Committed: Confusing Bodybuilders with Superheroes

Yesterday I posted a link on my Twitter to this, joking that if they drew busty female superheroes in the same way that they draw male ones, that they'd look like this new version of Jodie Marsh. Surprisingly, a few people suggested that women ought to be drawn this way because it would be more realistic, which I thought might be useful to talk about.

Jodie Marsh is a British "glamor" model who had large breast implants and has now completed an extreme training regime to recreate her body as competitive in the bodybuilding world. Therefore she has the kind of overly buxom, glamor-model body that is women are depicted with a lot of the trashier superhero comic books, now combined with the kind of overly muscular body that male superheroes are usually given. Neither of these options are actually realistic or appropriate.

I have a few friends who're professional athletes, people who are at the olympic level or train other people professionally. I also have a few friends who're avid bodybuilders, desiring simply to create their bodies to conform to a certain look. These are two very different disciplines, involving entirely different exercises, diets and effects. Building a body with the kind of visible muscles that Jodie Marsh displays is not usually about building strength, but about combining a very strict weight building regime with a very high protein diet, excluding nearly everything else. This isn't a recipe for strength, neither is it a very realistic long term plan.

There's a friend who is 5' 9", weighs around 200lbs and can easily lift his own weight over his head. He is a trainer, he looks slim and unassuming, but is actually ridiculously strong. He works out and trains people for hours each day. I know someone else who teaches yoga, she is about 5' 7" and practices and teaches yoga full time. Both of these people have healthy, high protein diets, and they both are impressively strong and average looking. Similarly I've met people who run ultra marathons, lift weights, run competitively, and generally, these people all look perfectly normal on a day to day basis. None of them do drugs, or drink very often, or eat much processed food. As far as I can see they are the closest things to a actual superheroes and none of them have bulging, massive muscles. If you saw them in the street you would never know that they're incredibly strong.

The only people I know who actually have massive, bulging muscles actually have to follow very specific routines in order to build them with that kind of visible bulk. They often complain that the muscles, while large and puffy, aren't necessarily indicative of strength. Despite my own rather mediocre condition, I've personally out-walked my bodybuilder friends on hikes and seen them slump, out of breath when carrying moving boxes while their "normal" friends are able to carry more. The competitive bodybuilder physique is one created for aesthetic affect, not for strength.

Male superheroes are routinely drawn with outrageously defined muscles as if they are bodybuilders, but if these men existed, they would probably look pretty average. Certainly there would be no beer guts, and if you hugged them they would feel very solid, but there also wouldn't be many giant, noticeable muscles either. Instead they would have strength and tone, maybe looking generally better than other people, but not having the kind of outrageous definition that bodybuilders have.

Now, while I can see that it is well-intentioned, people crying for women to be drawn in the same misguided way that male superheroes are is very sad. While most women superheroes would be more muscular than the way they're currently drawn, and their breasts would be smaller or at least shaped very differently (as Terry Moore wrote in his little comicbook How to Draw Women, "this is not what your circle template is for") they wouldn't be covered in bulging, defined muscles and veins either. After all, these women are strong, they're in top physical condition, but they're not bodybuilders.

For a while now I have been trying to draw attention to the fact that physical prejudice in comic books is not exclusively a problem for women. When people are trying to encourage artists to draw the kind of mutated, overly-muscular bodies that they use to model male superheroes, then we have a problem because they're encouraging artists to apply the kind of sexist, unrealistic art style that men are being subjected to. Neither is okay. Male superheroes in early comic books of the '40's seemed to be modeled on wrestlers and other athletes, people who were genuinely strong. At some point it became normal to model the superhero look on professional body builders. This is unrealistic and misleading, so I ask again; Why would we want this crappy, unrealistic ideal to be imposed on female superheroes as well? In the future, superheroes should be drawn to depict the healthiest and strongest humans in life, to be the human physical ideal rather than some unhealthy mutation.

Back in the '80's Frank Miller modeled his Elektra on the female body builder Lady Lisa Lyon and I loved it. She wasn't pretty, but she looked damn good. She was strong and believable as an athletic force, just as Lisa Lyon was. A pioneer in her field, Lyon looked strong and beautiful, but fashions change, and female bodybuilders today are expected to take things further with definition and sculpting. They're also often expected to have large, impractical implants in their breasts. This is not a look which would work on any female superhero. I'm not saying that the current trend for drawing them looking like a pre-workout-crazy Jodie Marsh is realistic, but I'm saying that drawing them looking like the post-workout version of Jodi Marsh won't work either.

People cry sexism, but the solution to trashy, overly sexualized female superheroes is definitely NOT to make the same mistakes we're making with male superheroes. Let me make this as clear as I can; Male superheroes are not  being drawn realistically, it is just a different kind of mistake to the ones that are being made drawing female superheroes. Most importantly, the solution to poorly depicted female superheroes is NOT to copy the mistakes that we're making with male superheroes. Repeating mistakes just compounds them. We're creating visually unattainable male superheroic bodies which are ridiculously impractical, why the hell would we want to impose this on women's bodies as well?

Growing up, I was interested in art, and since we couldn't afford life models in my school, my art teacher used to send me to the British Museum. There, for free entry I could sit on a stool and draw the marble sculptures from the parthenon. These Athenian sculptured depicted the physical ideals of their era, beautiful and perfectly proportioned athletes, I remember them well. Drawing from them was a pleasure and for guidance I would encourage artists to look to todays truly strong athletes, people who use their body for their work, and not to the strangely contorted and impractical bodybuilders who work exclusively on a look.

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