The Superman Diet: Boys, Body Image, and Balderdash

If you’re active on social media, chances are you’re among the millions who have seen the recent viral video, “Superman with a GoPro Camera”, created by the clever fellows over at Corridor Digital. The Man of Steel in the clip is played by Los Angeles-based actor and comedian William Sterling. Not only do we share a – superb – first name, left-handedness, and a penchant for saving the world while wearing a big red cape, but we both like to write. So I recently interviewed Mr. Sterling about a somewhat touchy subject which we have both written about: the growing number of boys suffering from negative body image.

Regular readers will remember my unpleasant experience of putting on weight to bulk up and better fill out my own Kryptonian suit for Halloween. In his piece, Sterling details how he prepared for a fitness shoot through an even more unpleasant-sounding process, and why the end result was actually somewhat fake, even if he looked good for his turn as Supes. Our respective experiences convinced us both that more needs to be done to counter the contradictory messages being fed to us through advertising and media, particularly when it comes to the impact this balderdash is having on young boys growing up today.

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Newton: So tell me how you came up with the idea for your blog post.

Sterling: I got into the whole fitness thing about three and a half years ago. Growing up I’d always been a HUGE comic book and superhero fan and, much like your article focused on, dreamt of the superhuman physique. So I made a New Year’s resolution to get in the shape I’d always dreamed of, but along with that came the struggle of maintaining it all, and the inevitable body image issues. I’d wake up every day and think I wasn’t fit enough. When I realized how dangerous that was, I decided to blow the lid off of something which most people assume is real, or even possible for the average human body.

 

Newton: I was struck by the picture of Ben Affleck that leaked on Tuesday from the upcoming “Superman vs. Batman” movie. He’s much bulkier than, say, Michael Keaton was – just like Henry Cavill is far heavier than Christopher Reeve was. Did you notice a shift at all in the toys, comics, etc. that you had when you were growing up?

Sterling: Things really changed in the ‘80s when Arnold and Stallone started tearing up the action movie scene with their huge bodies. Before then, they would design a live action suit to mimic that impossible physique, but later the popular thing became so-and-so’s crazy workout plan. It’s scary, because since I never really perceived a shift growing up, it means it’s been like that my entire life – which is what’s causing this spike in eating disorders and body image issues in young boys.

 

Newton: Describe the toll that this project took on you, as you went about doing it. Clearly it must have cost you a fortune, for one thing.

Sterling: Ha, ha – yes! Lots of money in supplements. Physically, all those supplements have your body functioning at a level it’s not really supposed to, all day long. On top of that, I was working out sometimes 2-3 hours a day. I had to sacrifice time with my wife and my friends, follow dietary restrictions that made eating a chore and very boring, and I was sore and tired all the time. It was not a fun 8 weeks.

Newton: A friend commented to me when “Man of Steel” came out that I was going to have to seriously bulk up if I was ever going to be Superman for Halloween again. I pointed out that if someone wanted to pay me to do nothing but eat 5,000 calories a day and work out all the time, I’d be happy to do so, but that’s not what my job is.

Sterling: Exactly. A lot of people think that it’s easier than it seems to achieve, or that someone was just born that way. I worked my ass off to get in shape, and have to do the same to maintain it. People need to understand that greatness, be it physical or otherwise, is earned with hard work and dedication to your principles.

 

Newton: Does your body image from your teens still have an impact on how you believe other people see you?

Sterling: As an actor, you have to embrace and accept your type, but a lot of how critical I am of my body comes from my teen years. Some days I wake up thinking, “Looking where you should be today.” The next day I could look identical, but worry, “People will think my body looks weird.”

I have to constantly remind myself that, no, you’re fine. Relax. Because otherwise, that’s a toxic road to travel down. I fight against giving in to what society or pop culture deems attractive or “right”. It’s so dangerous, that it can lead to too many other issues.

 

Newton: Is there something that we should be doing for our little brothers and cousins, our sons and nephews, to try to share the truth with them before their minds get too warped?

Sterling: Definitely. Even in comic books and fiction, kids are being sold contradictory messages. How does Batman stay in that shape, when he also has to run a billion dollar company? How does Lois Lane stay so skinny, when she’s in the field all day, away from the comforts of organic kale salads?

Magazines, movies, and TV are saying you’re too fat, but that you should drink Coca-Cola and eat Doritos, because that’s what these characters eat. Logic should tell you that someone didn’t get fit by drinking beer and eating burgers. And yet there they are, doing it.

What we should be doing for children is teaching them that good habits lead to fewer problems in the future. And we have to be an example for them about that. I make sure to tell both kids and my peers that I look like this because I worked hard.

We also can’t coddle the next generation by giving everyone a trophy for simply participating. Sometimes you lose, and sometimes you win: it’s perfectly okay to do both. But you have to practice both your skills and your principles. When we tell kids that there is no downside to anything, it leads to them not understanding that there are consequences for things like bad eating habits or not exercising, for example. They think they can have their cake and eat it too, because Batman does.

 

Newton: What do you think are the lasting fruits for you, from this experience you’ve written about?

Sterling: I wanted to make a point to the rest of the world, but also to myself, that the physical condition which movies, magazines, and TV want us to believe we can achieve is unnatural for those living a regular, everyday life. When I wake up in the morning, I can say, “Before you go judging yourself, think about what’s real and what’s unreal, here.” And I want other people thinking about the same thing.

A lot of kids and adults are suffering from eating disorders and body image issues. I’m happy to know that, even if only for a handful of people, I told them it was okay to be who they are. They need to take care of themselves, but also to feel comfortable drinking a beer and eating birthday cake and ice cream.

You only live once, so don’t waste it trying to achieve perfection, but at the same time don’t abuse that life and cause it to be cut short, either. Do everything in moderation, including exercise! Life is about both sacrifices AND victories – it’s never entirely about just one or the other.

William Sterling, in a still from the "Superman with a GoPro" video

Actor William Sterling, in a still from the “Superman with a GoPro” video

 

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9 thoughts on “The Superman Diet: Boys, Body Image, and Balderdash

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