Body Image and Men Through the Decades – A Super Problem?

Many articles have been written about how women are faced constantly by unrealistic body images and that this causes issues for girls growing up. I think that there is a lot of validity to this argument and one only needs to look as far as the Barbie aisle of the local department store to see how early these expectations are planted in little girl’s minds.

But, I don’t think that much has been written about the same issue for boys and young men. Over the past century the expectation for men to be not only fit but very well built has increased incredibly. Check out any gym today and you’ll find plenty of guys working their abs until they drop, making sure that their biceps and triceps pop – but not so much the thighs. I was, for better or for worse,  brought up in an age before muscles were not only encouraged, but expected. I often like to joke that I went to high school before abs were discovered.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think that the pressure and expectations on boys and young men is less than on girls – and certainly not as overtly sexual – but it is there.

To illustrate my point let’s take a look at some images of everyone’s favorite Man of Steel over the past 75 years or so…by the way, all images and trademarks I’m sure are property of DC Entertainment and are used here only for educational purposes and I found them using Google anyway…(hopefully, this is enough to keep the lawyers away).

Superman Early
Superman as illustrated in the late thirties and forties.

The image at the left shows Superman as he appeared shortly after he was introduced to the world by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1933. Even at this point he was portrayed as an athletic figure with broad shoulders and a thin waist. His pecs are evident and there is the suggestion of abs, but no six pack. He gives the impression of strength without bulk.  In fact, I’m sure many a farm boy and laborer looked like this (but who could tell under the baggy shirts and pants?). But not the average kid who was reading the books (back then comics were read almost exclusively by 10-12 year old boys).  This was a physique that most of the boys reading  could obtain with a good diet and some basic exercises and realistically aspire too.






Superman - Wayne Boring 1950s
Wayne Boring’s Superman in the fifties.

Now let’s jump ahead into the fifties and sixties. Superman has clearly packed on some mass. This is the image a lot of people think of when they think of Superman even today. As illustrated by Wayne Boring, Superman took the form of a powerlifter. His abs are more defined, sure, but look at that barrel chest and torso. This was the image of strength in post-war America. Pure brawn without too much concern over aesthetics (at least by today’s standards). Though his chest and torso are big, his arms and legs are relatively scrawny compared to any modern bodybuilder (and even to bodybuilders of the day). Again, the physique that I image a lot of hard working construction men or guys on the loading dock might have had. Again, the boys reading the comic could realistically aspire to this physique.


Superman Kryptonite No More
Superman – Kryptonite No More!


Now onto the seventies and things are starting to change more rapidly. To keep up with the changing expectation of what was considered muscular and super-heroic Superman finally gets honest to gosh abs. His delts are much larger and his chest to waist ratio is beginning to look more like a top level bodybuilder/athlete. Legs are still a bit thin, but now they are defined. Clearly, this Man of Steel has been hitting the gym in his Fortress of Solitude! The bar, as they say, has been raised for boys reading the comic. By the way, the age of comic book readers starts to go up during this period. Now teens are reading. Gawky, skinny, self-conscious teens who are more likely to have body image issues.




Superman John Byrne
Superman in the eighties by John Byrne.



In the eighties Superman got a major make over by John Byrne both artistically and story wise. Overall, I approved of most of Mr. Byrne’s changes by the way except for his insistence that Lois Lane was a red-head…ugh. Everyone knows that she’s a brunette and preferably with blue/black hair! Anyway, look at the proportion of Superman’s chest to his waist, the size of his arms and even his legs are larger. I think that at this point we have started to move well beyond the type of physique that the average man could obtain without some great genetics and a lot of gym time! The average age of readers continues to rise and now most comics are sold in specialty shops as opposed to the supermarket, drug store, or news stand.




And here we have Superman today (below). This man’s shoulders are positively massive. His legs have caught up to his arms and I think in most drawings he now has an eight pack as six just wasn’t enough. A physique that most men could only realistically obtain if they were born on Krypton.

Now, to be fair, the point of super-heroes is that they appear to be super-heroic (don’t get me started on Batgirl’s bat-boobs and the main wonder about Wonder Woman is how her wonder bra manages the strain). So you want to depict them as larger than life. And perhaps the fact that now comic book readers are typically males aged 20-45, along with a small but growing number of women has influenced the look of the books in general. I get that, but my point here is simply that the expectation of what is super heroic has changed over the years and that this is the type of image that may be affecting the body image of many of our youth today without most of us even realizing it.

What do you think?

Next Up: The physics of Eternia or How Does He-Man stand?

Superman Now
Superman today.




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