Even Superman Has His Limits

Today even as those of us in the U.S. celebrate Halloween, my revels have already ended, since I threw a Halloween costume party on Saturday evening. The process of preparing for Halloween was a bit more involved for me this year than usual, since I gained about 18 pounds of muscle to do it. However in the end said process allowed me to reflect a bit on how those of us in our 20’s and 30’s look at ourselves, and what the effect of some rather disturbing changes in marketing tales of heroes and adventure may be having on the young.

I suspect that, like many of my readers, Halloween is something one makes serious plans for in some years, and then other years one takes an easy-costume route or just ignores the holiday altogether. Last year I went as King Philip II of Spain, and had to cobble my costume together from various sources to try to get as accurate as possible. I even grew a beard for the occasion, which only took a few days to come in – good to know if I ever decide to become a hermit.

For this year I had gone back and forth about whether to be Batman or Superman, since I had not dressed up as a superhero for at least a decade or more, but ultimately settled on the latter because I would not have to wear some sort of rubber cowl-mask combination, a headcovering which could have proven increasingly irritating as the evening progressed. Having said that, it was so cold this weekend, with an unsual mixture of sleet and snow in Washington on Saturday, that it probably would have been a pleasant thing to be able to pull on one’s cowl when stepping outside for some air. Fortunately, making cremat helped with that issue.

These days, if you want to purchase a superhero outfit for Halloween, Mardi Gras, or just a costume party, you have the option of buying either a standard costume, in various grades of stitching and thicknesses of fabric, or a costume lined with some type of padding or even inflatable air pockets, so that the wearer can appear to be more muscular. This is the case not only on costumes for adults, but for children, as well – something which I found rather disturbing.

About a decade ago, I recall reading in GQ about a major study on the increasing incidence of body dysmorphic disorder in men. At the time, men were primping and preening like they had not done since the 1930’s, though the physical ideal had shifted from being something tall and svelte, like an Art Deco skyscraper, to looking something more like a heavily upholstered armchair. The Harvard study, whose abstract can be read here and includes some helpful graphics, looked specifically at how action figures of characters such as Batman, G.I. Joe, and Luke Skywalker had changed from the early 1970’s to the late 1990’s.

The results showed that action figure heroes had been dramatically altered over a period of about 20 years by toy designers. In the 1970’s, the figures represented an idealized physique that was still a realistically achievable one for boys who stayed fit by exercising and eating well as they grew up. By the 1990’s however, the same characters were made to look so grossly swollen and exaggerated that, in many cases, it would be either physically impossible for someone with such proportions to be able to move at all, or the degree of musculature represented was only achievable by professional bodybuilders, often through the use of chemicals such as steroids and human growth hormone.

This same shift being pushed by marketers continues today in what we see being shown in films, television, and other merchandise involving hero characters for boys. Take a look at Christopher Reeve as Superman back in the late 70’s. Reeve looks fit and healthy, with nothing exaggerated; he is tall and trim, rather than bulky. Meanwhile the latest actor to play Superman, the usually slim Henry Cavill from “The Tudors”, has bulked up so much to film this new role, that one feels sorry for what it must feel like to have to have to maintain what, for him, is completely unnatural.

Not being a professional actor paid to work out with a trainer for hours a day, there was no way I was going to be able to pack on a huge amount of weight over several weeks, just in order to be Superman for Halloween. I made an effort to work out and eat properly, rather than resort to some sort of padded or inflatable costume, which to me seemed like cheating, as well as buying into the attitude that in order to be a superhero, one must be strangely proportioned. The end result was not a tremendous change, but I gained back some of the muscle I had lost over the years, due to multiple accidents/illnesses and bad eating. Though admittedly, the first thing I did the day after the Halloween party was to eat a big plate of cold cuts and cheese, something I love and had denied myself for weeks as I concentrated on healthy but somewhat boring foods like grilled chicken breasts and whey protein.

Yet it is hard not to think about how this evening, there will be boys going around trick-or-treating dressed as Superman, Batman, Captain America, and so on, who are wearing padding or blow-up suits in order to look as though they are juiced up on steroids – for no normal 9-year-old boy has prominent abdominal muscles and biceps the size of grapefruit. One wonders what they think about the way they look as they enter their teen years, when so many of us form a permanent impression in our heads of how we think we appear to the outside world. One also wonders whether their parents are doing them a significant disservice by dressing them up in these types of unrealistic, pumped-up costumes to look like miniature Olympic weightlifters, if their child was designed by God to be of slim or average build.

The point of Halloween of course, naysayers to the holiday aside, is to have fun and play dress up, something that never completely goes away for most of us as we get older. Nor is this tradition some sort of American historical anomaly.  Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog, loved attending the kind of elaborate masques and costume balls which were common among the European upper classes throughout the year, with guests dressing up as heroes and villains, figures from history and legends, and so on.

However, that sense of fun has to be tempered with a realization that it is one thing to play dress up once in awhile. It is quite another to foist upon one’s children the idea that dress up is, or ought to be, an everyday reality.  While we often focus on the effect that the popular media, toy marketers, and so on have on our daughters, let us also spare a thought for our sons, and teach them that stories about superheroes, Jedi knights, and Greek warriors are about teaching values to young minds so that they can live rightly, not commercial manipulations to make them feel dissatisfied with who they are.

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9 thoughts on “Even Superman Has His Limits

  1. Well said. No muscle padding here. My son is carrying a flashlight, nightstick, and a gun dressed up as Papa Goodspeed, a retired OKC Police Officer. At least his hero is real. 🙂

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  2. Pingback: Where beauty and truth are neither | One Fine Jay

  3. When I was growing up, Halloween was strictly a kid’s holiday, then around the mid-80’s it practically died. If any adults dressed, it was to enhance their kids’ basement party. Then in the early 1990’s it came back with a vengeance as an adult holiday. I think what happened was that there is no Mardi Gras tradition in the United States, and people co-opted the dead Halloween holiday as an opportunity. So now you have a mixture of the scary and creepy from the All Saints All Souls commemoration, mixed with the wild debauchery and make-believe from Mardi Gras at the wrong time of the year, to make for a silly and awkward combination of Death standing at the bar next to the Cowboy, the Sexy Nurse, and the scary Witch. The newly fused, bi-polar, schizophrene holiday.

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  4. Great thoughts Billy. I’m happy to say that my boys tend to not be so concerned about all that (yet anyway). The genes we have passed down to them don’t bode well for them should they want to be buff. The Smiths/Snellgroves – McDowell/Barrons have historically been farmers and doctors…not athletes or construction workers.

    Ben went as a Ninja…Sam as his own version of Green Lantern and Jude picked Buzz Lightyear. I went as a nurse…to work.

    We’ll have another podcast eventually…busy, busy ’round here.

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    • Hey Katherine thanks for taking the time to read and share your comments. As the mom of three great little guys I know that you and Mac do a great job trying to pass your values on to the kids, and would that more of our contemporaries would realize how important it is not to send mixed messages to their children. Looking forward to the next episode of Catholic In A Small Town!

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  5. Well said. Surely cultural influences and exposure to media portraying unrealistically thin, buff, or beautiful people negatively influence one’s self image. I once read that women who read fashion and beauty magazines feel worse about their own bodies because they compare themselves to the air brushed models. It is interesting that you mentioned body dysmorphic disorder in men. BDD is under reported by patients and often missed by doctors and therapists as it is. I suspect it is much more common than we know. But for men, it must be even more difficult to discuss one’s body concerns.

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