Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings with a single bound, Superman swept into our world in 1938 and forever changed the face (and torso) of the ideal man. Not only was Superman a champion among us, a man who would stop at nothing to right injustices, but he was also an impeccable physical specimen.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman as an avenue to express their own insecurities as Jewish teenagers living on the eve of World War II. The duality of Superman/Clark Kent was key to the longevity of Superman. We all feel like the bumbling Clark Kent sometimes, at least I know I do. It’s inspiring to think that all of us are capable of more than we’re given credit for.
Superman’s popularity opened the door to new heroes on the comic page with their perfect, impossible, powerful bodies. And now thanks to Hollywood, we’re living in the age of superheroes brought to life. We can see the template of the perfectly drawn hero placed on real actors, pushing the fantasy toward reality.
All of this makes me wonder. To what extent do superheroes affect our self-image? Do those powerful bodies make us feel better about ourselves, or worse? As a gay male reader, does it affect me differently than straight male readers?
Discussion of body image isn’t revolutionary, but most of the conversation has been on women. We know now that body image isn’t just a women’s issue and it’s a real problem for men. Traditional views of masculinity have kept men mostly silent on the issue until recently. One study found that “80.7% [of men] talked about their own or others' appearance in ways that draw attention to weight, lack of hair or slim frame” and “some three in five men (58.6%) said body talk affected them, usually negatively.”1
Body image begins to be influenced at a young age. Research conducted on boys ages 12 to 18 found that 18% were concerned about their bodies and at an increased risk of depression, binge drinking, and drug use.2 As opposed to women, attaining a better body as a man is not always about losing weight; it’s also often about gaining weight or muscle. Dr. Raymond Lemberg connected action figures as the male equivalent to Barbie Dolls, child iconography encouraging a body type most of us can never achieve.
While body image issues affect us all in one way or the other, research has shown that the ways and severity in which it affects us does often vary, depending on both gender and sexual identity. For instance, it has been shown that gay men objectify themselves and their partners more than lesbian women.3 As a gay man, I’ve decided to start the exploration from my own lens of reference.
Body negativity among gay men crops up in different ways and for various reasons, including a drive to be found attractive by potential partners and as a response to stereotypes about the perceived physical strength and masculinity of homosexual men.4
It doesn’t take much time on a phone app like Grindr to see how many men are focused on torsos, ethnicity, and masculinity. It can be incredibly disappointing and depressing to see how you don’t measure up to the “no fats, no femmes” standard of beauty and masculinity set by some phantom force in the ether of our society.
But why do we (across the spectrum, not just gay men) let external factors influence our inner selves? It’s a complicated and probably unknowable answer, but we have a lot of theories in social science. Most of it comes from exactly how we socially define ourselves in the first place. As the poet John Donne once wrote, “No man is an island.”
One theory is what Charles Horton Cooley called the “Looking Glass Self”. Cooley said that our self-definition is like a series of mirrors, and we define ourselves based on the definitions we assume others assign to us based on cultural standards and ideas. In different environments, we act and present ourselves to give different impressions, based on what we think those other individuals would want us to be. Over time, that shapes who we internalize ourselves to be. The movie Mean Girls is a working example of the Looking Glass Self and how it plays upon our self-esteems, up until Tina Fey steps in to magnanimously, if not highly unrealistically, temporarily shatter that mirror.
We find messages of who we should be and what we should look like from many different sources, toys, movies and magazines included. So why not comic books - a staple of youth that almost defines masculinity and power for young men and the adults they become? How can we not think of Superman and Batman and Captain America as powerful symbols of heroism and aspiration? How can we deny their influence on our self-perception and egoistic development?
Comic books have always presented an unrealistic view of their characters. The female characters always have giant chests and tiny waists, as if the artists all learned life drawing from Dolly Parton. If you look at comics across history, they weren’t always the busty babes or the giant, muscular blocks that they are now. Bodies have always been powerful, but how that power is represented has subtly shifted over time. This change is most apparent when looking at the women in comics, but it’s happened with men as well...albeit in a different way. The current male body type seems to be a product of the 80s action star archetype. But Andrew Wheeler from Comics Alliance said it best:
“People complain about how women are represented in comics, and the response that comes back from fans is ‘Look at the guys. The guys are idealized too’...That’s true, but the guys aren’t idealized in a sexual way. The physique of those characters is a male ideal, not a female ideal. Men want to be Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1980s, most women didn’t want to sleep with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1980s.”
The subject of superheroes and body image is largely unexplored, but a University of Buffalo project aimed to dig in a little. The researchers found that if a man had a strong bond with a superhero, they would actually feel better about themselves and perform better on a hand grip strength test when they looked at a muscular picture of that superhero. If they didn’t identify strongly with a hero, they felt worse about their bodies when seeing muscular heroes, no matter what their own bodies looked like.5 The potential implication from this study would be that if I were a big fan of Superman, I’d possibly feel really good about myself when I read his comics, but if I didn’t really care about Superman, reading his stories might affect me negatively.
I don’t remember exactly when I started reading comic books, but I know I was pretty young. I had an aunt who used to gift me stacks of comics on holidays and special occasions. Since the ones I got were usually months apart, I never really knew what was going on in the stories, but that didn’t matter to me because I didn’t really read them too carefully, anyway.
I don’t know if I was ever conscious of the fact that I would never be like the heroes I adored, that I wouldn’t look like them, or act like them, or be respected like them, but it’s easy to see in retrospect that I never thought I would. I’ve always felt bad about my body. I was always pudgy, always the geek, always feeling a bit different than my peers. I still am. I still fight daily to eat healthy, to exercise, and to dress attractively. Much of it’s about health, but much of it’s also about self-consciousness and insecurity. As I’ve worked on improving my body, I’ve been working on trying to be more confident about the body I have, to be more comfortable with my personal temple. It’s hard. I’ll probably be working on it for the rest of my life.
Unlike most boys I knew, I always found myself wishing I could be like the female heroes, not the men. The men seemed boring to me. But Storm? Or Batgirl? Or She-Hulk? These were powerful, sassy women that didn’t rely on brute force. They used their brains and communication skills first, fists second. As a kid who didn’t play sports but did play in the band, that idea was pretty appealing to me. And the women were always so much more glamorous. They had the best costumes and got to date the men that I found to be irresistible, if unrealistic.
I can’t help but wonder if my lack of interest and excitement over the male heroes did in fact skew my perceptions of my own body. Maybe, maybe not. A definitive answer would just be confirmation bias and oversimplifying things more than this article already is. But, there is a hypothesis to be found there: that as a gay man who prefers female heroes, those male heroes could hurt my self-image in the way they’re typically presented.
When I was young, there weren’t really heroes like me to be found. As a lifelong reader, I come up at a loss trying to identify any overweight heroes that aren’t played off as a joke. Likewise, there are few “scrawny” characters...Jimmy Olsen comes to mind (a character who goes through an uncountable number of body modifications and physical transformations in his history). But Jimmy is an exception, and even he has become more physically desirable over the years.
This is an industry built on characters who are on the fringes of society, so it’s weird to me that even the X-Men, those mutants who are feared and hated as freaks, still typically look so handsome! Granted, the X-Men are the “camera ready” mutants. The other ones just live in New York’s sewer system or hide away in the school. We should be spending more time with them.
GLBTQ representation is faring a little better today, but when I started reading comics, all I had was the X-Men’s Northstar, but even he was mostly a stereotype. Could more representation have helped my self-image?
I decided to conduct an informal poll with some gay geeks I know to see if I could get some additional perspective on this topic, and some of my suspicions were confirmed, if only anecdotally:
“In general, male heroes never resonated. It was mostly apathy unless they were particularly weird or unique. I was always fascinated by the female characters. I have never given half a shit about Wolverine, Cyclops or Superman. It’s probably because the male superheroes tended to represent a kind of masculinity and power I never identified with, really. Still don't. The females were are close as I could get to queer and to me. Plus their costumes were better.”
I heard a lot from others with the same resonance for female characters as I have. They agreed that the women were the real badasses:
“I'm not quite sure why, but Jubilee was always my favorite in the 90s X-Men cartoon. Maybe because she was younger and more relatable and I just really wanted pink goggles and a yellow trench coat. In the comics, I think I had a crush on Nightcrawler before I was aware of it. Jubilee was who I wanted to be and Nightcrawler was who I wanted to bone.”
Some were less focused on the idea of gender, and more on ability or specific characteristics.
“I’m not sure that I thought about it consciously. It was less to do with gender presentation and more to do with ability, intelligence and powers.”
Strikingly, almost all that I polled felt they had a negative body image and all of them wished that their physical appearance was like those of superheroes.
Ultimately, I think the answer to empowering all comic fans is more representation in comics. I believe there’s some responsibility on the part of content creators to reflect and represent our world more aggressively. There’s a push within the industry to provide more representation of different body types and gender identities, but it’s an uphill battle. The Fantastic Four’s Benjamin Grimm (AKA ‘The Thing’) might constantly struggle with how ugly he feels, but I think there’s a happy medium between supermodel and rock monster. There was a time when being physically fit was being barrel chested, not having washboard abs.
Maybe we can start with modeling characters on their athletic counterparts. Instead of having everyone drawn the same, maybe consider how a runner or swimmer like The Flash or Aquaman might be built a bit differently than Superman. Maybe some of the women should be drawn more like gymnasts or shot putters instead of Victoria's Secret models. There’s a big difference between power muscle and vanity muscle. It could be a subtle change, with a big impact. Some are doing it, but mostly from smaller or independent publishers. A few creators have attempted to break the mold in the mainstream, but I don’t feel it’s gone far enough. It needs top-level editorial support.
Looking at the end results on the comic page, it’s easy to forget that Wonder Woman trained for years in a warrior community and Superman has alien genetics working in his favor; and even Superman lifts in his spare time. Incredibly, Henry Cavill actually looks like the alien savior come to Earth and Chris Evans looks like he actually took the Super Soldier Serum to become Captain America!
Nevermind the grueling and torturous months of full-time diet, exercise, dehydration, and sometimes injections of hormones and steroids needed to achieve those bodies that still usually need to be Photoshopped in post-production.6
Is that the healthy image we want to be part of?
We need more characters with different bodies, tall and short, thin and overweight, with curves and bellies, and realistic features to provide something for everyone. We want to see ourselves in our heroes, and it seems like a small measure to ask to see heroes that look like ourselves, heroes that fans of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and gender identities can latch onto as a role model.
It’s a little too late for me, but there’s always a new generation of kids being bullied, or being brought down by words, or feeling bad about themselves.
If fans keep pushing and supporting representative content, maybe when those kids escape to the fantasy of comic books, we can make things a bit brighter and hopeful for them. Maybe we can help them grow up to be strong, confident, and powerful superheroes in their own right.
Steven Miller had ice cream with Ben Affleck once. Well, not with him, exactly. Steven stood in line at an ice cream shop in front of Ben Affleck. But that’s basically the same thing, right? I mean, how do you even define having something when you consider that our existence is a socially constructed illusion? Anyway, Ben is really tall and Steven lives in Savannah, GA.
1 Campbell, D. (2012, January 5). Body Image Concerns More Men Than Women, Research Finds. The Guardian. Retrieved June 13, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/jan/06/body-image-concerns-men-more-than-women
2 Cruz, J. S. (2014, March 10). Body-Image Pressure Increasingly Affects Boys. Retrieved June 13, 2016, from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/body-image-pressure-increasingly-affects-boys/283897/
3 Smedberg, Diane (2014, May 7). The Power of the Gaze: Self- and Partner-Objectification Within Same-Sex Relationships. Retrieved June 13, 2016, from http://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1063&context=honors_proj
4 Ambrosino, Brandon (2016, August 16). The Tyranny of Buffness. Retrieved June 13, 2016, from http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/08/the-tyranny-of-buffness/278698/
5 Young, A. F., Gabriel, S., & Hollar, J. L. (2013, January). Batman to the rescue! The protective effects of parasocial relationships with muscular superheroes on men's body image. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(1), 173-177. doi:10.1016
6 Hill, L. (2014, April 4). Building a Bigger Action Hero. Retrieved June 13, 2016, from http://www.mensjournal.com/magazine/building-a-bigger-action-hero-20140418