I Feel Pretty

From Chapter Four of Julian Dibbell's My Tiny Life, 1998

I should tell you now, I guess, about Samantha. Or tell you, anyway, as much as I know about her, which is either precious little or nearly everything, or maybe both, depending on how you look at it.

I know, for one thing, exactly what people saw when they glanced her way: It's really her, the brief description read, twitching her nose just like she did on the show. You see a light dusting of white powder on her upper lip, which might explain the nose-twitching, and an anxious dream of power in her eyes. I know, too, exactly what she did the first time she showed up on LambdaMOO. And exactly what she did on the last. And roughly what she did on every visit in between. I know that no one on the MOO knew her better than I did, or had ever been closer to me than she was. Not exu, not even Ecco.

But I may never know, I think, in any final way, the things it mattered most for me to know about Samantha. My intimate access to the facts of her online life was a trivial achievement, after all. I'd made her, named her, crafted her appearance and animated her every step, her every utterance on the MOO. How could I not have known her in the ways I did? To put it plainly, she was me: a morph, in MOOspeak, or in a different language alter ego. An "other self." And if the self I'd lived with in RL for over thirty-one years remained in many respects a mystery to me, I can't pretend my brief acquaintance with this new one ever really let me grasp much more about her than the basics of her virtual biography. Precisely who she was to me, and to the world she lived in -- these are the things about Samantha that I struggle still to make some satisfying sense of, and suspect I never will.

I'd had other morphs, of course, and would have more. There was the dolphin -- Faaa, I called him, after the tragic, finny hero of the 1973 movie thriller Day of the Dolphin -- and the rest: a handful of text-bodies I'd written and erased on the fly, or kept around for the purposes of an occasional, joking transformation. But prior to Samantha my morph-making had not yet crossed the gender line, and from the instant I first stepped into her, I felt the difference that same unsettling way you feel the sudden lightness when an elevator starts to drop.

The moment still lives fresh in my mind. I created her one winter evening not long after the toading of Dr. Jest: replaced my hefty description of Samantha's cousin Dr. Bombay (I'd written him as a walking optical illusion, oscillating randomly between the sitcom's plump, pseudoscholarly fop and the image of a lean old streetwise back-alley medic) with her four-line wisp of text (It's really her...), typed a brief command that rendered the sex change complete (@gender female), and saved the persona to a new file under Samantha's name. And then I headed out to show my creation to the world.

Or more precisely, I headed out to show her to my friend Sebastiano. Not that I wanted him especially to see her, but someone had to, and Sebastiano happened to be the only MOOer of my acquaintance logged in just then. Besides which, I'd been meaning to pay him a visit for some time. Sebastiano lived in an airy cottage in the middle of Weaveworld, a rolling, woodsy region of the MOO tucked in amid the fibers of a tapestry hanging from a wall inside the barn, and he had promised to show me around the neighborhood someday. The place had been conceived in part, Sebastiano told me, as a sort of subcommunity for Lambda's queer contingent, a realm where the sympathetically oriented could build their homes and fill in a landscape together, and I was curious to see how this experiment in creative sociogeography was working out. And so I joined my friend that night, and we went walking, he and I -- a thirtysomething gay computer scientist wearing the shape of a sullen teenboy lust-object, and a heterosexual adult male wrapped in a childhood recollection of pop-iconic femininity -- along the leafy, moonlit pathways of Weaveworld.

At least I remember them as moonlit. I have a lot of memories about that night, not all of them quite accurate perhaps, but all still remarkably, sensorily present to me. They linger largely as a series of lucid images, the vibrant residue of a long and long-forgotten scroll of monochrome text: our hike from Sebastiano's cottage down a rolling green hillside, our pause amid a tidy, village-like cluster of little sandstone buildings, our passage through the small town square and on to a vaguely tropical forest's edge, where we sat on benches beneath the stars, watching an automated monkey (Sebastiano's work) cavort among the trees. But most of all what I remember is the curious, enveloping sensation through which I apprehended these scenes, a sensation so delicate I could barely pick it out from the surrounding swirl of impressions and yet so insistently attached to all of them I could hardly have failed to notice it.

Or ultimately to have identified it. For though at first I couldn't have begun to say just whence this gauzy feeling came, by the time Sebastiano and I reached the monkey trees I knew there wasn't any mistaking its source: it was Samantha's skin -- a woman's skin -- and the feeling was that of being in it.

I hadn't expected anything like this. I hadn't thought, in fact, that I'd really be aware at all of the particular morph I was in. I'd hoped, of course, that Sebastiano might take note of my makeover and say something appreciative; and I felt gratified when he did. But I'd assumed that after that Samantha's presence would fade from my imagination, coming quickly to feel the same way my other morphs tended to -- like costumes, donned in the spirit of the vast, extended costume party LambdaMOO sometimes seemed to be, but easily ignored once they'd made their splash.

Not that I didn't feel a kind of closeness to those masks, or sense certain deeply embedded aspects of myself carved into the surfaces of some of them. My attachment to the dolphin Faaa, for instance, was surely not without some lurking totemic significance. And as for Dr. Bombay, my core persona, I had no doubt that the flickering ambiguity I'd written into his description -- its uneasy suspension between intellectualized ridiculousness and hardened competence -- encoded all sorts of conflicting and barely examined truths about my self-image, both in VR and out of it. But in the end, however meaningful the statements these morphs made about me, in my mind they by and large remained just that: statements, attached to the phantom body I projected into MOOspace no more or less intimately than any slogan I might wear on a T-shirt.

Whereas Samantha -- well, Samantha fit that body so closely I couldn't really detect the place where she began and the body ended. Nor did I very much want to. For here was the second surprise about being Samantha: it felt delicious. It felt soft, and graceful, and sexually alluring. It felt receptive, and charming, and poised, and several other ideally "feminine" things I'd thought myself too sophisticated to imagine as the defining aspects of a woman's inner life. Yet here they were, defining my experience of virtual womanhood in ways my intellect seemed to have nothing to do with, in ways that bypassed all the layers of irony built into my half-parodic identification with a half-parodic TV witch-mom and went straight to whatever part of me it was that found the fictions of gender as solidly believable as the ground beneath my feet.

Was I at all embarrassed then, that night, walking around possessed by so predictable a notion of what it felt like to be a woman? On some level yes, I suppose I was. But mostly, I confess, I was enchanted. Enchanted with myself, no less -- or with this temporary self, I should say, though it came to essentially the same narcissistic thing. I chatted amiably enough with Sebastiano about the sights and social affairs of Weaveworld, but the truth was I'd lost all interest in the questions that had drawn me there. By now I was talking mainly just to hear myself talk, to hear the words pass through my head in Samantha's voice, and if there was anything in particular I wanted those words to be about, it really wasn't anything but Samantha. I would have liked to say exactly what it was I felt as I typed the text that moved her body around, to say just what was going on in my mind as I stood up playfully on one of the benches, walked along its surface, threw my head back to look up with a quiet smile at the stars.

But the words were slow to come, and when they finally did arrive they were not any I could call my own. They lent themselves to me, is how I'd put it -- rose up into my thoughts out of the same basement warehouse of mass-cultural memories I'd borrowed Samantha from. For a brief Technicolor moment I saw Natalie Wood dancing self-enchantedly before a mirror in her finest party whites, and then the sentence just popped out, apropos of nothing my friend and I happened to be discussing right then but somehow, evidently, very much in need of being said:

"I feel pretty!" I declared, to the bemused Sebastiano, to the unhearing robot monkey, and to the warm night breezes I swear I felt caressing the smooth skin of Samantha's outstretched arms.