Tue
Feb 11 2014 3:10pm

Marvel Body Mass Index Study Reveals Nearly 1/3 of Female Characters Are Underweight

Captain America, Bob Hall, Kitty Pryde, Terry Dodson

In the world of comics art there are plenty of fans who take exception to the way most women are depicted artistically on the page. This is not difficult to understand: breasts are defying all forms of gravity, waist-to-hip ratios clock in at Barbie levels of discomfort, and everyone is usually fighting in heels.

The return argument is that the men in comics are depicted in an equally unrealistic capacity, though any good feminist will tell you that there’s a difference between female objectification and male power fantasies. But it goes well beyond that realm, too. In fact, it might just be plain unhealthy. Literally.

A study done by two university students took a set of random selected Marvel comics characters, equal numbers male and female, and put them to a BMI test. That’s the Body Mass Index scale and though it’s far from a perfect manner of detecting health, it is a helpful guideline for examining whether a person happens to be at a healthy weight.

The study also took into account that because most of these characters are superheroes, they should have a higher BMI, due to having more muscle backing up their punches. After analyzing a set of fifty characters, they came up with an interesting set of data that told a distressing story:

All female characters in the sampling were either under a healthy BMI or incredibly low on the healthy spectrum. The male characters showed a very wide range on the BMI scale, and not one of them was underweight.

Here are the data tables for closer examination:

Marvel BMI chart

Marvel BMI chart

Marvel BMI chart

The duo is first to admit that calculating BMI based on drawings rather than living people will certainly produce error, but their estimations are still very interesting. Never mind whose gaze these depictions are intended for, at the end of the day these characters are considered “idealized” forms of men and women. But the idealized men are allowed to be many shapes and sizes. The women have a much more narrow line to walk in order to be considered “ideal.”

For more information on the study, take a peek at all the data over on their webpage.


Emily Asher-Perrin is mostly just bemused by the fact that Steve Rodgers has so much muscle weight, he’d be considered obese. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

29 comments
Matt Stoumbaugh
1. LazerWulf
I wonder how much it would have skewed their data if they had sampled Blob and/or Juggernaut? Or, on the Women's side, She-Hulk?
Iain Cupples
2. NumberNone
She-Hulk, probably not very much, if at all (particularly bearing in mind she is very tall). Although she has sometimes been depicted as well-muscled, mostly she is depicted as somewhat on the slender side, particularly in the waist. For every pic like this, there's two like this and this.
Rich Bennett
3. Neuralnet
This "study" is a little ridiculous but the women came out better than I expected (if you look at their data the mean is in normal range). Funny that almost half the men are overweight. But, I suspect all of the characters are actually lying about their weights on the marvel website (where the study took its data) so the results are a little suspect.
Emmet O'Brien
4. EmmetAOBrien
neuralnet@3: This "study" is a little ridiculous but the women came out better than I expected (if you look at their data the mean is in normal range).
Funny that almost half the men are overweight.

This set of mostly notably skinny female characters coming out healthy by BMI is pretty much exactly what I would have expected considering that BMI is strongly skewed towards regarding actually healthy builds as "overweight".
Thomas Thatcher
5. StrongDreams
Meh.
What this tells me is that whoever made up the table on Marvel's web site has a good idea of the body weights of athletic males but not athletic females. (At a guess, I'd say "he" was benchmarking stats from male pro athletes and female models.)

Athletes of both genders weigh more than comparable models because muscle is more dense (and more shapely) than bone or fat. (In fact, among crash dieters there is the phenonemon of "skinny fat", a person who is light but still flabby looking, because they burned up all their muscle mass in a crash diet.) Maybe Marvel should base their fan service web site stats on women speedskaters and wrestlers and basketball players rather than lingerie models.

(An entirely different result might have been obtained had they used photogrammetry to determine the dimensions of characters as drawn. But that's an argument for another day.)
DougL
7. DougL
Well, athletes, or just athletic people who just do aerobic activities are always lower in weight. I only care about Ms. Marvel though, and she looks great.
DougL
8. Greg Blackman
"The duo is first to admit that calculating BMI based on drawings rather than living people will certainly produce error"

This is why this is clearly a bit of a daft excercise in fiction. A study of Rob Liefelds art work would reveal that marvel believe men shouldn't have ankles. A study of Jim Less's artwork will suggest Dc believe everybody should look more or less EXACTLY the same.

A study of Sam Keith's artwork will suggest that he believes anything other than grotesquely malformed charicature man-rabbits simply won't do in modern society.

It's certainly true that men draw the kind of women they personally find ideal in comics because, wether the character is male or female, ALL superheroes start from whatever the contemporary physical percieved public ideal is. They are our mythology, larger than life titans and thusly portrayed as such. To wonder why they don't look more real is a bit daft unless you're going to run another article about the crass sexism of the prevalence of six packs and body dysmophia sexist stereotyping of male superheroes and it's effects on young male readers. And we all know you're not going to do that, because after all ... they're male - who gives a damn?

I'm personally more interested in why male characters are traditionally allowed to remain fully clothed and female characters seem to prefer going into intense combat situations in bikinis. THAT is sodding ridiculous. Expecting people who excert themselves physically fighting superpowered people all the time to have a very little excess fat? Not so much.
DougL
9. PaoloG
Uncle May and Aunt Ben are superheros?? These students know nothing about Marvel... Sorry.
Iain Cupples
10. NumberNone
@8: To wonder why they don't look more real is a bit daft unless you're going to run another article about the crass sexism of the prevalence of six packs and body dysmophia sexist stereotyping of male superheroes and it's effects on young male readers. And we all know you're not going to do that, because after all ... they're male - who gives a damn?

I'm not sure why you think raising a point that has already been dealt with is a telling argument, but to quote from above:

"The return argument is that the men in comics are depicted in an equally unrealistic capacity, though any good feminist will tell you that there’s a difference between female objectification and male power fantasies."

While it's true that male supers are usually shown in an unrealistic fashion, it's also true that the reasons for that and the implications of it are very different. And it's also true, as the evidence above shows, that there is significantly more variation in how male supers are portrayed (even if this is limited to muscular vs ridiculously muscular).
DougL
11. Scott Z.
I feel like the oft-repeated complaint that male superheroes are "fully clothed" is pretty arbitrary. Look at Cap, up there. Sure, he's "fully clothed," but it's not like his outfit does much at all to conceal his body. Okay, the boots, gloves and outer underwear offer, like, a modicum of modesty, but, like most male superheroes, his "costume" is really just a matter of painting irregular colors on an otherwise hyper-idealized male form.
DougL
12. Athreeren
By the way, what is the official explanation for Bruce Banner's increase in mass when he hulks out?

(at least, I hope the Hulk is heavier than 129lbs... I don't know whether my suspension of disbelief would be more strained if he does or does not gain weight)
DougL
13. Colin R
As far as I am aware there is no consistent explanation for the Hulk other than "science did it." Pretty typical.

Anyway I'm willing to give comic book artists leeway to a point--I think that, in two-dimensional representational art, there is always going to be an inclination to exaggerate certain features because of the flatness of the medium. Things like muscles and breasts are going to be emphasized because they establish identifying cues about the character's sex in lieu of cues that don't translate--vocal tone and the finer details of facial features are just difficult to communicate in a comic book.

That said, clearly there is a disparity going on here. Women have breasts and hips emphasized, men don't have their groins emphasized--some of that is biology, but some of it is just the preferences of men. Like, I'm pretty sure way more women superheroes go bare-legged than men do, and the difference between Captain America and Kitty Pryde up above is clear. There's no real explanation for that other than men call the shots in comics. And the impossible waist ratio might have a fig-leaf of a defense in highly stylized art like say, a Disney movie, but that pretty quickly blows away in the wind when you try to apply it to the more 'realistic' style of someone like the (talented) Dodsons above.
will shetterly
14. willshetterly
Emily Asher-Perrin, Why the pass on muscles? If you're a superhero, your strength is not natural. Muscles are only a symbolic representation of a traditional kind of male beauty that's older than Greek civilization.

Colin R, regarding disparities, don't forget that most male superheroes are dickless.

And more women go bare-legged than men in many places—even in Minneapolis when it's below freezing, which croggles me, yet some women do it.
DougL
15. Colin R
I commented on the lack of groin emphasis on men. But why are superheroes dickless? They are a reflection of our own society, where we are still uncomfortable with sexualized men, and we are only comfortable with sexualized women when their sexuality is a demonstration for male enjoyment rather than for their own enjoyment. And really those two things are the same thing--it is mostly 'normal' to portray sex as a game that women play for men.
DougL
16. Veris
@9

Haven't you heard of Golden Oldie?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aunt_May#Golden_Oldie
DougL
18. Imhalek
Looks like my comment got chewed up. Probably thought it was some XSS attempt. Here it is again, rephrased slightly:
BMI is BS.
I have under 10 percent bodyfat, and BMI says that I'm well overweight.
It simply doesn't work on athletic people.
DougL
19. Wizard Clip
@#12: I think in the late 80s Peter David said the Hulk's muscle mass was essentially a weird form of cancer, a mutation of a mutation. Incidentally, I think Kitty Pryde is an interesting choice to illustrate this article. When she was introduced 30-ish years ago, John Byrne depicted her as fairly plain looking with much more modest proportions. Even allowing for the fact that the character was 13 at the time and she's been allowed to grow up some since then, I strongly suspect that if she were being introduced as a 13 year old today, she'd look more or less as she does above. In other words, when it comes to depictions of women, "kick-ass" though they may be, in many ways the comics industry has regressed rather than progressed.
DougL
20. webpixi
Agreed with Wizard Clip's comment above - I loved all the New Mutants in the 1980s with their non-standard proportions -- Sam (Cannonball)'s really loooong face, for example.

I remember reading those statistics they would have, character bios or whatever, in the back of comics and feeling women weren't supposed to weigh over 115 unless they were super super tall. Just certain numbers did NOT exist on the women's stats.

(I love watching shows like So You Think You Can Dance since *those* women would be much better models for superheroines, since they have to have some definite thigh muscles to propel a leap, core muscles to hold a position in a lift, etc. Athletes would also be excellent models, too, but with dancers, especially in a show like that where the producers are clearly after stereotypical gender exagerations, we can see how quads and glutes (+ costume accents of course) can lead to the "hourglass" look, without Barbie-like wispiness. )
DougL
21. MRP
#8
To wonder why they don't look more real is a bit daft unless you're
going to run another article about the crass sexism of the prevalence of six packs and body dysmophia sexist stereotyping of male superheroes and it's effects on young male readers.

Actually, there have been studies on how action figures (especially GI Joe) have become more muscular over time, and how this affects muscle dysmorphia in pre-teen and teen boys.
Nick Hlavacek
22. Nick31
BMI is a good tool to use for populations. It's not intended to be applied to individuals to determine whether someone is over or under weight. Unfortunately that's how it's frequently used. As many commenters have mentioned an athletic individual with a higher ratio of muscle to fat will have a high BMI but will not be "unhealthy".
The fact that this "study" used it to categorize the individual characters says a bit about how seriously it can be taken.
Alan Brown
23. AlanBrown
How do we explain the fact that BMI obviously changes, depending on who the artist is? For example, the Kirby Captain America was very solidly built, while Steranko's, while still muscular, is much more slender. And Steve Ditko's Spider-man was downright emaciated, while Romita (Sr) portrayed him as much more normally proportioned. And then, at the hands of Romita (Jr), Spider-man slimmed down again.
Why diet, when all you need to do is get a new artist?
DougL
24. PaulHowie
This study needs a reference point... why not add a table of real-world athletic females? Pick any soccer, volleyball or field hockey team in the world and see how they compare on BMI. Without that we honestly have no idea what the "normal" BMI rating is for someone who carries out intense physical activity as a norm.

The physical depiction is obviously skewed towards the most prominent of surface gender features, but the weights of mythological figures are a very strange thing to base any kind of sexism claim around. You want to make that claim? Look at the fashion magazines written for women, with largely female editorial and design staff. These depict supposedly obtainable and real female forms but are every bit as caricatured as any superhero.
DougL
25. Colin R
I mean I don't think BMI is being used here as a scientific measurement, given that the charcters are 1) two-dimensional and 2) fictional (also because it says that it's not, right in the OP). But I kind of feel like people are trying to use it to dismiss the point, which is obviously true, that there is a disparity between the way male and female bodies are portrayed in comics.

Does that kind of disparity exist in other media too? Yeah, of course. But, that makes it more important to comment on in comic books, not less.
Paul Howie
26. FluffyPanda
So how would we change this? Have the female exemplars drawn with more pronounced masculine features? Or more feminine male superheroes? They are what they are because they are supposed to be larger than life....

That's why fashion mags are bad and superhero comics are less so. Fashion mags are intended to show how you could look if only you had the style, money and genes of a top model, but they airbrush a kind of impossible wonderwoman figure onto every cover. Superhero comics are all about entirely unobtainable levels of godlike power. Nobody in the world should get depressed because they don't look like Superman (who isn't even from this world), but failing to look like the cover of Cosmo is genuinely traumatising for many.

I still think superhero comics should grow up in how they draw women, the absurd proprtions on display most of the time just look downright silly. But does that really say something of note about sexism in comics? I'm not entirely convinced. I think it's a much less convincing target for scorn than most other media just by nature of what's being depicted.
DougL
27. Colin R
Well supporting more women as writers, artists, and in positions of authority in the industry would be a good start.

So the new Ms. Marvel is pretty great huh?
DougL
28. denelian
there are so MANY things wrong with how female characters are portrayed in comics books -- focusing on how they're hypersexualized is, i think, often used as a way to START the discussion on how women are so rarely allowed to BE THE ACTUAL POINT OF STORIES, EVEN THEIR OWN. they're turned into eye candy and fodder for man-pain.

recently, there's been a small reversal of this trend, where somewhat eye-candy-ish men have shown up and been played with as fodder for female drama... but even THAT often gets screwed up.
because people just can't seem to escape a perception that a male character MUST be more important than the equivelent female character.
and a *LOT* of that perception starts with the fact that women must always look, well, "fuckable"
let's be real here. take, say, Jason Statham. he's not ugly, but he's also not drop-dead gorgeous. other than his obvious fitness -- which isn't obvious is everyday clothing unless/until he DOES something that shows it off... yet he's easily cast as an action star, as a primary character, as a primary LOVE INTEREST

can anyone name a FEMALE star who is offered kick-ass roles, as any sort of action star, any sort of love interest, ANYTHING comparable to any of Statham's roles, who ISN'T somehow also "sexy"? and i don't mean "can look nice if they make a huge effort for a date" -- i mean, at least for the length of the show/movie, that they are at LEAST incredibly conventionally attractive, but GENERALLY are hyper-sexualized.
Hercules vs Xena, if you will.


they most obvious difference between how female characters and male characters are portrayed is physical, but it's only the first layer.
we need to dig down, talk about ALL of it, and figure out ways to expand our societal worldview.
Paul Howie
31. FluffyPanda
Reposting without links since the spam filter ate it before...

Errr... Jason Statham is pretty much the "manliest" man out there. And obviously not every woman will find him the sexiest man alive, but a lot do. Not that different to Angelina Jolie who has a definite sexiness, but isn't exactly your average pin-up.

Again, like comic books, action films tend to simplify their characters for easy mental digestion. They want women who scream "woman" and men who scream "man". If you want to know why that means big breasts on one side and square jaws on the other then you just need to take a look at any classical sculpture. Or the people around you.

Dumb action films and dumb comic books treat the viewer / reader with a certain amount of contempt that I find turns me off them, but I still don't think that makes them inherently sexist.

If you really care about women in comics, do something to raise the profile. You already missed the kickstarter for the womanthology comic] (although you can still buy it on amazon])

But it's not too late to throw some money at the kickstarter for "she makes comics"].
DougL
32. Llama
Again, like comic books, action films tend to simplify their characters for easy mental digestion. They want women who scream "woman" and men who scream "man".

Yes, and the point was that, even in those simplistic depictions, a male character 'screaming "man"' goes beyond just having a square jaw and big muscles: it still involves being an active agent who has some kind of explicit motivation and stakes at play which drive his story. For the female character 'screaming "woman"' stops at 'looking hot'. The exaggerated physical portrait is the sum total, she's only there as an object in the male character's narrative.

There is no female equivalent to Stallone, Arnie, Van Damme, or to ugly/average-looking dudes who get romantic leads in comedies like Adam Sandler, Jack Black, Ben Stiller, etc. Women are eyecandy first and characters second. Hollywood actresses are beautiful first and talented second. It's not a prerequisite for a man to be good-looking in media, but it is for a woman.
Paul Howie
33. FluffyPanda
That's because Hollywood is mostly superficial crap. Look further afield and you'll see that doesn't hold true at all. At least over here in the UK we have a number of great actors of both genders who get roles in comedies, drama and other entertainment without needing to rely on sex appeal.

It seems cruel to pick out individuals, but I think it's safe to say that Catherine Tate and Miranda Hart are cast primarily for their talent, intelligence and charisma rather than their sex appeal.

Hollywood films and Marvel comics are predominantly on the dumb end of the spectrum. If you expect them to evolve to a more enlightened form of dumb then you're probably looking for a solution that will never happen. You need to look to more intelligent media to get a realistic portrayal of either gender.

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