I Can Hear It in My Ghost: Anime and Body Image

As a fumbling, highly introverted teenager who constantly stayed behind her computer screen, I ambled to a number of interests that could easily be found under the geek umbrella. I participated in a close-knit roleplaying community on Livejournal, read a lot of Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, and often had daydreams that had some silly cutesy element to them à la Studio Ghibli. My imagination was vast, so I looked for slices of media that would potentially stimulate and satisfy my yearning for a different time and place. It was no surprise that, having watched various runs of Cartoon Network’s Toonami block on weekday afternoons, anime became part of this roster.

While I still sing the praises of so many series and binge-watch stuff on Hulu, it’s hard to ignore many of the implications in the medium’s character design. The majority of men and women are usually portrayed with exaggerated proportions and unrealistic beauty (even complete with sparkles sometimes!). The most obvious? Female figures have breasts that defy gravity and other laws of physics while “bishie” men – short for bishounen, a Japanese term translated as “beautiful boy” – bear an almost alien-like androgyny that embodies perfection. It’s a well-known aspect of anime that’s often joked about, sandwiched between badly translated dialogue and fan service.

But in an age where escapism through popular fantasy is growing, it’s not a stretch to think people are prone to looking up to fictional characters as role models that exemplify their perfect selves. Scoff if you’d like, but this makes the look of anime characters particularly detrimental when thoughts of appearance and self-worth turn inward.

Not unlike a lot of live-action media with a female protagonist, anime equates “beautiful” with “strong.” The gals who wield weapons, fend off demons, or have some role in saving the world are as flawless as can be, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they hold a high standard of beauty that’s impossible to attain. Characters like Misato Katsuragi (Neon Genesis Evangelion) and Major Motoko Kusanagi (Ghost in the Shell) are overtly sexualized despite their character complexities, only to reinforce the unhealthy notion that you have to be sexy to exemplify strength and confidence.

The trend extends to males as well. “Pretty boys” with lean figures and impeccable skin are wholly fetishized in anime and manga for young girls and women, which also results in unrealistic beauty and body image standards for men. The yaoi niche, which zones in on male homosexual relationships as plot points, also turns the hetero community on its head by featuring voyeuristic (and mostly graphic) shots of male muscles and genitalia. Appealing to the hetero fan base, there are also titles featuring the almighty alphas with 24-packs and impenetrable biceps. Dragonball’s Goku might be a sillier example, but Inuyasha and Yusuke Urameshi from Yu Yu Hakusho posse bear “perfect” physical forms, complete with definition and an implied machoness.

For most adults, it’s seemingly easy to draw the line between fantasy and reality, especially since anime involves visually constructed characters instead of real-life actors, actresses, or models. However, a good chunk of the industry targets young girls and boys (normally between the ages of 6 and 16), which widens the potential for damage. Some titles meant for girls even feature episodes on crash dieting and fat-phobia, as seen in episode 4 of Sailor Moon when Usagi, a typically rail-thin teen of the magical girl genre, weighs herself and bursts into tears, followed by cries of “I’m fat! I’m fat!” Supplemented by the already lean physiques of all girls involved, this is one of the most triggering instances in the anime realm and paves the way for bad body-image thoughts to invade. In fact, similar examples are sometimes found among anime fans on thinspo, pro-ana, and pro-mia pages as encouragement to continue unhealthy dieting or ED behaviors.

There are other aspects of the anime world that deal with body image in a negative light, notably the fat-shaming that takes place at cosplay conventions. There’s even an app – featuring an attractive bishie male – shouting in Japanese to lose weight! But while these instances may be almost exclusive to this community, the solution is a familiar one: to refrain from promoting crash diets and increasing diversity among physical representations of male and female. This may seem like a pipe dream, given that anime often lives up to the “sex sells” concept and looks for potential in merchandising during the character design process, but we’re already seeing some modifications in the industry. The aforementioned Motoko Kusanagi has received a less-sexualizedtreatment in the Arise reboot, and many recent titles feature men and women with more realistic proportions due to changes in animation techniques (i.e. we are seeing fewer and fewer disproportionate characters that still retain the anime visual style without going overboard).

These are small but valuable victories, as the industry in question is less progressive than most. But as I crowd around my ASUS computer to savor a few episodes of Kids on the Slope, I can hope some titles and heroes will help instill confidence and – perhaps subconsciously – promote healthy self-image through their characterization and design.