It is 9pm in Madeira, Portugal, and 8year old Atílio (Portuguese for strong and manly) is making his way back to the orphanage after a late night street soccer game with his neighborhood pals. As is his daily routine, he stops by the 11 feet and 1,700 pound statue of Portuguese international soccer star, Cristiano Ronaldo, the son of Madeira and his imaginary father. Atílio tells him how well he played today, promises to score tomorrow, and to make Cristiano and Madeira proud of him one day. In the pale of the moonlight, an African American teenage boy performs Lebron James’ pre-game ritual of blowing chalk dust into the grey, as his team prepares for an epic pickup game of basketball on the streets of Akron, Ohio. Elsewhere, mere mortals are planted in front of their television sets, watching their favorite science fiction television show or the latest superhero movie. Parents dress up their toddlers and preschoolers in their favorite superhero onesies and read to them tales of Batman, Spiderman, Iron man and none other than Captain America, inserting valuable life lessons as they go along, hitting two birds with one stone. As these experiences mould our perceptions of self and the society which we are a part of, it begs the question, what is the influence of science fiction figures on the male body image, and what are the consequences that follow?
Despite the media and corporate world’s early big time realization of the profit goldmine that lies in science fiction literature and related products, as well as athlete endorsement advertising, sociological and psychological research on these phenomena has only proliferated recently. For the past few decades, superhero characters have become preposterously muscular with body dimensions that are simply unattainable for most, if not all, men. In response, an assortment of research studies, such as Charlotte A. Jirousek’s “Superstars, Superheroes and the Male Body Image: The Visual Implications of Football Uniforms,” have argued that ludicrously muscular science-fiction characters can cause males to be dissatisfied with their own bodies, just as needle-thin supermodels can cause body weight insecurity in females. However, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in September 2012, researchers at the University at Buffalo have suggested that watching science-fiction figures results in an increase in the self esteem and physical strength of males. According to Ariana F. Young, the principal author and doctoral candidate in psychology, “We thought it would also be important to consider men’s parasocial relationship status with these superheroes. Many people have parasocial bonds (one-sided psychological bonds) with media figures, either real celebrities or fictional characters, and we know from previous research in our lab that identification with these figures can favorably affect how we feel about ourselves.”
The research study was conducted likewise: Two versions were employed, one with Batman and one with Spider-man, so as to ensure that outcomes were not specific to a particular superhero. A total of 98 undergraduate males were asked to rate how much they liked and/or were familiar with Batman or Spider-Man on a scale of 1 to 5. Responses were scored and averaged. Respondents who scored the highest and lowest proceeded to the next stage, each showed a parasocial relationship or lack of a parasocial relationship, respectively. Those who scored less than 2.5 were put into the control group. They were given a general biography and a full-body picture of the superhero. Half of the respondents were given a muscular photo; the other half were shown a picture that was manipulated to not be muscular. Participants were asked to assess their satisfaction with their own body parts and then had their physical strength assessed (Young, 2013).
The results of the study showed that respondents who viewed the pictures of Batman and Spider-Man and who were ambivalent about the superheroes felt dissatisfied with their own bodies. On the contrary, men who had a strong parasocial bond with the superheroes and viewed the muscular superhero photos recorded higher body esteem than those who did not have a parasocial bond with the character. Men who had a parasocial bond but who viewed scrawny super hero images scored a low mood rating but a high body esteem rating. Lastly, the strength test showed that the respondents who had a parasocial bond with superheroes proved to be physically stronger than those without (Young, 2013).
The results of the study show correlation and probable causation between body image satisfaction and superior physical strength, and an existing parasocial bond with one or more superheroes. In addition, the results show correlation and probable causation between body image dissatisfaction and inferior physical strength, and a non-existent parasocial bond with one or more superheroes. Possible explanations for these results could be the fact that parasocial bonds with superheroes (science-fiction characters and professional athletes) stimulate and interest and foster a commitment to athletic activities such as cycling, swimming, weight lifting, and other sports. This explanation accounts for the general body image satisfaction and superior physical strength. Young says, “The thing that I find most interesting … is the idea that these media figures have real psychological effects on the self. It’s not just mind-numbing entertainment. The bonds that we form –- and we do form real bonds – they affect how we feel about ourselves. And it’s not always in a bad way.”
On the 3rd of February, 2015, the British Parliament passed a bill that could make England the first country in the world to legalize the creation of IVF babies with DNA from three different individuals through mitochondrial donations. Science and ethics committees have expressed support for this bill and even though the regulations are still to pass the House of Lords, a favorable ruling is expected, thus passing the bill into law (Mason, 2015). The progression of science over centuries has proved to be coupled with other unintended uses and consequences. For instance, the discovery of dynamite by Alfred Nobel for use in construction yielded the intended benefits but also resulted in the atomic bomb. Therefore, one tends to wonder how liberal the uses of these scientific technologies will become. Perhaps, as argued by Philip Reilly in his book, ‘The Strongest Boy in the World: How Genetic Information is Reshaping Our Lives’, we could reach a time when parents select for desired traits in their children, traits such as a specific eye color, intelligence, and athleticism. Will children be selected to exhibit traits of their parents’ favorite superheroes? Will professional athletes sell their precious genes to those who would like their children to become the next Michael Jordan? The future is never crystal clear, but we can certainly make links between the progression of genetic science and the male body image.
In précis, perception is the reality of the mind, and the mind is a mirror of what we become. Thus, as young boys and men idolize professional athletes for their mesmerizing excellence and superhuman abilities, as they draw inspiration from their favorite superheroes and stick their posters on their bedroom walls, it is important that they maintain their identity in the face of all these magnetic forces. For despite the well researched and documented psychological and physical benefits of parasocial bonds between males and superheroes, a loss of the concept of self will reduce one to chaff, which different winds, such as genetic science, will drive away in unintended and random directions. So, in the words of Theodore Roethke, “Be sure that what you are is you.”
-Charlotte A. Jirousek. “Superstars, Superheroes and the Male Body Image: The Visual Implications of Football Uniforms.” Journal of American Culture vol. 19, no. 2; Summer (1996). Page 5-8. Print
-Makini, B. (2012, September 17). Holy Psychology, Batman! Fans’ Body Image Improved by Superheroes. Medical Daily.
-Wilson, J. (2012, September 17). Bonding with Batman will make you stronger. The chart.
-Young, A.F; Gabriel, S; Hollar, J.L. “Batman to the rescue! The protective effects of parasocial relationships with muscular superheroes on men’s body image.” Journal of Experimental social psychology vol. 49 n.o. 1; (2013). Page 173-177. Print
-Mason, R; Devlin, H. (2015, February 3). MPs vote in favour of ‘three-person embryo’ law. The Guardian