Clothes. You can rarely wear the ones you want to. You have to make allowances for work, the people you're going to be with and the weather. It is also a sad and unfair fact of life that many people look better when they're wearing more clothes. For them, avoiding tank tops and hot pants are a public service.

A survey of virtual reality avatars suggests that left to their own devices, women wear considerably less clothing than men do. Perhaps they're more comfortable in their own skin than men are.

Plain or eye catching, female avatars exposed more skin than male avatars did.

Two Canadian researchers — one male, one female — were interested in investigating the innate human tendency to reveal or cover naked skin. To avoid the thankless and probably impossible task of teasing out the effects of physical and social constraints from people's natural tendencies, they turned to virtual reality, specifically the world of Second Life, a website where visitors create and inhabit a 3D virtual world and where users can socialize. They found virtual females displayed much more naked skin than virtual males did.

Second Life users choose a 3D image — an avatar — to represent themselves as they move through the virtual world. Avatars are highly customizable, and part of the customization process includes choosing clothing. In addition to the selections available, people not satisfied with the available clothing can modify it or even create their own. This is the feature that most interested the Canadian researchers and suggested to them that the game would be a useful place to study people's skin covering and skin exposure habits.

They looked at 404 human avatars from Second Life's public spaces (not specialty communities), 192 male and 212 female. All were at least 90 days old, old enough that users were probably through tweaking their avatars' appearance.

Seventy-one percent (71%) of the male avatars covered at least three-quarters of their skin, but only 5% of female avatars did so. And 57% of female avatars left half or more of their skin exposed, while only 10% of the male avatars exposed that much skin. The question is, is this true for real people too?

The authors believe that these results truly reflect human nature and not some peculiarity of virtual reality or the people who gravitate towards it. But skeptics will wonder. Men have historically taken to VR better than women, particularly to video games, at least in part because the games have always been rife with images of hypersexualized female characters, usually designed by males. Think Lara Croft or Vi Domina. All this might lead people to suspect that the reason female avatars show more skin than males has more to do with the people who make up the Second Life community than anything else.

But that doesn't appear to be the case.

If many people were choosing to run hypersexualized avatars — busty, curvy females and males with six-pack abs, this might lead to more skin exposure. But body measurements, including waist to chest in female avatars and shoulder to hip in male avatars, showed no linkage between body proportions of avatars and the amount of skin that was exposed. Plain or eye catching, female avatars exposed more skin than male avatars did.

Second Life is a fantasy world. There's no reason a male user can't run a female avatar or vice versa. The researchers had no information on user sex, only the sex of their avatar. Could the results be due to men running avatars of their dream girls and women doing the same with their dream guys? Previous studies suggest that up to 25% of users in online virtual worlds run avatars of the opposite sex. The authors tried to account for this possibility by eliminating the 25% of female avatars who exposed the most skin and the 25% of male avatars who exposed the least skin from their results. Even throwing out/ignoring the 25% most-covered males and the 25% least-covered females, female avatars still exposed a great deal more skin than male avatars did.

Finally, the team looked at the Star Wars role play (SWRP) community within Second Life. People in this community are expected to dress similarly to characters in the Star Wars universe. Male avatars in SWRP showed about the same amount of exposed skin as male characters in the movies did. But female avatars displayed much more naked skin than the female movie characters did, suggesting that women have more skin in the game in general.

The paper itself reads a bit like the accounts of the first Western anthropologists to visit the South Sea Islands. The authors focus on describing what they saw and what they found. Some readers may find the idea that women like to reveal more skin than men a confirmation of what they've seen throughout their life. Others may wonder if the inhabitants of Second Life form a truly representative cross section of humanity. It is possible that the findings simply tell us something about Second Life universe users.

For now, the researchers stand by their findings and invite others to perform studies that are more revealing.

The article is published in PLoS ONE. It is freely available.