the 2D location on the modified somatomorphic
matrix which best represented their own body, their ideal body, and
their primary avatar’s body. This resulted in a pixel location that
represented muscularity (x) and adiposity (y), and allowed comparisons to be made between actual, ideal and online muscularity
and adiposity.
J.-P. Cacioli, A.J. Mussap / Body Image 11 (2014) 146–155
Fig. 1. Participants’ mean subjective actual, ideal and avatar adiposity and muscle
superimposed on the 2D somatomorphic matrix (Cafri & Thompson, 2004) used in
Study 2. ±1 standard error bars are included.
Drive for Thinness Scale (DTS). The DTS (Garner, Olmstead, &
Polivy, 1983) is a subscale from the Eating Disorder Inventory. It
consists of seven items that use 6-point Likert scales rated from
“Always” (1) to “Never” (5) to measure participant dieting concerns, fear of becoming overweight and preoccupation with weight.
Internal consistency in a male sample has been found to be high
(Spillane, Boerner, Anderson, & Smith, 2004). Cronbach’s ˛ for the
measure in the current study was .82.
Drive for Muscularity Scale (DMS). The DMS (McCreary & Sasse,
2000) uses 15 6-point Likert scales anchored between “Always”
(1) and “Never” (5) to measure participants’ preoccupation with
gaining muscle mass. High internal consistency has been found in
a male sample (McCreary & Sasse, 2000). The DMS had a Cronbach’s
˛ of .87 in the current study.
Procedure. The procedure and recruitment of participants for
Study 2 followed that specified in Study 1 with the exception that
advertisements were not placed on Facebook.
Of the 157 men who completed the questionnaire, 12 were
removed due to failing to meet the inclusion criteria of having or
using an avatar, and an additional 14 were removed due to having
>5% missing values. For the remaining 131 participants, missing
values were found to be randomly distributed across items and
replaced with multiple imputation using expectation maximisation. Less than .01% data points was missing from the dataset. Five
items were removed from the SPS and one from the SIAS due to high
rates of non-response in the context of participant avatar use. Variables were created by averaging the summed responses to items.
The criteria for normality, in terms of skew and kurtosis, were met
by all variables.
Body image disparity. A Pearson’s correlation between participants’ BMI and actual body adiposity and muscle from the
somatoform matrix was conducted, revealing a significant strong
correlation between BMI and actual body adiposity (r = .63, p < .01).
The correlation between BMI and actual body muscle was not significant (r = .01, p > .05). To partially test hypothesis H4, that men
would have an ideal body that was thinner than their actual body,
a repeated measures ANOVA (with Greenhouse–Geisser correction
due to mild non-sphericity) revealed that the adiposity of men’s
actual, ideal, and “most important” avatar differed significantly,
FG-G (1.74, 226.43) = 39.78, p < .001. Paired comparisons confirmed
that men’s ideal is thinner than their actual body (342.90 ± 112.32
v 417.76 ± 136.30; p < .001, d = −0.60), but not significantly different from their avatar (320.27 ± 127.69 v 342.90 ± 112.32; p = .08,
d = −0.19). Means are shown in Fig. 1, superimposed on the 2D
somatomorphic matrix used in the study.
A similar repeated measures ANOVA on body muscle was also
conducted to examine if the men’s ideal body was more muscular
than their actual body, as stipulated by hypothesis H4. The ANOVA
revealed that men’s actual, ideal, and avatar bodies also differed
significantly in terms of muscle, FG-G (1.49, 193.80) = 28.75, p < .001,
with paired comparisons confirming that their ideal is more muscular than their actual body (452.70 ± 160.84 v 551.57 ± 182.85;
p < .001, d = −0.57), and also that their avatar is more muscular than their actual or ideal (398.04 ± 247.73 v 452.70 ± 160.84;
p < .05, d = −0.26). The increment in muscle from actual, to ideal, to
avatar body was found to be quasi-linear, F(1, 130) = 39.42, p < .001,
h2 = .23. That is, although the avatar is similar in adiposity to men’s
ideal, in terms of muscle it appears to be an extrapolated (i.e., exaggerated) version of their ideal.
Body image disparity and drive for thinness/muscle. To test
hypothesis H5, in which we predicted that the disparity between
men’s actual, ideal and avatar body would lead to unhealthy body
change behaviours, body image disparity was calculated in two
ways: as the difference between actual versus ideal body (separately for adiposity and muscle), and as the difference between
actual and avatar body (again, separately for adiposity and muscle). The question of interest was whether disparity in relation to
the avatar’s physical dimensions would predict variance in men’s
body change drives and, if so, if this was variance additional to that
predicted by disparity in relation to the ideal body. To test this question two-step hierarchical multiple regressions were conducted in
which drive for thinness (or drive for muscle) was regressed on
ideal-actual adiposity (or muscle) in Step 1, followed by avataractual adiposity (or muscle) in Step 2.
Prior to running the multiple regression, an evaluation of the
correlation matrix confirmed that the independent variables correlated with the dependent variable and there was no evidence of
multicollinearity or singularity amongst the IVs (Tolerance > .1 and
VIF < 10).
The results, summarised in Table 3, reveal that body image disparity between actual and ideal adiposity and muscle significantly
predicted variance in drive for thinness and drive for muscle. As
expected the thinner or more muscular one’s ideal body, the higher
the drive to lose weight and gain muscle. Furthermore, disparity
between actual and avatar adiposity and muscle significantly predicted variance in drive for thinness, but not drive for muscle. That
is, the creation of an avatar that is thinner than oneself is associated with the pursuit of thinness in one’s offline life. A third step in
the hierarchical regression included moderating for the interaction
term of actual body adiposity, or muscle, and avatar adiposity, or
muscle. No significant interaction was found. Possible reasons for
this, as well as applications of the effect, are explored further in the
Psychosocial factors relevant to online social interactions.
It was hypothesised (H6) that the use of avatars to engage in
J.-P. Cacioli, A.J. Mussap / Body Image 11 (2014) 146–155
Table 3
Hierarchical regression analyses of avatar adiposity (or muscle) predicting drive for thinness (or muscle) controlling for participant ideal body adiposity (or muscle) and
moderating for the interaction term of real body adiposity (or muscle), and avatar adiposity (or muscle).
Drive for Thinness
Step 1
Step 2
Step 3
Drive for Muscle
Step 1
Step 2
Step 3
R2 change
Actual-Ideal Adiposity
Actual-Ideal Adiposity
Actual-Avatar Adiposity
Actual-Ideal Adiposity
Actual-Avatar Adiposity
Actual-Ideal Adiposity × Actual-Avatar Adiposity
Actual-Ideal Muscle
Actual-Ideal Muscle
Actual-Avatar Muscle
Actual-Ideal Muscle
Actual-Avatar Muscle
Actual-Ideal Muscle × Actual-Avatar Muscle
p < .05.
p < .01.
safe, self-affirming, and/or anonymous social interactions online
would be appealing to men who are challenged by offline social
interactions. We first tested if self-esteem, social anxiety and
social phobia improved online when using avatars compared to
the offline context. Paired t-tests confirmed that men reported
higher self-esteem (1.67 ± .22 v 1.79 ± .15), t(130) = −7.96, p < .001,
d = −0.63, less social interaction anxiety (1.40 ± .81 v 1.02 ± .59),
t(130) = 6.63, p < .001, d = 0.54, and less social phobia (.70 ± .67 v
.40 ± .47), t(130) = 9.43, p < .001, d = 0.52, while online compared
to the offline world, supporting hypothesis H7. In support of the
proposition that these differences motivate some men to go online
and use avatars, offline world social phobia and anxiety correlated
with time spent online (r = −.22, p < .05 and r = −.21, p < .05 respectively), supporting hypothesis H8.
The majority of men surveyed in Study 1 indicated that they
created and used multiple avatars within various contexts ranging from games to social simulations and social networking. When
asked to respond in relation to the appearance of their most important avatar, three types of avatar were revealed: avatars whose
appearance is utilitarian and independent of self; avatars whose
appearance reflects actual self; and avatars whose appearance represents an idealised version of self, supporting hypothesis H1. This
typology, along with men’s qualitative responses indicated men can
create avatars which are similar but enhanced versions of themselves to increase game enjoyment (Axelsson, 2002; Hsu, Lee, & Wu,
2005); they can role-play and influence social interactions online
using alternate visual identities (Hussain & Griffiths, 2008; Kafai
et al., 2007; Taylor, 2002; Trepte & Reinecke, 2010); and that they
can use their avatars to express their ideals, identities, etc., online
(Lawson, 2000; McKenna & Bargh, 2000).
In terms of the factors that shaped avatar physical dimensions,
utilitarian considerations dominated over aesthetic ones, in the
online world more so than in the offline world supporting hypothesis H2. This is consistent with the proposition that online game
competitiveness is a major influence on avatar creation. As reported
by Trepte and Reinecke (2010), avatar users who had high trait competitiveness or played competitive games online were more likely
to create avatars with attributes designed to achieve game goals.
However, the importance of competency factors online did not
preclude the possibility that avatar physical dimensions are relevant to men’s body image in the offline context. In support of
hypothesis H3, not only did the importance given by men to their
appearance in the offline context correlate with the importance of
their avatar’s appearance, their concerns with their own weight and
muscle also correlated. This was taken to suggest that an avatar’s
physical dimensions reflect its creator’s concerns with their own
appearance. To this extent, online visual representations may be
of psychosocial relevance to men’s body image and body change
In Study 2 we explored this possibility by estimating men’s body
image disparity and relating it to their body change drives and their
psychological and psychosocial functioning. Not surprisingly, and
as predicted in hypothesis H4, the results showed that men’s ideal
body is of lower adiposity and greater muscularity than their actual
body. This is consistent with previous research which suggests that
males desire more muscle and less fat (Demarest & Allen, 2000;
Fallon & Rozin, 1985; Tiggemann, Martins, & Kirkbride, 2007). However while actual BMI correlated significantly with participants’
actual body adiposity as derived from the modified somatomorphic
matrix, it did not correlate with participants’ actual body muscle.
This may be due to inadequate validity of the matrix itself, and/or
the fact that the ‘weight’ component of the BMI formula confounds
adiposity and muscle and thus serves as a poor proxy for body mass.
More surprising was the finding that men’s avatars were not
only thinner and more muscular than their actual body, but also
more muscular than their ideal body. Is this because men’s avatars
are merely a caricature of the male muscular ideal, a functional
requirement of the hyper-masculine characters that populate
online game environments, or is this of psychosocial significance?
The results supported hypothesis H5 and a third and most interesting possibility, at least in one important sense: disparity between
men’s actual and avatar body image was a better predictor of their
drive for thinness than disparity between actual and ideal body
image. Apparently, men who lose weight in an attempt to achieve
greater muscle tone in the offline world, manifest this aspiration in
terms of the avatars they create and/or use online.
We consider this to be the most important implication of our
study, and one that is counterintuitive from the perspective of selfdiscrepancy theory, for it suggests that the avatar is a better proxy
for what a man aspires to physically than their self-reported ideal!
We speculate that this is due to limitations inherent in attempting to quantify the ideal body. Perhaps responses to questions
about one’s ideal body are inherently constrained by reality; by
one’s knowledge of the range of body shapes that are possible for
humans; and ultimately by one’s knowledge of what is feasible for
J.-P. Cacioli, A.J. Mussap / Body Image 11 (2014) 146–155
oneself. That is, men’s descriptions of their ideal body may actually
be more like an aspirational or goal body than an ideal in the literal sense. Avatars are likely to be less constrained by reality, by
what is feasible for humans, and what is feasible for oneself. In this
way avatar physical dimensions might serve to better quantify the
aspirations underlying men’s body change drives.
Avatar physical dimensions might be particularly salient for
men whose social interactions online are more rewarding. Study
2 provided some insight into men’s motivations for creating such
avatars and going online in the first place. It was found that men’s
self-reported self-esteem, social interaction anxiety and social phobia, were all superior online compared to the offline context,
supporting hypotheses H6 and H7. Moreover, in support of hypothesis H8, the magnitude of their social anxiety and phobia in the
offline context predicted the amount of time they spent online each
day. These results suggest that online social interactions, as well
as the physical dimensions of avatars used online, serve a social
compensatory function at least for some men.
In light of these results, we suggest that future research
investigate the possibility of including men’s avatar images into discussions of their body image concerns and behaviours. The avatars
might provide researchers and clinicians with insights into individual men’s motivations for body change, and with the opportunity
to raise with them the issue of unrealistic body image ideals, particularly amongst men who use online interactions to maintain
interpersonal distance. Furthermore, unlike other self-report measures of appearance, avatars possess strong ecological validity: they
are three-dimensional, dynamic, and most importantly, they are
created by men voluntarily.
Although previous research (Taylor, 2003) and our own findings confirmed the importance of utilitarian factors in determining
how avatars are created and used, we could not control for the
influence of these factors on the results. Most problematic were
the limitations imposed on users by the software applications they
use to create their avatars. As an example, consider that in the
most popular game application sampled in our research – World
of WarcraftTM – users are unable to create obese avatars. In addition, we did not examine whether there was a relationship between
participants’ application or game choice and their body image,
nor the impact of this on the results. This is a limitation of the
study because, for example, combat-focussed applications might
attract individuals who desire more masculine attributes compared
to socially-focussed applications. And the differing foci of these
applications may lead to the creation of avatars whose physical
dimensions reflect these foci.
Our studies also relied entirely on self-report measures of
appearance. While practical and easy to implement online, such
measures are prone to social desirability (DelPrete, Caldwell,
English, Banspach, & Lefebvre, 1992; Gorber, Tremblay, Moher, &
Gorber, 2007), and it is unknown to what extent these biases exist
in relation to participants’ avatars. Perhaps future research could
request actual images of avatars from participants.
We focussed exclusively on men. Given the increased take-up
of online games by women (they now represent approximately
47% of players, [Entertainment Software Association, 2012]), it is
important to extend our research to women and their body image
As noted in our concluding remarks, we were surprised by the
responsiveness of our all-male sample to the open-ended questions
of Study 2. This raises suspicions of a self-selection bias whereby
men who value their avatars were more likely to agree to participate.
The study employed a cross-sectional design and correlational
analyses which prevent interpretation of the presence or direction
of causality between variables. Additionally, the study used a modified version of the SOQ which has not been validated. Although
note that a factor analysis suggested that it was suitable for use
in the current study. Additionally the high level of correlation
between competency and men’s muscle/weight concerns could
potentially be due to the SOQ and the MBAS measuring similar
constructs and therefore these results need to be interpreted carefully.
Concluding Remarks
As the online world becomes more important to people’s work
and social lives (Bailenson & Beall, 2006; McKenna & Bargh, 2000),
the psychological relevance of online interactions is likely to
increase and require closer empirical attention. Viewed in this context, the present study can be taken as an early attempt to explore
the potential of avatar physical dimensions as a proxy for underlying body image concerns, particularly amongst men who value
their avatar’s appearance and turn to the Internet for relatively
‘safe’ online social interactions. We are encouraged in this endeavour by what we consider to be the most surprising finding of our
research: the remarkable willingness of our male participants (with
only one exception) to respond thoughtfully and in a self-reflective
manner to the open-ended questions in Study 1 about the significance of their avatars. We suggest that these men have invested
time and energy in creating their avatars; that their avatars hold
special significance to them; and that they are uncharacteristically
open to discussing the significance of these avatars because they
are not as self-conscious as they would be talking about their own
appearance or feelings in person. For these reasons, and given the
ecological validity inherent in using a measure of body image that
a person has willingly created by themselves and for their own
use, we propose that, where relevant, consideration be given to
the appearance of men’s avatars in therapeutic discussions of their
body image.
The authors would like to thank all the blogs and forums which
participated in recruitment for this study, in particular the Metaverse Journal (
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