The authors of the study calculated the body mass index (BMI) for more than 3,000 Marvel Comics characters. They determined that the average male superhero is obese, while the average female one is close to being underweight.
Furthermore, the upper-body muscularity of Marvel’s male comic book superheroes are often so large and unbalanced “that movement in reality would be severely hindered,” the study reports. And the breasts of female superheroes are frequently larger than their heads — a feature that would also encumber movement.
Okay, okay. I can already hear some readers saying, “Who cares? They’re just comic book characters.”
But the exaggerated physical features of superheroes say a great deal about what we as a society find attractive. Whether we like it or not, they represent for many people the idealized body — a factor that can affect how individuals feel about their own bodies.
“Comic books and films are sometimes trivialized as ‘kids’ stuff,’ but increasingly they offer detailed and creative storylines and fine artistry,” says Laura Johnson, one of the study’s authors and a PhD student at Binghamton University, in a released statement. “They also offer themes that reflect deep human emotion and desire.”
“By studying comics from an evolutionary perspective, we gain insight as to the underlying origins for why the characters look the way they do, why we are attracted to them and why we connect with them on such a personal level,” she adds.
Only humanoid characters
For the study, Johnson and her co-author, Rebecca Burch, an associate professor of human development at the State University of New York at Oswego, gathered height and weight information for 3,752 Marvel Comics characters. They included only characters that have adult humanoid forms — no “dragons, evil cows, teleporting bulldogs, … half-animals, children, floating brains, robots, cosmic gases and other entities” (such as Marcus the Diabetic Gladiator Centaur Werewolf).
Johnson and Burch then used the height/weight data to calculate each character’s BMI. They also examined and assessed how the physical dimensions of the characters accentuated hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine features, such as shoulder-to-waist ratio, waist-to-hip ratio, upper body muscularity and breast size.
Finally, using the actors who have depicted those characters in films, the researchers explored how the superheroes’ features compare to those of real human bodies.
The study found that Marvel’s male characters had an average height of just over 6 feet and an average weight of 245 pounds. Their average BMI was 30.8, which meets the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s criteria for obese (a BMI of 30 or greater).
Marvel’s female characters had an average height of 5 feet 7 inches and an average weight of 133 pounds. Their average BMI was 20.2, at the low end of the “normal” range for BMI (18.5 to 24.9).
The male characters’ shoulders tended to be “impossibly large” — an average of 73.71 inches — while their waists averaged only 34 inches and their hips, 37 inches.
“Given these measurements, height exceeded shoulder by less than an inch,” the researchers point out. “Comic book men were almost as wide at the shoulders as they were tall.”
Hourglass figures and high heels
The female characters, on the other hand, tended to have exaggerated “hourglass” figures, with an average waist-to-hip ratio that was not only well below that of the average woman, but also significantly below the average for the five most popular porn stars in the world, according to Johnson and Burch.
The female characters were not overtly muscular, which may explain, say the researchers, why female superheroes often (but not always) tend to have mental or magical powers — ones that don’t require physical strength. Johnson and Burch argue that not making the women overtly muscular helps to preserve what comic book fans consider aesthetically pleasing about the characters.
Male superheroes, on the other hand, are often shown as being extremely muscular, no matter what power they possess. “Even Professor X is depicted as muscular, although his powers are telepathic/telekinetic in nature and he is paralyzed,” the researchers point out.
Johnson and Burch also found that most of Marvel’s comic book women are shown wearing high heels, “which shift balance to accentuate hip and buttock curvature.”
In fact, “even when the women were not wearing shoes, they were drawn as walking on the balls of their feet, creating the look of high heels without wearing them,” the researchers write.
Although the study found much variety in the size and shape of the male superheroes, it identified only six overweight female characters — and all but one of those characters (Big Bertha) were villains.
“It is also important to note that Bertha’s power is the ability to control her body fat, and that her secret identity is of a thin, beautiful supermodel named Ashley Crawford, who weights 120 pounds and possess a BMI of just 15.83,” Johnson and Burch add.
Not surprisingly, none of the film actors could meet even the minimum shoulder-to-waist (for the men) or waist-to-hip (for the women) ratios depicted in the comic books.
To help the male actors look like the superheroes they portray, film studios use elaborate costuming, including, according to one costume designer, adding “clay muscles” to the actors to “form a superhero kind of physique.”
“This is not to disparage the actors; they all have very high [shoulder-to-waist ratios] for actual humans,” Johnson and Burch write. According to the researchers’ calculations, the actors who have portrayed Marvel superheroes in recent years possess an average shoulder-to-waist ratio that is almost twice as high as that found among 50 “normal” college men in a previous study.
But none of the actors comes close to having the supernormal shapes of their fictional superheroes. The same is true for the female actors.
That may be a reassuring bit of information to keep in mind this weekend when you go to see “Avengers: Endgame.”
For more information: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the website for Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, but the full study is behind a paywall. The study is called “Captain Dorito and the Bombshell: Supernormal Stimuli in Comics and Film” — a reference to a popular meme that began circulating a few years ago that shows Chris Evans, the actor who portrays Captain America, as having the shoulder-to-waist ratio of a Dorito chip.