Phone Booth Friday: Suit Yourself Up

Since their inception as a genre, superheroes have never really dressed like most people.  Sure, many of them have their secret identities and wear everyday clothes, so that they can hold down jobs or mix undetected with normal human beings.  Yet when they really go to work, they wear clothing which is, to be fair, rather outlandish.  That being said, this doesn’t stop those along the spectrum of fandom, from casual aficionado to full-blown expert, from trying to find ways to bring some aspect of their favorite hero to their own wardrobes – and that’s something we ought to encourage.

For those unwilling to don a garment made from lycra/spandex from fear of being photographed, like British Prime Minister David Cameron, there are of course other options. The now-familiar slanket, also known as the snuggie, i.e. a fleece blanket with sleeves, has been around for a few years now, and comes in a range of superhero styles at many retailers. However some new arrivals on the wearables market may prove to be just as popular with superhero fans who aren’t quite willing to fully suit up for themselves.

Take for instance this new product from Chilean company Selk-Bag: wearable sleeping bags designed to make the user look like a Marvel superhero. They fit just about any size, from kids to adults.  They’re also waterproof, but only recommended for temperatures down to 45 degrees Fahrenheit – that’s about 7 degrees Centigrade for you non-Americans.

Although not designed for such temperatures, I can envision some people using these this winter, much to the envy of their friends.  Particularly on warmer winter days when engaging in things like sledding, snowball fights, and ice hockey, a bit of padding can go a long way toward not being knocked about too much.  Still, perhaps these types of garments are best-saved for those of you who live in more moderate climates, where winters are not too terribly cold.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the return of the beloved childhood label Underoos, but this time in adult size.  If you’re of a certain age, you probably had a pair or two of these in your underwear drawer growing up. Underoos were matching underwear sets for kids, the most popular of which featured superheroes and sci-fi characters.  From the late ’70’s through the 80’s, they were quite the rage for kids who wanted to run around the house torturing their younger siblings through acts of violent horseplay.

So far the offerings are limited, but include Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Batman, Batgirl, Harley Quinn, He-Man, and Skeletor.  The underwear sets even come in the same retro packaging that you may remember from your childhood.  In some sense others have already picked up the slack on this type of product, most notably athletic gear/underwear designers UnderArmour in their “Alter Ego” line. However one should never underestimate the appeal of a well-timed bit of nostalgia marketing, particularly when superhero culture is such a dominant force in the entertainment world at the moment.

The huge variety of characters in the superhero universe, who all dress rather unusually, allows people to explore different aspects of their own personality and values.  Even if they happen to be drawn to one particular favorite, when purchasing garments like these, fans can naturally cross over into being several different characters – just as most of the serious cosplay folk I’ve been getting to know do in the projects they work on.  The fact that such garments are even available to the general public only reinforces the impression that, while marketers may be taking full advantage of this trend, there is more going on here than simply choosing a logo and going with it.

Like in Greco-Roman and Norse mythology, comic book superheroes speak to something larger than themselves.  By referencing their articles of clothing in what we ourselves wear, we also reference what virtues these characters stand for.  So while today wearing the “S” on your chest is a kind of textile shorthand for saying that you value “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”, in ancient times the wedding knot in the girdle or belt  worn by a bride around her waist was a reminder of the virtue of chastity, from the tale of Hercules and Hippolyta.  Western culture is littered with many such symbols which try to pass on values, which even if we don’t realize it are still showing up in articles of clothing today, from the laurel leaves of Apollo and Daphne on a Fred Perry bag, to the Golden Fleece from the story of Jason and the Argonauts embroidered on a Brooks Brothers polo shirt.

People need and want to be reminded of what makes us care for one another, and why having a free, democratic, and civilized society is better than the alternative.  I don’t mean to suggest that one must always try to dig deeply into the superhero world to try to answer that need, because let’s face it: sometimes you just want to have fun and play make-believe.  Yet in a time when so much of contemporary society seems so lost and rudderless, awash in a sea of materialism and selfishness, and in need of rediscovering virtues like self-sacrifice, charity, and service to others, is your wearing a superhero t-shirt really such a bad place to start?

Selk-Bag's range of Marvel superhero wearable sleeping bags

Selk-Bag’s range of Marvel superhero wearable sleeping bags

Colors Into Battle

Today has two important associations for me, being September 11th, but it’s also a chance to reflect on the symbolism that we see on days like today.  We often don’t stop to consider where that symbolism comes from, so rather than wade into politics, I’m going to beg the reader’s indulgence and ruminate a little on that collection of pattern and color known as a flag.

Being a proud American citizen, and particularly living in DC, it’s hard not to be aware of the fact that September 11th is a day when we mourn those who died in 2001 during the terrorist attacks on this country.  I wore my Stars-and-Stripes socks today, along with blue and red, but truthfully didn’t see much of that sort of personal display on the way in, even though I work near the White House.  With the passage of time this is somewhat inevitable, as memory fades, so that our grandchildren decades from now will not mark 9/11 in the way that we do.  After all, most of us know when Pearl Harbor Day was, but fewer and fewer Americans every year can say that they remember it, and know where they were when they heard of it.

Meanwhile, being half-Catalan, ethnically speaking, I’m also very much aware that September 11th is Catalonia’s National Day, known as “La Diada” or “The Day of Days”.  This date marking the defeat of the Catalans at the hands of the Bourbons in 1714 is a strange one to choose for a national holiday, since most countries celebrate their victories, rather than their defeats.  However in the intervening years since the passing of the Franco regime, the use of the red and gold stripes of the Catalan flag on this date has increased along with Catalan pride and assertiveness, to the point that Catalonia is going to hold a vote on independence from Spain this November.  All eyes are waiting to see what happens in Edinburgh next week, but in the meantime huge demonstrations marked by giant flag displays are going on all day today in Barcelona.

It’s interesting that flags continue to have a hold on our psyche, when to some extent one could argue that their usefulness on the battlefield has largely been eliminated.  Previously, when you, your buddies, and the enemy were all covered in mud in the trenches, whether France in the 15th century or the 20th century, you would have to keep an eye out for the flag bearer to know where you were and where you were supposed to be. The flag bearer himself was a descendent of even more ancient human place markers, like the standard-bearers of the Roman legions, whose gilded eagles and other symbols were tramped all over Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

The ability of either Old Glory or La Senyera – as the Catalan flag is known – to stir emotions and remind citizens of their principles, centuries after each of these designs first came into use, shows what a remarkably effective tool they still are, even though on the battlefield they are no longer the utilitarian objects they once were.  They continue even today to help people to find themselves, in a sense, for they concentrate into a single image or object what really matters to them.  Today, both in America and in Catalonia, seeing the flag means far more to the average man or woman than does any speech, policy paper, or the like, because imagery remains the single most important tool in capturing the public imagination, and in encapsulating what the people feel about the place they call home.

Detail of "Follow the Flag" U.S. Navy recruitment poster by James Daugherty (1917) Library of Congress, Washington DC

Detail of “Follow the Flag” U.S. Navy recruitment poster by James Daugherty (1917)
Library of Congress, Washington DC

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.

+ + + + +

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