Since the release of the first American animated film in 1906, cartoons have captured the imaginations of children, teens, and adults alike. Between the 1960s and the early 2000s, the era of Saturday morning cartoons saw generations of Americans kicking off their weekends by enjoying animated shows over a bowl of cereal. But cartoons today are slightly different than they were in the past – and this could be having a less-than-positive influence when it comes to reflecting the average person’s physique.
The average American’s body type has changed substantially over the past 40 years, especially teenagers’ bodies. Between 1980 and 2012, the percentage of adolescents aged 12 to 19 who were obese increased from 5 to nearly 21 percent. But in many ways, teenage cartoon characters are stuck in the past. Their body shapes have drifted further away from an image that most people can relate to: They idealize a body type that’s increasingly unattainable for many.
Youth are among the most vulnerable to media images that promote an extremely slim or ultra-muscular body type as a norm. The strong presence of this media in the lives of youth – who are increasingly connected via smartphones, social media, and a growing number of streaming services – can contribute to anxieties and insecurities about weight and muscularity. So how much do these characters diverge from the typical teenager’s body shape? Using four decades of data on the average height and weight of youth, we’ve crafted images of what the typical teen today would look like as some popular teen cartoon characters. Keep reading to see how these animated characters have come to diverge from the average teen’s physique.
Robin, the perennial sidekick of Batman, has been one of the best-known animated characters since his first appearance in 1940. A slight and not particularly muscular boy, 13-year-old Robin is not as heroic as many superheroes. The Boy Wonder, compared with barrel-chested comic icons, may be a relatable character for many youths. Even so, his lanky form, thin legs, and wiry arms don’t bear much resemblance to a typical teen today.
As they approach the teen years, youth are already expressing body insecurities: 18.5 percent of 11- and 12-year-old boys felt dissatisfied with their body. For these kids, an ultra-lightweight cartoon character like Robin may be a demoralizing role model.
The manga series “Dragon Ball” is a popular one that has sparked movies and even a television sequel called “Dragon Ball Z.” Sporting spiked hair and clad in either a school uniform or a martial arts uniform, Gohan, the son of the protagonist, is clearly a teen (although his true age numbers into the hundreds). However, teens are unlikely to see their physique being reflected in his defined chest and arms that ripple with muscles.
Nearly 18 percent of adolescent boys are highly concerned about their weight and physique. And boys with these concerns also experience increased risk for certain issues. For instance, those who expressed concern about weight are more likely to experience depression. And boys concerned with being more muscular are more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as drug use.
Sarcastic and smart, teen cartoon character Daria Morgendorffer won over viewers everywhere as the star of the MTV animated series “Daria,” which chronicled the journey of teens 15 to 18 through their high school experience. Daria’s round glasses, combat boots, and pleated skirt (not to mention her razor-sharp wit) gave her the appearance of the outcast hero. However, despite her likeability and relatability, one aspect of her persona is not exactly relatable to today’s teens: her body. From her delicate neck down to her thin legs, Daria has a markedly different body type from today’s typical teen.
Given that 20.1 percent of girls aged 11 and 12 already feel dissatisfied with their bodies, representations that teens can relate to are perhaps more important than ever. And these types of media depictions can have a particularly negative influence on girls aged 14 to 17, for whom watching more television is associated with greater body dissatisfaction.
The show has been lauded for tackling many topics in a sensitive way – from struggles with peers to sexism. But the way it portrays food seems particularly unrealistic in light of the protagonist’s body type. Daria enjoys unhealthy foods, and she’s seen eating foods such as pizza, cheese fries, and soda. However, her character maintains her ultra-slim body throughout the series despite her eating habits. This is particularly interesting given that the increase seen in children’s weight has been linked to factors such as greater consumption of snack foods as well as foods rich in sugars and fat – this includes beverages such as soda and energy drinks – and a lowered amount of fruits and vegetables in the diet.
After its 1969 launch, the animated series “Scooby-Doo” drew many fans and spawned various offshoots, from films to series. The storyline focuses on a group of teens (and their Great Dane) who solve mysteries. Seventeen-year-old Shaggy Rogers is Scooby’s goofy best friend and a member of the group. Despite a seemingly endless appetite for everything from enormous sandwiches to Scooby snacks, Shaggy remains thin and lanky.
Shaggy’s slim frame is far from a typical teenager’s body. And although he is a cartoon character, his exaggeratedly lean body still may impact young viewers. One study revealed that nearly 60 percent of teachers in the U.S. believe that the media has a somewhat negative or very negative influence on children’s body image. Additionally, 44 percent believe the media has a somewhat or very negative influence on kids’ self-esteem.
The teenage star of the anime series “Sailor Moon” is a legendary warrior tapped to defend the Earth and the galaxy. She’s also tall and slender and clad in an extremely short skirt and tall boots. Fans of “Sailor Moon” applaud the series for depicting a strong female character and appreciate the show’s willingness to tackle complex issues such as bullying, loneliness, and friendship. However, others feel her body type and schoolgirl-inspired dress convey a troubling message to tween and teen girls.
On a site designated as a spot for Asian-Americans to share and discuss the quest for the “perfect” body – one woman recalls her childhood spent watching “Sailor Moon” and struggling to understand the implications. She questioned why her thighs weren’t as thin as Sailor Moon’s, why her body when turned sideways wasn’t as svelte as Sailor Moon’s, and why the clothing she chose didn’t look like she wanted it to. For young television viewers, these types of questions may be all too common.
A trio of teenage girls, aged 16 to 18, serve as secret agents in the series “Totally Spies!” However, the “girl power” message is somewhat offset by the characters’ appearances. All of the girls (including Alexandra “Alex” Vasquez, the athlete among the three) are tall and extremely thin – which their skin-tight suits and high-heeled shoes only serve to accentuate. Regardless of the girls’ strength or smarts, their outfits appear to be designed to keep the focus solely on their figures.
How can cartoons like this affect young viewers? Realistic representations can become increasingly important to girls as they grow older. One study revealed that nearly half of girls aged 13 to 17 wish they were as thin as fashion magazine models. Today, social media can also be a source of angst. Many teens report feeling stressed by their appearance in social media photos, worrying about being tagged in an unflattering photo, and feeling bad when no one comments on or likes a photo they post. By age 17 and 18, a stunning 35.4 percent of women feel dissatisfied with their bodies.
Most animated teen protagonists are now represented as having bodies with almost impossible slimness or muscularity. Many are dressed in a way that accentuates their bodies. While cartoons will always be somewhat exaggerated, youth and the characters from their favorite animated shows have become increasingly dissimilar over the years.
However, it seems real teen bodies and cartoon bodies have gone in opposite directions. Between 1970 and 2010, the average BMI of both boys and girls aged 12 to 16 has increased dramatically. For 16-year-old girls, there’s been a jump from an average BMI of 22.0 in 1970 to almost 24 in 2010; for 16-year-old boys, this has grown from about 21.5 to 24.5. The path toward an above-average weight and BMI can begin surprisingly early in life. Five-year-olds whose weights were in the 50th percentile only had a 6 percent chance of becoming obese by age 14, but those in the 95th percentile had a 47 percent likelihood of facing obesity by that age. In response to these developments, medical authorities have recommended lifestyle changes such as dietary adjustments, reducing the amount of time spent on sedentary activities like screen time, and increasing daily high-impact physical activity.
Childhood Eating Disorders
Ultimately, the influence of such media on youth’s feelings toward their bodies can be far from harmless. Even as early as ages 7 through 11, girls who internalize thin ideals presented by society are more likely to develop attitudes associated with disordered eating. At a time when these youth should be enjoying their childhood, many are already expressing concerns about their weight, becoming preoccupied with the food they eat, and even showing symptoms of binging and purging.
These concerns can rapidly escalate into a serious problem: Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder first appear at a median age of 12 to 13 years old, and 2.7 percent of adolescents have suffered from an eating disorder. In a school of 2,000 students, as many as 54 teens could be struggling with these health-threatening disorders. Eating disorders are also associated with a 56 to 74 percent rate of experiencing depression and a 24 to 60 percent rate of experiencing anxiety. Popular fiction isn’t always a harmless escape from the world – it can have very real consequences for the youth who take these images to heart.
If you or someone you know is suffering from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or any other kind of disordered eating, help is available and ready for you. At ProjectKnow.com, we can connect you with professional programs and treatment options tailored to meet your needs, ranging from inpatient care to outpatient therapy and counseling. No matter the fantastic images presented in media, caring for yourself and taking control of your health is what’s truly heroic. Contact ProjectKnow.com today to find the help you deserve.
Using the most recent data from the CDC, we were able to reverse Photoshop the bodies of popular cartoon characters to depict them as average teens.
The edited images shown above are a parody. Trademark rights and copyrights relating to the characters featured on this page belong to their respective owner(s), which are not associated of affiliated with Bulimia.com and did not license rights or authorize or sponsor this article.