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Male and female superheroes have exaggerated morphologies, unrealistic BMIs: study

While the superheroes of the highly-anticipated movie "Avengers: Endgame" save the world this week, two US researchers have published a study on the Marvel characters' morphologies, highlighting the physical differences between male and female superheroes.

Superheroes in comics have unrealistic body mass indexes (BMI), confirms a recent study published in the Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences review.

Carried out by Laura Johnsen, PhD student at New York State University in Binghamton and Rebecca Burch, Associate Professor of Human Development at New York State University in Oswego, the study analyzed the morphology of 3,752 Marvel Comics characters.

They compared the representation of male superheroes to female superheroes, based on physical characteristics which accentuate hypermasculine or hyperfeminine traits such as shoulder/hip ratio, jaws, muscles on the upper body, waist, bust and chest. These are elements which are transformed into symbols of "youth, health and fertility in real humans," noted Johnsen.

The two authors said that male heroes in comics were largely "obese," while female superheroes tended to be underweight. The higher body mass index of the men was represented by exaggerated muscles on the arms and shoulders, while female superheroes had a much thinner waist than they would in reality.

"It's pretty clear you can't create that body type through just diet and exercise. Even for the films, the costume designers have to modify costumes to make the actors look even more robust than they actually are in real life," said Johnsen.

The aim of the study was to examine a pop culture phenomenon -- the global success of Marvel superheroes -- from a biological point of view, Johnsen explained.

"Comic books and films are sometimes trivialized as "kids' stuff," but increasingly they offer detailed and creative storylines and fine artistry, they also offer themes that reflect deep human emotion and desire. By studying comics from an evolutionary perspective, we gain insight as to the underlying origins for why the characters look the way they do, why we are attracted to them and why we connect with them on such a personal level," she added.