Why Comic Book Heroes Are Sexy
Exaggerated comic book bodies reveal our evolved psychology.
Posted April 19, 2019
Wonder Woman’s waist-to-hip ratio is off the charts. And the Hulk’s shoulder-to-hip ratio is similarly unattainable. No amount of time in the gym is going to turn you into the Hulk! Depending on the drawing, his shoulders might be two or three or four times as broad as his hips, whereas an average adult male shoulder to hip ratio is only slightly higher than 1.0 (meaning that for an average guy, the shoulders are only slightly broader than are the hips; see Hughes & Gallup, 2002).
Research on the psychology of human mating has, in fact, shown that in women the waist-to-hip ratio (which is essentially the degree of curviness, with the average for adult women being about .77) is strongly predictive of how attractive she is as rated by others. Relatively low waist-to-hip ratios are rated as more attractive. And in men, a relatively high shoulder to hip ratio is predictive of being rated as attractive (with the average for adult men being about 1.18; see Hughes & Gallup, 2002).
Interestingly, fashionable clothing seems to partly be designed with these points in mind, with many forms of clothing designed for women (such as corsets) that seem to function to give the appearance of a relatively low waist-to-hip ratio and many forms of clothing designed for men that seem to give the appearance of a relatively high shoulder-to-hip ratio. Interestingly, these trends have been documented across various cultural groups and across historical epochs (see Johnsen & Geher, 2016).
Artists are in an interesting position in society—they can paint the world however they want, unconstrained, in many ways, by reality.
In a super-interesting and fun recent study, Becky Burch and Laura Johnsen (2019) explored the waist-to-hip ratios of thousands of female comic book characters as well as the shoulder-to-hip ratios of thousands of male comic book characters.
This study, titled Captain Dorito and the Bombshell: Supernormal Stimuli in Comics and Films, documents these ratios in detail. The term “Captain Dorito,” by the way, corresponds to Captain America (Chris Evans), whose shoulder-to-hip ratio is so extreme that if you look carefully at the proportions of his upper body, you can easily fit a Dorito shape right on that guy!
In their words, these researchers found that:
“The male higher body mass was caused by extreme upper body muscularity, with male shoulder-to-waist ratios far above human limits. This is in stark contrast to low weight female superhero bodies with far lower waist-to-hip ratios than average humans. The endocrine markers that are exaggerated in these depictions create supernormal sexual stimuli for each sex.”
From an evolutionary vantage point, this research begs the questions as to why a low waist-to-hip ratio is attractive in women and, similarly, why a high shoulder-to-hip ratio is attractive in men? How are these preferences evolutionarily adaptive?
In terms of the preference for a relatively low waist-to-hip ratio in women, it looks like a low waist-to-hip ratio tends to correspond to fertility. Women who have relatively low waist-to-hip ratios are more likely than are other women to conceive (see Platek & Singh, 2010). A low waist-to-hip ratio serves as something of a fertility indicator.
In terms of why a relatively high shoulder-to-hip ratio is found as attractive in men, research suggests that a high ratio is predictive of overall strength and virility. It is something of a general fitness indicator in men (see Hughes & Gallup, 2003).
If you want a window into the ideals of our evolved psychology, check out the world of art. Artists are in the privileged position of painting humans in ideal ways, a fact that provides a window into how “ideal” portraits of humans map onto our evolved psychology.
Comic book artists are famous for portraying the extremes of human physicality. Using an evolutionary lens, Burch and Johnsen (2019) asked a straightforward question: Do comic book characters, created by artists who exaggerate the human form, tend to reflect physical features that accentuate our evolved mating preferences when it comes to the waist-to-hip ratio in women and the shoulder-to-hip ratio in men? In other words, do comic book artists not only provide exaggerated versions of the human form but do these exaggerations map onto our evolved psychology? Take a look at Wonder Woman and Captain America (AKA, Captain Dorito) for the answer!
Burch, R., & Johnsen, L. (2019). Captain Dorito and the bombshell: Supernormal stimuli in comics and film. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Febs0000164
Hughes, S. M. & Gallup, G. G., Jr. (2003). Sex differences in morphological predictors of sexual behavior: Shoulder to hip and waist to hip ratios. Evolution and Human Behavior, 24, 173-178.
Johnsen, L. L., & Geher, G. (2016). Fashion as a Set of Signals in Female Intrasexual Competition. In M. L. Fisher (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Women and Competition. NY: Oxford University Press.
Platek, S., & Singh, D. (2010). Optimal waist-to-hip ratios in women activate neural reward centers in men. PLoS ONE 5;5(2):e9042. Epub 2010 Feb 5.