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

 

Hope and Shoelaces

Have you ever stopped to think about how you learned to tie your shoes?  It’s a skill which is pretty close to a necessity, at least in Western culture.  For me, the experience was rather difficult, yet now I can look back and say that I learned about fear and hope, and how they motivate us.  Perceiving the difference between these two motivators is a much more valuable lesson than simply learning how to work with shoelaces.

When I started kindergarten, I was playing with action figures and watching Saturday morning cartoons, just as most 5-year-old American boys do.  Unlike my classmates however, I was already at a comprehension level somewhat more advanced than theirs.  I read adult-level books on subjects such as astronomy, Egyptology, and paleontology, for example, and enjoyed listening to Haydn and Beethoven symphonies.  In short, I was (and still am) a nerd. 

Yet whatever intellectual capabilities I may have had, there was one thing which I absolutely could not get down: tying my shoes. In fact, I was the very last person in my kindergarten class to learn how to tie my shoes properly.  Despite my interest in subjects like physics, I would sit there for hours trying to figure out how in the world to coordinate my fingers to pull the two ends of the shoelace into a bow.

As the school year wore on, I became more and more embarrassed by the fact that I seemed to be the only one who could not tie his shoes. Frequently, I had to go to my teacher for help, if my shoes became untied on the playground.  She would show me how to do it, but try as I might I simply could not replicate her movements.  And kids being kids, my classmates started to take note of my inability to learn this skill, and began mocking me for it.

At home, my parents did their best to try to help me learn how to tie my shoes, although with my being left-handed and naturally clumsy, no doubt I tried their patience no end. Despite hours of practice, I seemed to make no progress at all. I became deeply upset, and asked God why He couldn’t just show me how to tie my shoes.  Yet I was doing so not because I thought it was important that I learn, but rather so that the kids at school would stop making fun of me.  In other words, I was motivated by fear, rather than hope.

Then one day in late spring, as I was approaching my 6th birthday, I remember being in the coat closet – or “cloak room” as they were called in Catholic schools – and noticing that my left shoe was untied.  By this point, I had become so used to being mocked that I just accepted it and told no one about the regular taunts I received.  I still wanted to learn how to tie my shoes, but whereas before I wanted to do so in order to avoid humiliation, now I wanted to learn how to do it because I was really looking forward to moving up to first grade, and being in school all day long.  I knew there was a risk that I might not be able to go, unless I could tie my shoes.

So instead of asking for help one more time, I bent down to try to tie my shoe.  And for no apparent reason, everything finally fell into place.  Eureka!

I was so overjoyed that I ran out to tell my teacher the good news.  I can still remember the look of relief on her face when she found out I could do it.  No doubt she had not been looking forward to writing an end-of-year report on whether I was ready for 1st grade, explaining why I still could not tie my shoes.

Last evening I thought of this experience following a conversation with someone whose opinion I value highly.  Over the past few months I’ve been thinking about what I ought to be doing with my life, since I just keep ploughing away, doing what I do, but at the same time sensing that I ought to be moving in another direction.  To date, I have seen no lifelong instruction manual saying,  “Here’s what you should do next.”  The response to my observation was, maybe He already has shown you what to do, but you just haven’t realized it yet.

And that comment brings me back to where this blog post began.  Because when it came to learning how to tie my shoes, I did not have a supernatural messenger appear beside me and guide my fingers, no matter how much I wanted someone else to just make things happen for me.  People showed me what to do, but my primary goal for a long time was not to improve myself, but rather to escape from something negative.  Fear, rather than hope, was my motivator.

Eventually, I stopped worrying and starting hoping.  I wanted to succeed and move up to 1st grade, so I could enjoy all of the knowledge I would be able to pick up there.  I wasn’t going to get there if I kept worrying.  Instead, I chose to keep trying, until eventually I was finally able to achieve what I needed to.

Sure, I would have liked the instant gratification and deliverance from self-doubt that a sudden answer to my prayers would have given me.  Instead, I had to learn – not for the first time – the virtue of holding on, and persisting in the face of the unknown, whatever the difficulties.  In other words, by having to wait so long, I had to learn how to hope.

And hope does not disappoint.

Into the Lions’ Den

If you have been following the news lately then you are aware of a manufactured news story which made national headlines, about the effort by a group of gay marriage activists to remove a Catholic priest from the Newman Center ministry at George Washington University here in the Nation’s Capital for doing his job, i.e. teaching the Catholic faith, hard as it is for many to accept. What you will not be aware of is that the priest in question, Father Greg Shaffer, is a friend of mine, and someone whom I respect greatly. He has not asked me to write what I am about to share with you, and I will refrain from speaking about him personally other than in general terms. However there comes a time when attacking the Church moves from debates and hypotheticals into attacks on people whom we care about, and in fact on what forms the very essence of who we are as Christians. Therefore I hope Father Greg will forgive me for adding my two rather measly cents to circumstances in which he certainly needs no help from me, but in which I am proud to offer whatever support I can.

Sunday evening I had the privilege of attending a mass concelebrated by Father Greg with Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, and a number of other priests. Those of you who are regular readers of these pages know that Newman Center masses are not really my style, as guitars and what is referred to as “praise and worship music” make me wince. Nevertheless, this is a question of taste, for it has been a long time since I was an undergraduate, and more importantly there is no question whatsoever regarding Father Greg’s orthodoxy – he is probably the priest most passionately devoted to the Blessed Sacrament that I have ever met. Plus, when your Cardinal-Archbishop comes to visit, you can hardly want to stay away. Never let it be said that I have turned down an opportunity to kiss the episcopal ring.

The mass itself was beautiful, and the congregation full. We were very fortunate to have Cardinal Wuerl come straight from the airport off a flight from Rome in order to be able to celebrate with us and publicly demonstrate his support, and despite some obvious fatigue and jetlag His Eminence soldiered on. It was wonderful to see the outpouring of enthusiasm both for him, and for Father Greg among those assembled for mass.

Yet the most striking thing about the mass itself was unquestionably the Cardinal’s homily. Fortunately for those of you who were not able to attend this mass, the Cardinal has posted the text of this sermon on his blog, which you can read here. It is not only a powerful statement of support for Father Greg personally, the challenges of Christ’s teachings, and the dangers of limiting religious liberty, but more importantly I believe it is something that Catholics anywhere in this country, and indeed worldwide, can read to remind themselves that they are not alone. Indeed, toward the end of his homily, His Eminence quite literally brought me to tears when he said, “Dear brothers and sisters, never be ashamed of Christ, his Gospel, his Truth – or your identity as Jesus’ disciples. Always be proud of who you are.”

Cardinal Wuerl clearly knows what is happening in our society and is responding to it, in his own particular way and gentle charism, just as his brother bishops such as Cardinals Dolan and George, and Archbisshops Chaput and Lori, among others, are doing in their own dioceses. In doing so they are following in the footsteps of their predecessors in leading Christ’s flock, from St. Peter and the Apostles onward, even when it would be so much easier and more comfortable to say nothing. We all know from history that, apart from St. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, going along to get along is what happened to the English bishops, when Henry VIII decided that his own sexual incontinence was more important than his immortal soul, and indeed more important than the immortal souls of the English people.

How blessed we are, by contrast, that in the current age of impending persecution – for make no mistake, that day has arrived – that we Catholics have bishops, priests, and religious who are not afraid to witness to the truth of our Faith, through the teachings of Christ and His Church. We Catholics are all members of a Church on Earth made up entirely of sinners, who are constantly falling and having to pick ourselves up again. That is something which is hard enough to do when things are going relatively well. Yet to be able to do so while being under attack is something that will test not only the mettle of our shepherds, but our own as well.

daniel_in_the_lions

“Daniel in the Lion’s Den” by Briton Rivière (1872)
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool