HIGH ALERT – THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS ENDGAME – LOOK AWAY NOW.
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Alert: This is a Thinking Spaces opinion piece not an official piece of academic research – please engage and remember: these are often musings, not findings
This year’s #mentalhealthweek has a significant focus on the issue of body image, so it seems appropriate to focus today’s article on the body in society and fat-shaming (with a bit of Avengers thrown in for good measure).
The Idea 21st Century Body
Within modern society, the ideal body, particularly in western culture, is lean, muscular, relatively tall, with notable features separating men and women. Professor Brooke Whisenhunt, a psychology professor and specialist in obesity, eating disorders and body image at Missouri State University argued in 2018 that “… the standard for female beauty has always been unrealistically thin”. Today for many this appears to remain valid. However, enhanced muscular physiques are very much in vogue. Superstars like Gal Gadot and Bree Larson have developed incredible bodies to play superheroes on screen.
These physical transformations have been almost obsessively focused on within magazines and online articles, continually pushing the message of ‘perfection’ combined with any number of tips to allow us “mere mortals” to achieve the same physical state.
Men are not immune to this notion of peak perfection either, although it is apparent that men are rarely held to the same standard of criticism and objectification as women, Chris Evans (Captain America not the Radio DJ) is a prime example of the ‘perfect specimen.’ His body within the Marvel film series is almost a character in itself as his first outing as Captain America The First Avenger literally focused on his journey to appropriating the perfect body. Through the film’s Evan’s has continued to build his physique leading to comedic moments such as Hayley Attwell, reportedly in awe of his body, touching him unthinkingly as he emerged from the transformation chamber; to a running joke in Endgame about Cap having ‘America’s Greatest Ass’.
This is where the inequity becomes even more apparent, as although all of the above are extensively sexualised and held aloft as a paragon of physicality, harsh criticism has been applied to actors Brie Larson and Scarlette Johanson for their appearance. Larson in particular, who has experienced a significant amount of criticism online, has been repeatedly targeted for having ‘a flat butt’, ‘wearing too much makeup’, ‘looking too masculine with short hair’, ‘not being attractive enough for the character’. The above photograph refers to a 2018 casting call for a ‘butt double’ suspected for Endgame which led many on social media to use the opportunity to again attack the appearance of the female cast.
Fat shaming in Culture
Now, it is fair to accept that these actors are portraying a role renowned for extreme physical prowess. Arguments have raged for years about the ridiculous (and sexualised) presentation of physicality within Comics and Graphic Novels. This is a separate issue and one far too lengthy and complex to consider here.
However, within many aspects of modern culture, we are socialised not only to covert the ideal body but despite our own. Commodification of the body is part of this process as companies profit from an avalanche of self-improvement messages. Gyms, diet products, lotions, body wash, shampoo, food products, and especially clothes and technology all target the consumer by encouraging them to change themselves by using their product.
And of course, there is the process of fat shaming and abuse. The image, hopefully satirical, from whisper (an anonymous posting site), combines the too issues of commodification and public shaming. Shame over one’s own body is not only profitable commercially but often actively encouraged by others. Within social circles, praise can often be found on posts where the author has battled to lose a significant amount of weight. These posts tend to be filled with congratulations and accolades commenting on how amazing that person looks. As a past recipient of these messages, it is a wonderful feeling to be complimented and congratulated by so many, and a particularly good way to build up confidence that is all to often diminished by feeling abnormal in society.
Yet, this is the issue. While I was undoubtedly unhealthy, my personal disgust at my appearance was predicated almost entirely on vanity and a desperation to be accepted in society. I have lost 10 stone TWICE in my life, and I am only 34. As I write this, I physically detest the way I look and obsess daily about it and how to dress to hide my ‘flaws’. Academically, I recognise that the ideal body perception is temporo-specific, as the perfect figure today is nothing like that of a century or a millennium ago. The Victorian’s perceived obesity as a mark of success or stature. In Ancient Greece (c. 500 – 300 B.C.) ‘plump and full breasted’ women were the hallmark of beauty, with the focus being more placed on men’s athleticism than women’s looks.
According to the NHS, obesity is a growing problem, The World Health Organisation claimed that in 2016 nearly 2 billion adults were overweight. Governments around the world have taken steps to stop the ‘obesity epidemic’. However, the point here isn’t about appearance, it is about health. The above figures from a 2019 NHS report demonstrate the damaging impact of obesity, yet again, these concerns originate from health and the attributing health costs that lifestyle choices can incur. This is not about personal attack.
Here is where we return to superheroes. In the newest Marvel film Endgame, the underlying tension is cut by the site of Thor, known for his incredible body, having become overweight and slovenly.
Many laughs are had at the expense of the ‘demi-god with the dad bod’. Yet, as the laughter rolled around me in the cinema, I could not help reflect on how millions of people watching the film are laughing at the funny failed fat man. Thor’s weight gain is clearly attributed to depression and despondency, yet, he becomes a caricature of himself, with another character remarking that ‘cheese whip’ runs through his veins.
Social media has seized on this point with many commenting on the acquisition of weight, showing that sexual interest still remains ‘in spite’ of the weight gain
Feeds on Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, and Facebook seem to have taken up the challenge of ‘would you still want him?’
But here is the issue. The majority of these comments both objectify and vilify. Is it incomprehensive why as a society we continually punish ourselves for our own appearance if our typical reaction to a ‘hero’ being overweight is to try and see past it? This is not acceptance! The sociologist Irving Goffman argues that through labelling we understand; however, this process can have significant negative impacts as negative labels are so often internalised and impact on the self-perception and identity of the individual.
The message this year is #bebodykind – surely the only way to truly do this is to #bebodykind to each other as well as yourself.