Chris Godsey, author of the article “Men & Body Image,” notes that body image is no longer an exclusive female problem. Believing that we can fix body image issues he asks, “Where do we start?” In answer to his question, I say we begin by looking at the toys and media images that surround our young sons—specifically superheroes and action figures.
The issue of male body image is not an entirely new one. Since the time of Charles Atlas in the 1930s and 1940s men have aspired to a more muscular physique. (See how Charles Atlas’ ads cajoled men into trying his fitness regimen by calling them “skinny” and “weaklings.”) The trend continues today but the age at which body dissatisfaction first occurs has dropped.
Recent research has shown that boys as young as 8 struggle with body image, 25% of boys between the ages of 10 and 14 are dieting to lose weight,[i] and 41% of boys aged 13 to 19 are dissatisfied with their bodies. A study conducted by the authors of The Adonis Complex indicated that when given a choice between body types, more than half of boys aged 11 to 17 chose a figure that possessed about 35 pounds more muscle than they possessed themselves—an ideal that for most males can only be attained by using steroids.[ii]
Where does male body dissatisfaction originate? Researchers point to “the lean but muscular male ideal increasingly portrayed in advertising and other media,” which could be “as harmful for men as thin ideals are for women.”[iii] Studies also note that many of the earliest messages boys receive about the ideal male body come from television, movies, and toys.[iv]
Superheroes, as the epitome of masculinity in children’s popular culture, shoulder at least some of the blame for boys’ body image problems. Whether flying through the sky, swinging on a web between skyscrapers, or tackling a criminal to the ground, their physical feats take precedence over any other attributes they may possess. Carrying out such heroic exploits requires a certain physique—one that was evident in the muscular superheroes of my childhood but has reached new extremes in today’s animated heroes.
A comparison of images from the 1970s series Super Friends and today’s Justice League shows how much these characters have grown. Today’s incarnations of Superman and Batman are significantly larger in the chest and shoulders than the older versions, with one author claiming that Batman’s shoulders have “morphed from one fourth of his height to almost half of his height.”[v] Even B-list Justice League hero Aquaman has changed from a fit and defined half-man/half-fish to a hulking Neptune-like character with gigantic biceps.
Action figures have also bulked up. Although not a superhero in the conventional sense, G.I. Joe is a popular male action figure whose 1964 version, when translated into human terms, had a 44-inch chest and 12-inch biceps. By the mid 1990s, Joe’s chest had expanded to 55 inches and his biceps to a highly unrealistic 27.2 inches.[vi] One version of the Wolverine action figure, when translated to a man of 5 feet 10 inches tall, would have biceps of 32 inches—just one inch less than his waist. Newer action figures based on wrestlers and martial arts fighters have similar proportions.
Physiques like these put action figures into or beyond bodybuilder range—not exactly the average man. By way of comparison, bodybuilder Steve Reeves—a man who was considered to have had the most perfectly proportioned (and drug-free) body ever—had a chest measurement of 52 inches, a waist of 29 inches, and biceps of 18.25 inches each.[vii]
According to The Adonis Complex, the danger of exposing young boys to such extremes is that children are not old enough to stop and question whether the level of muscularity in their favorite action heroes is realistic. This constant, distorted messaging about the ideal male body, present in boys’ lives from preschool age through their adult years, can have a considerable negative impact. Body image is closely tied to self-esteem in boys, especially among those who are short in stature or late developing. In fact, appearance is more important for most teenage boys than academic or athletic achievement, or even peer acceptance. Some studies have also shown that boys with a negative body image are more prone to depression.
Adding to the problem is that most parents are unaware of body image issues in their sons. They may be attuned to similar problems in their daughters but many assume that body dissatisfaction does not affect boys. Cultural imperatives dictating that boys should not talk about their concerns exacerbate the problem. As boys get older, they often internalize their worries about their bodies and, “in the absence of feedback from their families … listen to other voices,” including television and other pop culture outlets that perpetuate the over-muscled masculine ideal. [viii]
Is it time for our sons to bid adieu to Superman and other action heroes? I wouldn’t go that far. But it is time for parents and caregivers to increase their vigilance and mediate the negative messages pop culture sends young boys about manhood, masculinity, and body image.
[i] Hall, Joseph. “Young children feel the weight of body image.” The Toronto Star. August 27, 2009.
[ii] Pope, Harrison et al. The Adonis Complex. (New York: Touchstone, 2000), 28, 174.
[iii] Tiggeman, Marika. “Media Influences on Body Image Development” in Body Image: A Handbook of Theory, Research, and Clinical Practice. (New York: The Guilford Press, 2002), 96.
[iv] Corson, Patricia Westmoreland and Arnold E. Andersen. “Body Image Issues Among Boys and Men” in Body Image: A Handbook of Theory, Research, and Clinical Practice, 193.
[v] Etcoff, Nancy. Survival of the Prettiest. (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 179.
[vi] Pope, Harrison et al, 41-42.
[viii] Pope et al, 46, 179, 193-194
Crystal Smith is a social media and marketing writer who, after being regularly disappointed by the film and television offerings available to her two young sons, decided to write about the impact of kids’ popular culture on young boys in her upcoming book The Achilles Effect and on her blog at www.achilleseffect.com.