The same way you can’t really die in virtual reality, you can’t really be born there either. The most analogous experience you can have to conception is creating an account. So I handed over my email, entered in a password, and pushed my way through the virtual birth canal into Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt at the metaverse, Horizon Worlds.
With a Meta Quest 2 headset strapped on my head, I drew a boundary in the virtual realm to keep me from colliding into objects in the one I was leaving behind. Next up was creating an avatar. My small upturned nose, brown eyes and hair, and square jaw were easily rendered in cyberspace. From the different pear-shaped options available to me I chose a medium-sized body, and gave myself a rad haircut. Meta (née Facebook) boasts that the “metaverse will help take learning and discovery to a new level.” For me, in that moment, this amounted to discovering what I might look like with bangs.
But of all of the available avatar customizations—eyes, hair, clothes, ear piercings—I found no way to select a big ol’ pregnant belly. This was a letdown. Being virtually pregnant was why I was interloping in Horizon Worlds in the first place.
See, I am 33 years old, an age I am coming to understand is defined by every person I have ever met being pregnant. My Instagram feed is half ads for something called a “Snoo,” half photos of baby shoes, not yet worn, beside a panting labradoodle, captioned, “Milo is going to be a big sister.” I’m thinking about pregnancy a lot these days, to the point it’s fundamentally shifted my worldview. Riding the B train, at my office, in line at the bodega… Who of the people around me are pregnant? Who just had a baby and is grateful to no longer be wearing mesh diapers? Who desperately wants to be pregnant and can’t be? Every single person I talk to, roll my eyes at, or have a crush on came from a pregnant person. I feel the urge to adapt my obsession into a children’s book: Everyone Seems Pregnant. More than I am baby crazy, I’m perhaps a little bit pregnancy crazy.
Which is why I found myself wondering how I could experience pregnancy, without, you know, making a life-altering decision. I just wanted to be pregnant for the afternoon—to try it on for size, if you will. Dipping in and out of alternative realities? My curiosity seemed perfectly suited to the metaverse I’d been hearing so much about.
Companies like Meta, Unity, and Microsoft are in a space race to land on the metaverse moon, but they’ve built barely more than an idea of an interactive virtual space we’ll inhabit parallel to the “real world,” with some bleed-over in between. Similar to how Jezebel is one website on the internet, virtual locales like Horizon Worlds’ A Very British Pub will be one of many you will navigate via avatar and headset in the ever-expanding metaverse. The promise is that our corporeal identities will merge more seamlessly with our virtual ones.
As of right now, Horizon Worlds, one of the more high profile of these metaverse realms, doesn’t provide an option for visibly pregnant people to express their physical identity, nor for simply curious people like myself to choose a rotund belly the same way we can opt for freckles or a nose ring. Neither do Decentraland and Spatial, two 3D virtual platforms that are also proximate to the future idea of the metaverse.
Dr. Aurélie Athan, a clinical psychologist and professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, studies “matrescence,” the interwoven bio-psycho-social-political-spiritual process that leads to becoming a mother (she likens it to adolescence). She says there is a “psychological stretch—the internal stretch marks that we have in our mind about our changing body” that occurs as someone grows a fetus inside of them, or as non-birthing expectant parents prepare for a child. Seeing a virtual depiction of oneself pregnant, Athan speculates, could be “a way of practicing our stretch marks” to help anticipate this incoming identity—or in my case, to try a pregnancy mindset on. But opportunities to practice those psychological stretch marks could be, excuse me, stretched much wider: Popping bellies pop up in maternity-specific VR contexts like birthing prep programs, but their presence remains an anomaly in the nascent metaverse.
The promise of the metaverse is comically enormous: “We can destroy things and kill people without fear of punishment or retribution,” boasted the execs of immersive media company Everyrealm last year. “We can be risqué and push cultural and societal norms beyond traditional boundaries, cloaked by anonymity and invincibility in the metaverse. We can fly, experiment with drugs, and cheat on our partners.” I suppose it makes sense that in a virtual world that will indulge all fantasies from guiltless murder to adultery, being pregnant isn’t prioritized. But I’d suggest that allowing pregnant bodies to freely populate the metaverse not only works to be inclusive of an innately human condition, but could also divorce our imaginations from the anxieties surrounding them. It’s an opportunity to improve how pregnancy is perceived in our imperfect real world. To me, that is far more compelling than simulating a mushroom trip.
Where are the preggos in virtual reality?
Anyone familiar with the dulcet gibberish of Simlish knows a hot tub WooHoo session can lead your Sim to have morning sickness, a growing belly, and a birth in three days’ time. The Sims is one of the handful of virtual role-playing spaces where you’re able to get your avatar knocked up. Even still, players’ dissatisfaction with early versions of Sim pregnancy led some to create pregnancy mods to lengthen your pregnancy timeline, adjust how excited your Sim is about their pregnancy, have quadruplets, and even miscarry. Similarly, players can purchase a pregnant belly in the Brookhaven game within Roblox and the social platform IMVU.
The multiplayer virtual world Second Life has impressive pregnancy expansion packs for avatars that allow players to “customize their belly with stretch marks, darkened lines, stretch marks on your thighs,” Alexandra Bolshakov, a research assistant at Athan’s Maternal Psychology Lab, explained to me. “You can move your body fat to change your face shape along with your pregnancy, so it’s very detailed and customized.” (In general, the difference in visual detail between Horizon Worlds’ avatars and Second Life’s is like the discrepancy between Yogi and Cocaine Bear.) Your pregnant Second Life avatar will be reminded to take prenatal vitamins, and you can choose your virtual baby’s physical features and select its due date. It is “the most comprehensive kind of pregnancy experience in a video game that I’ve come across,” Bolshakov said.
But, much like triplets, that sort of representation is rare. In 2015, Lauren Cruikshank, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of New Brunswick, wrote that most video games “skip over an implied period of pregnancy altogether, such as the kiss to bassinet transition we see in The Sims’ first iteration.” If and when pregnancy is portrayed, she said, we see it in non-interactive cut scenes; in the Harvest Moon series, a woman’s pregnancy is announced by a doctor after she faints following her wedding, but she never shows. I imagine a large reason for that is there aren’t a lot of people capable of being pregnant also designing video games; a 2020 survey found that a little less than a quarter of video game developers are women. There are also ethical quandaries about pregnant characters. The lead designer of the Fable series explained to Kotaku over a decade ago, “Originally we did plan to depict pregnancy in game with the female hero’s stomach expanding.” But, the article noted, “Lionhead Studios decided to opt for a cut scene instead…after considering all the moral quandaries that come of having a six-month pregnant mom-to-be wielding a broadsword and getting cut up by bandits.”
I can appreciate the hesitancy around making mincemeat of an expectant mother, but admittedly find it amusing that everyone else is fair game to plow down with your virtual Hummer or whatever. One can’t help but observe the pro-life logic undermining these games, valuing a hypothetical fetus over its host avatar. I’m not suggesting the final form of feminism is virtually slaughtering those with a bun in the oven in the name of equality. But tiptoeing around pregnancy in virtual realms reinforces an idea that Athan referred to as “pregnancy invisibility”—that pregnancy is niche and rare, something to be hidden from sight, instead of the establishing event of all of our lives. A 2022 study by McKinsey showed that despite women spending more time in the metaverse, organizations that are framing the structure and standards of the metaverse are disproportionately led by men, so I can only imagine this will lead to similar pregnancy invisibility in this next cybernetic frontier.
During her pregnancy, Keke Palmer live-streamed on Twitch a Sims childbirth mod that she said helped prepare her for what was to come. “I would absolutely recommend that other people who are pregnant see what kind of skills they can develop by playing games and going into the metaverse,” she explained to Buzzfeed News (she has a partnership with Meta for an interview series). Though, when I’ve Googled “pregnant virtual reality,” every other result is a warning about motion sickness or someone asking if VR is safe for their pregnant wife.
To be clear, The Sims isn’t really the metaverse, but to her point, there are a few VR platforms specifically designed to educate people about pregnancy in a more realistic way than The Sims. On its website, NurtureVR describes itself as a 22-week perinatal education course “designed to combat PMADs [perinatal mood and anxiety disorders] and improve maternal mental health.” For $549, it’ll send you a VR headset that plops you into a serene environment like a lakeside meadow for mindfulness sessions, walks you through breastfeeding tutorials, and gives you 3D views of the fetus growing in your womb. PregnancyVue is another VR experience that allows the headset wearer to see both the womb’s and the mother’s point of view.
Though compelling tools for expectant parents, the demos also made me feel like I was being ushered into the metaverse’s maternity ward, separated from the beat sabering and mushroom tripping and other hot, hot action I’d been enticed by. Even the expansion packs available on Second Life and The Sims include prenatal appointments. Educational and/or relaxing, sure. Fun? Not so much. Society has long encased pregnant people in cautionary bubble wrap the most effective way it knows how: by keeping them away from almost everything and keeping the curious away from them.
“You could extrapolate this [limitation] to real life and how we tell women that there is an appropriate time or place to be pregnant,” Bolshakov said. “We’re saying in some of these virtual situations we don’t want to introduce pregnancy, because it’s like, ‘Is this appropriate?’”
As my fellow avatars teleported between virtual spaces in the metaverse and taught me which combination of controller buttons to press to get my avatar to fly, I was curious why the principles surrounding pregnant bodies in the real world are some of the few that don’t get bent in virtual reality.
A history of pregnant women not being seen nor heard
Despite marriage and pregnancy being the presumed ambition of women throughout most of history, a visibly pregnant body suggested that a woman had partaken in unladylike behaviors (fucking). So from the 16th all the way to the 20th centuries, pregnant women in Western societies were generally kept out of sight until they (hopefully) emerged with a baby. The absurdity of that is astounding considering it’s the prerequisite event leading to anyone even having a disapproving opinion of pregnant bodies in the first place. In 1952, when Lucille Ball displayed her pregnant belly on television, it was a scandal: CBS deemed the word “pregnant” too obscene for a show in which Lucy slept in a twin bed beside her husband’s and instead used a gaggle of euphemisms like “expecting” and “with child.” The episode itself was titled “Lucy Is Enceinte”—“enceinte” being French for “pregnant.” L’horreur!
Pregnancy in Western art from that time period is also scant. After centuries of pregnant bodies only rarely being painted by male artists, women artists in the last couple of decades have begun to make their own pregnancies the subject of their art, Artsy notes. Similarly, the American medical field long excluded women of childbearing age from participating in clinical studies, resulting in a huge gap in knowledge about how women’s bodies reacted to certain medications. It wasn’t until 1986 that the National Institutes of Health encouraged researchers to include them. One can’t help but feel that oversight was informed by the presumed fragility of some pregnant bodies. However, Black pregnant women are not and have not historically been treated with caution or compassion, and Black birthing parents are rendered invisible by medical ignorance and racism. For an excess of reasons, the pregnant body, either in real life or its likeness, remains out of focus.
Only in recent decades have we begun to celebrate being visibly pregnant in public, and though an improvement on eras past, that extol tends to be reserved for celebrities’ and public figures’ baby bumps. I mean, there’s a good reason that we have governmental safeguards in place to protect pregnant people against discrimination and harassment. Last year, the New York Times interviewed women who were able to keep their pregnancies secret because of the covid lockdown for a piece titled “Oh By the Way: I Had a Baby,” and the resounding sentiment was people stayed out of their business and that was a relief.
And even though Demi Moore, Beyoncé, and Cardi B glamorously cradled their ginormous naked bellies on magazine covers and award show stages, there exists limited comprehension of what pregnant people are able to achieve. Consider the public disbelief in 2017 after Serena Williams revealed she’d dominated the Australian Open while eight weeks pregnant. It sent the internet into chaos. How did she compete while pregnant? The same way Rihanna performed the Super Bowl halftime show on a plexiglass stage floating 60 feet above the field, and Jacinda Ardern served as the Prime Minister of New Zealand while expecting. Or how Ali Wong filmed not one but two comedy specials during her pregnancies. While pregnancy is certainly an encompassing condition, people’s lives are not completely sidelined or defined by it. Allowing metaverse users to select a baby bump for their avatar as casually as they might Converse sneakers before they go dancing in Horizon Worlds’ Club Fuego would be a simple gesture to serve that recognition.
Poking around YouTube, it is clear I’m not alone in my meddlesomeness about meta-pregnancy. “Guys, so I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be pregnant? Hmm? Aha! Why don’t we go find out in Brookhaven!” a Brookhaven vlogger says into the camera in one video I found before screen-sharing to demonstrate how her cat-ear-wearing avatar can morph into a pregnant one. The majority of the almost 700 comments are ecstatic for her. “Soo funny,” says one. On a different video about a Sims pregnancy mod, a commenter writes, “The loose values, the gameplay, the sarcasm, I’m here for all of it.” After all the hand-wringing storylines we’ve been fed about pregnancy in media, user-generated pregnancy roleplay content that is simply entertaining is a relief.
“Relocating women as the subjects of their pregnancies”
There’s an interesting bit of feminist theory about how the advancement of sonograms and fetal imaging erases the pregnant body. Along with aiding the pro-life side of the abortion debate by assigning significance and sentience to fetal facial movements, it also separates the womb from the fetus, pushing the mother into the background. In her 1996 essay “My Womb, the Mosh Pit,” Sharon Lehner described that complicated detachment after mourning the image of a fetus she decided to abort. “The moment when all eyes turn away from my belly and toward the monitor, even I become a passive observer… For the fetus to be seen as an independent entity, the woman must drop out of the image,” she writes.
I can’t help but believe another important function of virtual pregnancies might be to let the woman remain in the image—to “relocate women as the subjects of their pregnancies,” to borrow a phrase from a 2009 article in Feminist Review. Imagery is powerful. As Lehner wrote, “The sonogram retroactively decides when and if the ‘fact’ of pregnancy is medically acceptable. In this case, the image—or the ability to make an image—determines reality.” Can that same theory not be applied to the imagery of the pregnant body in a virtual space? If we don’t use VR just to look deep into our bellies and fabricate fetal images—now the size of a grape! a kiwi! an apple! a plum!—and instead allow these meta-pregnant bodies to just exist in virtual reality, might that serve as an antidote to the erasure of mothers and pregnant bodies?
Imagine if Horizon Worlds let pregnant avatars get on stage at the Soapstone Comedy Club or sink shots at the NBA Arena (two places you can socialize with other users in the metaverse). If pregnant bodies got to experience the vast promise of the metaverse the same way non-pregnant ones are able to, might that be quietly profound, strapped into a Quest headset, to witness?
I couldn’t be visibly pregnant in Horizon Worlds, but that didn’t stop me from slowly waddling around it as I got used to my new, foreign to me, virtual body. The first space I dropped into was Arena Clash, a multiplayer shooting game. I was hoping to sidle up, in my non-pregnant avatar, next to someone else and chat with them about my conundrum, a goal I now understand to be pretty laughable. Arena Clash was filled with children, as much of Horizon Worlds seemingly is, running amok in adult-bodied avatars. Children under 13 aren’t technically allowed to be on the platform (only very recently was that age limit dropped from 18+) but I can only assume most Quest headsets aren’t stored in lock boxes. I’d be remiss to not note the irony of pregnancy’s absence in a world that essentially feels like digital daycare.
I was almost immediately shot down, but not before coming to the realization that it wouldn’t be appropriate to ask any of my Horizon World neighbors their thoughts on pregnancy, nor would I get a response that wasn’t along the lines of “ew, what?” So I moved over to the Soapstone Comedy Club. There, I momentarily thought I’d come across an adult player. We stared at one another silently blinking for a few beats, not unlike the last two remaining beings of a species discovering one another after the apocalypse. (Horizon Worlds is worryingly empty.) Just as I was about to introduce myself, the player pointed at the fire pit across the expansive and barren lawn. “Fire pit” they said in a child’s voice. “Fire pit.” They then teleported themselves to warm their hands by the flames. I decided they weren’t the person to talk to about pregnancy either.
Then I floated on over to the bar portion of the comedy club, where three avatars were gathered near a booth. Their developed voices and ability to stand still got me excited. Adults? Was it too good to be true? They were and it was: Shortly after a round of introductions, an avatar manned by someone not over the age of 8 bulldozed their way into the conversation screaming, “Someone has to go on stage! Someone has to go on stage!” “Shut the fuck up man, I can do whatever I want,” the avatar perched on the booth said. Annoyed, everyone dispersed.
“But we can’t do everything we want!” I wished I’d had the opportunity to chime in. I wanted to be pregnant, sipping on a virtual beer (alcoholic or non-alcoholic—it doesn’t matter, they aren’t real!), or pregnant and living out my Ali Wong fantasies on the comedy club’s stage. But I couldn’t be! Not yet.
(I reached out to Meta to ask about getting my avatar knocked up but have yet to hear back.)
The fantasy of virtual pregnancy
“Virtual reality is a way of fantasy production,” Athan told me. As it’s being used right now, it offers a portal into fantasy worlds for a wide range of people. Trans and gender-nonconforming folks, disabled individuals, or simply curious people utilize virtual spaces to inhabit bodies that they don’t have access to in this realm. Surely it can be used for people who are becoming parents via surrogate or adoption, or as an escape from a hellish IRL pregnancy into a more idealistic virtual one sans morning sickness or back pain. Virtual pregnancies could also be what convinces someone to not go through with a real life pregnancy.
For Jeremy Bailey and Kristen Schaffer, artistic partners and a couple in real life, virtual pregnancy provided an opportunity to satirize societal expectations of the expectant mother. After they got married, like many couples, they were bombarded with questions about when they’d start having kids. “I was channeling Kristen’s emotions at the time of feeling almost violated continuously by this question,” Bailey explained. So the two of them created a VR art experience called Preterna, where the user, perhaps grotesquely eager to see Kristen pregnant, can put on VR goggles and inhabit her naked pregnant body. Via her avatar’s POV, they’ll be plopped into a wildflower-filled pasture, allowing them to see this idyllic world as a barefoot and pregnant Kristen. It’s violating, and very funny.
Preterna was also an opportunity to skewer the “incredibly romantic association that really denies women the opportunity to have anything but a good pregnancy,” Schaffer explained. Kristen’s VR arms aren’t attached to her pregnant body and are a “meat-like texture, sort of butchered off,” Bailey jokingly described. There is a zombie quality to the grayish pregnant body roaming the bucolic countryside, a symbol of death you could embody to envision a life-giving experience.
For me, the art piece also opened up another way of thinking about virtual pregnancies: In the metaverse, pregnancy can be funny. It can be magical or grotesque. In virtual realms, we can set aside the precious fetus this realm is so incessantly obsessed with. No baby, just pregnancy vibes.
“I guess you could also technically—and this sounds really crass—but you could abort said pregnancy by quitting the program,” Schaffer offered. She was joking, but the metaverse as a whole feels like a joke that doesn’t hit its punchline. Not unlike the man behind the curtain in Oz, there is a lot of hype and a handful of people without hearts or brains going hard in the paint to peddle it. Speaking of terminations, Zuckerberg has spent billions on his version of the metaverse only for Business Insider to declare it dead but a week ago. I’d assume frequent reports of sexual violence and racism in these spaces don’t work in its favor, either. The land of milk and honey is curdling.
About a year ago, The Guardian ran a piece on “Tamagotchi kids,” or virtual children that one AI expert believes will be part of our near future. “Within 50 years, technology will have advanced to such an extent that babies which exist in the metaverse are indistinct from those in the real world,” that expert said. What, I wonder, is the appeal of indistinguishable virtual babies, and why would we want those babies to be raised in an increasingly sexist and racist metaverse on the brink of extinction, not unlike the world we live in now? The metaverse’s shortcomings surrounding pregnancy don’t end once you virtually give birth.
I made one friend the third time I visited Soapstone Comedy Club, an adult woman avatar with a username highlighting her love of rollerblading, who corroborated the Business Insider obituary. She’d recently taken a couple months off from wandering around Horizon Worlds, and when she came back, found it to be much emptier. She asked what I was doing there, and I told her I was searching for ways to be virtually pregnant, a statement that was met with a kindly “oh, huh.” Before I could better explain my quest, my stomach lurched in the way Meta warns pregnant users of, and I ripped off the headset. As it stands, the most visceral pregnancy experience we’re provided in the boundless fantasy world that is the metaverse is nausea.