On Superman, Body Image, and Underwear

Today the new trailer for Zach Synder’s upcoming Superman movie was released.

The movie looks pretty awesome, and will hopefully answer the question of how Superman can have a beard?

May 28th 2013 Update: Gillette has unveiled a brilliant marketing campaign at HowDoesHeShave.com, which reaches out to some unique experts (Bill Nye, Kevin Smith, Mayim Bialik, The Mythbusters) who offer up different theories explaining how Superman manages to cut his beard. While I think Kevin Smith is onto something, I have to go with Bill Nye’s theory, because he is Bill Nye.

Between this upcoming movie, Clark Kent’s very public quitting of his journalist job at the Daily Planet, and Superman’s recent trip to the Hayden Planetarium to visit with the awesome Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was helping Superman find his home planet, there is a renewed public interest in Superman.

Neil deGrasse Tyson helps Superman find his home, is there anything that man can't do?

Neil deGrasse Tyson helps Superman find his home planet of Krypton, and it is based in our own Universe! Is there anything that man can’t do?

Superman is a truly iconic figure, who has been in the national conscious for nearly 80 years, and is A Part of Our Heritage. During this time Superman has been idolized by boys and men alike, and a recent study sought to understand the effects of superheroes on male body image. The authors note that despite the pervasiveness of superheroes in our lives, little is known about their physiological effects, especially with respect to male body image. This is particularly concerning as superheroes’ bodies have become extremely muscular, sometimes with nearly impossible body dimensions, and that there is lots of research that indicates that exposure to muscular figures can make men feel bad, because by comparison their own bodies seem small.

This article takes a unique approach by examining if this effect holds true when the men have parasocial relationships (PSRs) with the superhero. PSRs are one sided pseudo-relationships developed over time with people or characters that might be seen on TV, movies, or comic books. Scientific American notes that just as a friendship evolves through spending time together and sharing personal thoughts and opinions, PSRs evolve by watching characters on our favorite TV shows, and becoming involved with their personal lives, idiosyncrasies, and experiences as if they were those of a friend. Research has found that when people develop a PSR, instead of comparing themselves and feeling bad when they do not measure up, they tend to assimilate the characteristics of character which they have developed the PSR, and in turn feel better when that character has traits to which they aspire.

The article, which has the awesome title “Batman to the rescue! The protective effects of parasocial relationships with muscular superheroes on men’s body image“, sought to investigate first whether exposure to muscular non-PSR superheroes would have a negative impact on male body image, and second, whether having a PSR with a superhero would moderate any negative body image feelings associated with exposure to muscularity. To begin to examine this effect the researchers recruited a group of 98 male undergraduates, and presented them with a manipulated image (either muscular or non muscular, see below) of Batman or Spider-Man.

Participants were presented either a muscular or non-muscular version of The Dark Knight and Spidey

Participants were presented either a muscular or non-muscular version of The Dark Knight and Spidey

Participants’ PSR with each of the superheros was assessed through a survey of how much they knew and liked each hero, and were they were divided into groups based on whether they had a PSR and with which hero. The participants also self-identified their muscularity using the Male Muscularity Scale, and their physical strength was determined using a hand-held dynamometer. Participants were shown one of the above images for 1 minute, after which they completed a body esteem assessment. The first interesting result was that there were no differences between Batman vs. Spider-Man groups, so the results were collapsed across the two versions of the study. The rest of the results tended to support the author’s hypotheses. Participants exposed to a muscular PSR superhero experienced higher body esteem than those exposed to a muscular non-PSR superhero. When a PSR did not exist, participants exposed to a muscular superhero experienced lower body esteem than those exposed to a non-muscular superhero. The results get more interesting when physical strength is factored into the study. Participants exposed to a muscular PSR superhero were stronger than those exposed to a muscular non-PSR superhero. When a PSR was present, those participants exposed to a muscular superhero demonstrated greater strength than those exposed to a non-muscular superhero.

To summarize, as the authors predicted, exposure to a muscular non-PSR superhero made men feel bad about their bodies. However, having a PSR with a muscular superhero not only eliminated the negative effects of exposure on body satisfaction, but also increased men’s physical strength. This research suggests that muscular superheroes change men’s body image and that the direction of that change is determined by PSR status.

How many of these Superheroes can you identify just by their underwear? Click here for the answers.

How many of these Superheroes can you identify just by their underwear? Click here for the answers.

The authors chose Batman and Spider-Man for their study, and given the wide reach of those two characters it was a logical choice. However I wonder if there would have been a different result if the authors choose to use Superman in their study. Particularly interesting would be if there was any difference on body esteem based on exposure to either the traditional Superman and the New 52 version of Superman. The most striking difference between these two versions is their underpants, or rather lack thereof. The traditional Superman was drawn with bright red underpants worn over top of his blue tights. This was partially due to the constraints of printing technology, and the conservative sensibilities of the 1940’s. The New 52 Superman and the Superman portrayed in the trailer above, both have no underpants on the outside, the implications of which are drawn out in the article The War on Superman’s Underpants, where the authors are troubled by the re-directed gaze and focus on a particular area of the underwear-less Superman. Despite the ridiculousness of it all, I think that Superman should have his underpants on the outside. Sure it may seem foolish, but underpants on the outside is a defining characteristic of so many superheroes, and makes a really easy costume for kids and adults alike. If we can suspend our disbelief and get behind the idea of an infant alien cast from his dying home, raised on Earth with super powers, surely we can embrace underpants on the outside.


One thought on “On Superman, Body Image, and Underwear

  1. Pingback: Round-Up Ready: A Year in Blogging Edition | On a Quasi-Related Note

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