Keeping it in Proportion: Illustration, Superheroes and Body Dysmorphic Disorder
The human figure is eight heads tall. At least, that is the artistic standard that a great many artists measure proportions by. The average person is more like 7½ heads. Your arm span should be the same length as your height, the corner of your mouth will line up with your pupils, and the length from the top of your head to your groin equals that of your legs, from your hips to the soles of your feet.
My name is Daisy and I am disproportionate. There, I’ve admitted it in a public forum, and hopefully can now achieve some sort of personal growth, although sadly, not physically. I’ve grown about as tall as I’m ever likely to at 5’3″. That’s not the problem. The problem is that my legs are shorter than my torso. Not freakishly so. Just enough that I look like a table lamp when I wear skirts and have problems reaching the second rail in clothes stores. This dilemma can usually be overcome by befriending tall people, but be warned, there are drawbacks. No matter how nice they appear, they’ll always look down on you.
I couldn’t stop myself.
Let’s start again. Miss Articulate has kindly asked me to write a guest post for this blog. My poor taste in jokes will ultimately cause her to regret this decision, and since this may be all you ever hear from me, I thought I’d write about something nice and juicy: Naked Bodies. Mmmm.
Let’s Get Physical
I’ve been thinking about anatomy a lot this week, for I have been studying the holy book of figure illustration, Figure Drawing for All it’s Worth by Andrew Loomis (I’m defining it as studying, rather than reading, as highlighters were involved. Two different colours. Plus annotations). First published in 1943, Loomis’ work has had a massive, by which I mean inside-of-the-Tardis massive, influence on comics, illustration, animation, fine art, sculpture, advertising… Pick up any Silver Age comic, and chances are you’ll see his elements of his style. Stan Lee and John Buscema’s classic How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way is chock-full of Loomisesque diagrams and guidelines for figure drawing. The guy was a big deal.
Rightly so, and this is due to more than his technical prowess. Loomis’ writing is generous, heartfelt, engaging. Sure, you can tell it was written in the forties, but reading it, I feel like I’ve been given his brain to pick over at my leisure, like a hungry zombie at an all-you-can-eat shopping mall.
But there is one thing….
There’s always one. Actually, it’s not a fault with Loomis per se, more that his book highlighted an aspect of figure drawing I hadn’t considered. Synapses started firing somewhere in the recesses of my much neglected mind and I began to see a connection between this drawing on page 28:
and some of the rather brutal body dysmorphia that has been plaguing the males in my peer group. I won’t bore you with the grisly details, but suffice it to say that these guys are damaging themselves in the desire to become that herculean figure on the right. You know, the bloke who is 1½ heads taller than the normal “rather dumpy” fellow on the far left. Loomis describes these normal measurements as “not very satisfactory” and “old fashioned” – favoring the idealistic 8 heads, and encourages the use of the nine head figure for allegorical or superhuman figures.
It’s worth noting here that, although Loomis has drawn them in height order, the head units do not refer to height but more to how the artist organizes each part of the body in relation to the rest. The Fashion Plate has stretched proportions in order to make him seem aesthetically pleasing, and thus to sell clothes more effectively (he’s also rocking that awesome Clark Gable mustache. Scarlett O’Hara, eat your heart out). He’s not normal, he’s an advert. The Heroic Nine-Headed Man is certainly not real, and can’t be ever real as we just aren’t made that way. Yet his shape is very prominent in our culture, in the form of:
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you can’t deny the impact of the Supes on popular culture. From the stormy, brooding Dark Knight to the shining Man of Steel, from the unstoppable Hulk to the variously dysfunctional X-men, the comic-book heroes are venerated across the world, on page and screen. We collect idols to these demi-gods, and follow their adventures with as much rapt attention as the Greeks gave the Olympians. They embody bravery, strength, honesty, the triumph of good over evil. They also, some of them, have muscles that defy all medical sense.
As a general rule, they go beyond the peak of human fitness - they are superhuman, exceeding our limitations and performing extraordinary feats, which is, after all, what we want from Gods. Something special, something fantastical.
But see, here’s the flip-side to gods. When we mere mortals try to compete, we always get burned. Or flayed alive. Or turned into spiders. In this instance, the damage is not caused by the wrath of a jealous god, but in the constant striving for impossible goals. You will always feel inferior to the fictional, because, well, it’s fictional. The body is just as unattainable as the powers, but as one particularly eloquent friend put it:
”Since it’s conceptually within reach it is even more tantalizing and thus more self-destructive”
Sometimes it feels that the self-hatred I witness in my mild-mannered mates is growing along an exponential curve. These men, intelligent, witty men, can work out, diet and vomit till they’re sore, but they look at themselves in the mirror and it’s as if He-Man is standing over their shoulders, judging them. He’s all dissapointed with them so they feel terrible and the pattern gets worse. They chug down protein shakes like men dying of thirst. Hours are spent obsessing over fitness videos on YouTube. Carbs are forbidden, and the smallest chip can bring on an attack of guilt more appropriate to mass-murder than the consumption of food. Steroids start to look really tempting. All this work, then they go back to the mirror and He-Man is still there and he’s not happy.
They can never be him because his proportions are about as real as Barbie’s. His muscles are draped over a Nine-Headed skeleton that’s considerably broader than that of a real bloke, even Arnie, and they mentally and physically torture themselves. For them, masculinity means muscularity. Self-worth means physical perfection. Happiness means triceps that can crush planets.
A Bittersweet Cycle
The Buddha would call this a honey-on-a-razor-blade situation. The honey is the thrill of the story, the phenomenal illustration work, the “Kapow! Blamm! Whammo!” of the fights. The razor blade is the pain of coming up short, of being found wanting and of wanting what we can’t be. My friends may lament the fact that they aren’t Superman, Wolverine, Thor, or even the human-yet-impossibly-rich-and-insanely-brainy characters like Tony Stark or Batman, with their advanced technology and eternally convenient utility-belts. Yet where they lament, they also love. They hoard every issue, every box-set or DVD special-edition, every goddamn pair of socks, they go to every convention and memorize every storyline. It’s an addiction.
A Hero the Fanbase Deserves, But Not the One it Needs. Or Something.
There has long been a call for TV and Film companies to cast actors with “normal” bodies – in other words to move away from the perfectly-sculpted and airbrushed Hollywood ideal. Likewise, there are campaigns lobbying magazines to stop airbrushing their models, and let us see the moles, acne, warts et al. So what of the mainstream comics industry? Don’t they have a responsibility to create heroes with realistic physiques? Would anyone want to read about them? There are a few in existence, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule, at least in the DC and Marvel universes.
I know that there are more issues involved, such as family and peer pressure. But likewise, it simply isn’t enough to tell my friends to get over the fiction and love themselves for who they are. I’ve tried that. They get all awkward and look at me like I’ve blasphemed. We need to separate ourselves from hyper-reality, to come to terms with our limitations and flaws, and since I doubt that a media-blackout is going to happen anytime soon, artists, directors, writers and producers need to create work that reflects real life, rather than what we wish our lives could be.
Sorry Loomis. I think the “dumpy” guys are rather wonderful.
Attention Dear Readers – I have deliberately focused on the male hero in this article, as the friends in question were men. I could write several books, let alone a blog post, on female superheroes and their physical representation (Starfire, anyone?). Next up: The Impossible Boobs.