I saw so many boobs at TwitchCon’s artist exhibition.
In the San Diego Convention Center, hanging high above the makeshift alleyways of merchandise vendors, more than 40 pairs of anime-style breasts looked down upon me. I felt like a beetle at a cartoon Renaissance fair, staring at rows of mommy milkers peeking through manga bodices.
One of the most crowded stands was by Kamaniki, a gamer and waifu art seller. Buyers sifted through baseball cards and posters looking for their favorite members of the busty vtuber collective VShojo. A group of men stood on the outskirts of the booth. Clearly, the cleavage-forward art has an audience, and creators know how to attract it.
“Even normal streamers would have their chest up,” Kaminiki said. “Vtubers do the same thing. It’s very difficult to grow your brand if you don’t have any character or webcam or voice.”
Vtubing, or virtual YouTubing, has become a widespread phenomenon in the world of anonymous streaming. Creators film using a holographic avatar rigged to their movements using motion capture trackers and suits. The content format originated in Japan but has since been adopted worldwide. In Japan, vtuber collectives like VShojo and Nijisanji are put together like K-pop groups, with auditions, training, and an official debut video release. As it’s expanded, there’s also a rising wave of independent, homegrown vtubers. And the brands are on board: Tony the Tiger, of Frosted Flakes fame, announced a vtube Twitch channel in August.
Still, the culture of vtubing has caused controversy. Women in gaming have long been subjected to harassment on the internet, and since vtubing tends to have visuals reminiscent of anime, a form of illustration that has long been for the male gaze, characters quickly become sexualized. But many women vtubers told BuzzFeed News that they’ve been able to use the format to protect themselves from sexual harassment by redirecting it onto their characters instead.
“If someone says something like ‘Your anime character’s tits are huge,’ it doesn’t bother me as much,” vtuber Aruuu told BuzzFeed News. “If someone’s talking about my real body, then yeah, it bothers me a little, because it’s stuff I can’t change. But I made her [the avatar].”
Sex sells in any part of pop culture, but it’s an undeniable undercurrent in this digital realm. Fans attacked vtuber agency Hololive last month when women vtubers started collaborating with men on their channels. Those fans felt they’d paid for the “girlfriend experience” — meaning they’d gotten to feel like they were the target of the streamers’ affections — and that having men on the channels ruined it for them. Threads devoted to lewd illustrations and hentai art of women vtubers have gained traction on platforms like Reddit. Some vtubers have also entered the adult content market, curating fandoms on PornHub and Chaturbate (and yes, there is thirst content about Tony the Tiger’s vtube channel).
Aruuu first started as an on-camera streamer, building a following of 121,000 subscribers while enduring constant comments and pestering about her looks. Streaming behind an avatar gave her the freedom to continue sharing the content she loved.
“I love her,” she said. “I chose to give her those big tits. I chose to give her that little skirt. You can sexualize her all you want — she’s a character at the end of the day.”
Aruuu does share a few similarities to her vtube avatar — they both have big eyes and long, dark hair. The avatar has a crescent moon and star tattooed on her forehead, a reference to the creator’s personal Turkish heritage. But the overlap ends there: While the avatar has red eyes, wolf ears, and a very curvy figure, Aruuu’s physique IRL is wispy and thin. She was wearing glasses and a Winnie the Pooh Halloween sweater when we met up in San Diego.
Before vtubing, Aruu said, she would get constant criticism for her looks — either being told she was only famous “because you’re a pretty girl on the internet” or that she was desperate for wanting views. At times, her physical safety was compromised. “I’ve had to call the police to an event because it was a dangerous situation for me,” she said. “With men, I feel like everything is critiqued about me.” Vtubing offered another way.
But there can be a pretty high barrier to entry when it comes to starting vtubing, since specific technology is required. Aruuu is one of the many vtubers who grew their channels after commissioning Iron Vertex, an agency that assists streamers in designing avatars and rigging technology to animate them.
The upfront cost was about $10,000 to buy her entire set of overlays, avatar design, lore video (fantastical stories around the character’s origins that are published alongside their debut), and model. She saved up for two years, using her on-camera stream profits to pay for it all.
“It’s very, very expensive,” Aruuu said. “I saved up a lot, because I was like, you know what, if I’m going to be a vtuber, I’m going to do it the right way.” For her, that meant being respectful of the originality that goes into creating an avatar.
Many artists have expressed frustrations that fans have used AI learning machines to generate copycat images of their vtube designs. Aruuu worked with Iron Vertex for a year and a half to come up with her character. “The sketching process was kind of a headache because I was being very particular,” she said.
After the design, Aruuu worked with a technician to animate the character to her facial expressions. “She would be like, ‘Okay, start smiling as wide as you can for me.’ ‘Let’s raise your eyebrows a bit more’ — you know, so the model is specifically tuned for my face.”
Uguubear, another independent vtuber with 59,000 subscribers, also decided to start vtubing after feeling self-conscious on camera while livestreaming her gaming and art. “I make a lot of weird faces when I’m drawing,” she said. “I don't want to have to worry about that, because people will come in and just say things just based on what you look like.”
At first, she tried just turning off her camera, but it confused people who hopped onto her stream and were greeted with a black screen, so she commissioned an avatar from an artist. It also helped to mitigate any hate comments that would be directed her way.
“When people come and say that kind of stuff at your avatar, it's not directly at you,” she said. Streaming behind an avatar made the positive comments about her mannerisms more impactful, too. “The thing that really makes my heart feel so warm is that people enjoy my laugh, because that was something I was really self-conscious about.”
Another hurdle for indie vtubers is that more responsibilities fall on the creator rather than a company, including investing in the worldbuilding of their character. Uguubear said the idea of making a lore video has interested her — but instead of a fantasy, she’s hoping that she can use the opportunity to share her actual life story as a Korean American adoptee. “On TikTok, I’ve been watching a lot of adoptee content and it’s been unlocking things inside me,” she said. “I want to be able to connect with people like that.”
Unlike the creators signed under agencies, who have support staff to monitor the chat feeds, indie creators have to maintain their own community environments. Uguubear said she’s implemented banned words and relies on her followers to keep up the wholesome environment she’s trying to foster. Aruuu shares tips with other creators on filtering out NSFW content from her feeds, like using a tagging system on social media to compartmentalize lewd drawings.
“[Sexualization] is gonna exist in any form of anything,” Uguubear said. “That’s just how it is.”
It would be remiss to discuss sexualization in vtubing without acknowledging its deep ties to the fetishization of Asian women. At TwitchCon, some people I asked about the hypersexualization of vtubers using avatars of Asian women were unsure of their stance. “That’s a dangerous category to talk about,” Twitch user Jakkc728 said outside the official Twitch vtuber panel. “Everyone has a different opinion.”
But it was unavoidable. I was continually confronted with artistic representations of Asian women’s bodies being consumed by a predominantly white, predominantly male gaze. On the expo floor, a stand selling “Waifu Cups” had men huddled around the table. At the panel, speaker Uguubear talked to an audience that was predominantly white and Asian men. Even the creators themselves must confront their roles in it.
"People are going to be following me for my personality rather than how I look."
Kisaka Toriama, another vtuber who does not identify as Asian, said she invented her alias using phonetics that sounded Japanese after being inspired by Dragon Ball Z, an anime series originally created by Akira Toriyama.
“I think that it is a good conversation to have when it comes to respecting culture, taking another language and kind of adopting it to your own,” she said.
Back in the artist exhibition, illustrator Rinne Kanzaki told me that fetishization — particularly toward Asian women — is quite common. “It’s really bizarre and I do find it weird,” he said. “But sometimes you just need to look at art as art.”
Between the artists’ stands, surrounded by rows of knockers as big as my wingspan and waists as tiny as my pinky, I began to wonder if I was a prude. Others passed by, completely unfazed. “I see a lot of boobs,” Kamaniki said. Although the technology of vtubing means any type of avatar can be used, the culture of the platform means that the most popular are those that portray hypersexualized Asian women — and that image was prevalent at Twitchcon as well. The homogeneity — the singular, unrealistic body type displayed over and over again — makes it hard for me to see vtubing as a win for the “free the nipple” feminist movement. Your design could be Heidi Klum’s worm costume, but it doesn’t mean that’s what’s popular.
Yet in many ways, the format does provide a way for women to be portrayed exactly how they choose, a relief for vtubers desperate to not make their bodies the center of attention, or to control how they want their bodies perceived. Aruuu said her audience has become mostly women since she’s pivoted to vtubing.
“There’s a weight that has been taken off my shoulders when I do vtubing,” Aruuu said. “I’ve lost a little bit of viewers, but I know it’s going to be worth it in the end, because people are going to be following me for my personality rather than how I look.”