I think I’ve seen my face more in the last eleven months than I ever have before. And not how I’m used to seeing it either — reflected in the mirror or in a carefully filtered selfie — but projected back at me through a webcam and displayed in all its bad-lighting, dodgy-angled glory in the corner of a video call. Demanding my attention as I try to concentrate on what someone else is saying.
Perhaps this is why I’m over images of my real face and I’ve found comfort in the hand-drawn illustrated avatars that the Japanese website Picrew offers up. For those unaware of its existence, Picrew is a kind of character-creator, or as Wikipedia has it, a “layered paper doll-style avatar maker website” in which you create your own characters from a pre-made selection of bodies, facial features, hair-styles, clothes, backgrounds and accessories. They are popular among illustrators, writers and DnD players to recreate their OCs (original characters) or fan-casts of their favourite book or TV show. And then there’s plenty of people like me who use them as a fun distraction or to create a version of themselves to use as avatars online.
And that’s what I find so interesting. That despite so many Picrews offering fantasy elements like angel wings or demon horns, or whatever monster this is, I nearly always end up making someone who looks like an identifiable version of me: short red hair, greenish eyes, androgynous clothing. Perhaps this urge I have to recreate myself in a better, cooler, illustrated form is an extension of what Jia Tolentino calls Instagram Face — that homogenized ideal of Western beauty accentuated by algorithmic filters. But the focus on illustration and customisation, not to mention the fact that many Picrews offer the full spectrum of queer, trans and non-binary flags as background options, alongside thin and fat body shapes, various skin-tones, acne spots, vitiligo patches, scars and so much more, suggests there is something else at play here. These character creators are more than just a straightforward ‘prettified’ version of our own visage. Even if they can be used as such.
Picrew provides a way to make ourselves look how ever we want, be that visibly queer (quite literally flying the flag), an accurate cartoon version of ourselves, or to try out a new, even monstrous, look. Perhaps, it’s an opportunity to redefine what beauty looks like or to allow us to see ourselves in a new light. I say perhaps because I think the same trappings of what is considered beautiful still often apply in the options you are given (or perhaps, the options I choose) and Picrews can vary hugely from maker to maker in the designs you have to choose from. I always seem to end up with what looks to me like a better version of myself so maybe I’m the one still hung-up on beauty. Which really is an unhelpfully narrow paradigm to operate in: what is beauty? why should we want to look beautiful anyway?
I don’t want to look like a photorealistic Instagram-Face smoothed out version of myself. Instead, I want the pure fantasy and unattainable surety of an illustrated picture. These avatars of myself are not ‘real’ in the same way that a photo-filtered version of myself will never be ‘real’, but I’m okay with that. The illustration is already a translation of myself into a different form and so the idealisation feels less… harmful? Perhaps. Short red hair is enough to signal to others that this could be me, but we both know it never will be. I don’t hate my face (I think it does the job) but I don’t enjoy the gap between how my face looks to me and how it looks to others. And to be confronted almost daily with my own face and at length on a screen, has not helped reconcile that gap. And so, to Picrew.
I’ve made so many Picrews that I now have a small gallery of illustrated mini-me’s. Rightly or wrongly, I take solace in this stable, approved image of myself that I can display to others if I so choose. A whole folder on my computer of possible unreal versions of not who I am, or even who I could be, but a whole other third, liberated thing.
I try to keep my newsletters brief (this is the tiny narrative after all) and so there are nuances about what we consider looking ‘queer’ or ‘beautiful’ or ‘real’ to signify that I haven’t the space to go into here. But I hope I’ve raised some idle questions to think about next time you attempt to make a representation of you, be that a selfie or a Picrew. And if you haven’t made one yet, I highly encourage you to try some for yourself.
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