Content Warning: Discussion of fat-shaming, body-shaming, and disordered eating.
Spoilers: Discussion of early events in How Heavy are the Dumbbells You Lift? and Yuri!!! on ICE; discussion of characters from later arcs of My Hero Academia.
2019’s How Heavy are the Dumbbells You Lift? opens with the main character, Hibiki Sakura, realizing she’s gained weight due to the fact that she adores eating snacks every chance she gets. Distressed, she decides to join a local gym at the insistence of school council president and muscle fanatic, Akemi, after getting a look at the handsome fitness coach. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know the first thing about strength training.
While the show is ultimately another example of the hobby genre, sometimes known as “cute girl doing cute things,” the problem with Dumbbells is that it contributes to a recurring problem in anime (and media in general): body shaming.
Broken Scales: Unrealistic expectations in anime and reality
While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get in shape or change one’s body, the trouble often comes down to framing. In this particular image, we see that Hibiki is pushing 56.1 kg. That’s the equivalent of 123.6 lbs. We don’t know Hibiki’s height, but the average height of a woman in Japan is 5’2”. Assuming Hibiki is average in this sense, her BMI would be 22.6—classifying her as a very average weight.
BMI is a highly problematic concept, as it only deals with the ratio between height and weight, not a real sense of a person’s health, fat ratio, or personal value. Yet Hibiki’s value as a person is judged entirely on her own weight, even when the system they use to measure her places her in a healthy range.
Fitness also often has very little to do with thinness—Hibiki would be more likely to gain weight as she achieved her goal of increased muscle mass. This double-standard undercuts the insistence from many that fat-shaming is done out of concern for “health.”
This is coupled with another double-standard: the fetishization of a muscular body over any other body type. Hibiki’s classmate and gym partner Akemi has an overt fetish for muscles. Muscular bodies are the ideal in her eyes, but the show has different standards for what an attractive muscular body looks like for men and women. Male characters are comically overbuilt for comedic effect and shown to be powerful, while the female characters have some muscle definition but are framed in the same manner of cheesecake shots used in fanservice shows not involving bodybuilding.
Hibiki is often shamed for her appearance, which is contrasted to the praise leveled at a particular body type. Every time Hibiki eats, we see the calorie count on-screen, with the visuals shaming her every time she enjoys food (despite the fact that you can eat snacks, have a high BMI, and be physically fit all at the same time).
This isn’t even going into the fact that much of the exercise advice in the series isn’t exactly good advice for those interested in fitness, as the exercise regimens the characters perform oten don’t suit their skill levels. Dumbbells takes every opportunity to shame its protagonist for her whopping average weight rather than being an “ideal” that the series doesn’t even know how to reach.
These are typical examples of body-shaming. Body-shaming, usually presented as fat-shaming, is when a character is degraded or regarded as lesser due to their body mass. Either the story’s other characters or the framing itself criticizes the person’s every imperfection. This can be as simple as teasing someone over their weight, outright mocking due to their appearance, or showing them to be comically inept because of their obsession with food.
This behavior in real life often leads to eating disorders. At least 30 million people of all ages suffer from an eating disorder in the United States alone, which is even more extreme among women and members of the LGBTQIA community.
In Japan, the problem is even more severe. Japan has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world, with only 2.7% of the country being obese. However, a study in 2018 found that more than 51.9% saw themselves as fat. Only 23% were satisfied with their appearance, which is compared to South Korea’s 31.6%, China’s 40.5%, and America’s 60.5%. As the study notes, people on Japanese social media argued that part of the reason for this was the media’s portrayal of young women.
Body and Mind: Fat-shaming, fitness, and mental health in Yuri!!! on ICE
While fat-shaming and body-shaming generally are most often targeted at women and girls, that doesn’t mean men aren’t affected. In fact, one of the most painful examples in modern anime comes from the otherwise exceptional Yuri!!! on ICE.
The titular Yuri Katsuki is a champion ice skater who deals with severe anxiety and insecurity. When he loses the final match of an international ice tournament, he descends into a spiral of self-loathing and depression that he copes with through comfort eating. This results in him returning home looking quite plump, to the horror of his teacher and coach.
The only people who don’t bother shaming or mocking him for his appearance are his parents and childhood best friend. Everyone else in town seems intent on mocking his appearance, often by exposing his body in public in ways that clearly makes Yuri uncomfortable. Though the viewer is meant to sympathize with Yuri’s anxiety, these scenes are paradoxically meant to be taken as comedy, or even as a sign of weakness on his part.
This gets even more awkward with the introduction of Victor Nikiforov and the skating prodigy Yuri Plisetsky. While the two Yuris have a directly confrontational relationship, Yurio (as he’s later nicknamed) often calls Yuri a “pig,” even after he’s trimmed down for competition season. As for Victor, who is both Yuri’s idol and love interest, he assumes the position of Yuri’s coach—and the first order he issues is for Yuri to lose weight.
The characters and narrative see Yuri’s weight as an obstacle that keeps him from being great. This is despite the fact that he was able to perform a world-champion ice routine perfectly on his own when he thought no one was watching at his “lowest” physical state—or, at least, when the story tells us he’s at his lowest physical state. He’s clearly very physically fit, judging by this early performance.
Nevertheless, everyone tells him he can’t perform well unless he drops weight. Yuri does manage to drop a large amount of weight after a few short weeks of training, further connecting fitness and athletic ability with thinness. Paradoxically, Yuri on Ice showed us that Yuri was incredibly fit and strong even when he wasn’t trim, but the story itself just glosses over this.
Other characters (particularly Yuri’s parents) confirm that Yuri’s weight fluctuates regularly, but even then, he never looks significantly heavier. In some shots, Yuri barely looks any different than he does later on in the series, save for a slightly fuller face and middle. This has led to a theory many fans subscribe to: that Yuri’s weight issues are almost entirely a product of body dysmorphia. This is true both in the television aired version and blu-ray releases, showing that this physical appearance is not an animation oversight but a deliberate choice.
What’s intriguing about Yuri’s weight is it is framed in a feminine-coded sort of way. By contrast, there are other heavy-set male characters in the series who are never shamed for their bodies, but they are seen more as burly or aged. They are also not competitive skaters. The only other character whose weight is commented on is Yuri’s mother, albeit briefly.
Throughout Yuri on Ice, Yuri’s arc is feminine-coded, with him playing the “seductress” in his ice skating routine. This in many ways ties in with how his body is treated in context, as it’s remarkably similar to Hibiki’s treatment in How Heavy are Those Dumbbells You Lift—as a personal failing; as someone to be mocked; as something to be “fixed.”
In “gag” scenes, where Yuri’s weight is mocked, he looks far heavier than in other sequences. In fact, during the skating sequence that motivates Victor to fly halfway across the globe, he barely looks any different than he does later on, just with baggier clothing to hide his body. He often, even when in top physical condition, hides himself from the views of others, as if ashamed so deeply of his appearance that he wants to hide.
This meshes well with Yuri’s other undiagnosed anxiety issues. He often says he’s “not a particularly good skater,” despite being the best skater in Japan. Even before Victor trains him, Yuri represents Japan in international tournaments. His self-perception is clearly warped due to his depression and anxiety. The series is largely about Yuri overcoming these various sources of anxiety.
Yuri’s weight at every moment is seen as an obstacle he needs to overcome. We see snippets of how getting back into shape physically hurts Yuri’s body (in episode four, we see his feet bruised and are reminded that, at his age, the training is extra intensive), but the end product is always seen as a positive. But even after losing weight, Yuri still suffers from anxiety and depression, showing that, despite physically training himself for the skating season again, the underlying problems haven’t gone away just because his body changed.
In How Heavy are Those Dumbbells You Lift, personal happiness is determined by the number on a scale. By comparison (and despite its frequently insensitive “comical” treatment of weight gain), Yuri on Ice at least manages to argue that weight doesn’t really help mental health. It might sometimes be a side-effect of how we deal with the issue, but the underlying problems still need to be addressed.
Positive Pathways: Body diversity in My Hero Academia and Beyond
Some manga have countered these extreme views on body image very explicitly, but in doing so have created another problem: fetishization. Much like how muscular bodies are fetishized in How Heavy are Those Dumbbells You Lift, manga like Pochamani and Plus-Sized Elf fetishize heavier bodies in ways that can be quite uncomfortable.
While Pochamani features a chubby Japanese schoolgirl trying to find happiness, her love interest is a fetishist who, by all accounts, seems to have a driving obsession with heavier bodies. Plus-Sized Elf, meanwhile, is full-blown monster harem pandemonium, just with well-drawn chubby characters as opposed to busty ones.
For a series to be truly body positive, it needs to integrate fat characters into the narrative without drawing attention to it. Thankfully, there are examples of casual body diversity in anime as well. In “No Middle Sliders,” AniFem staffer Caitlin Moore discussed the female characters in Princess Jellyfish and Please Tell Me! Galko-chan (as well as the unfortunate tendency of shows like SHIROBAKO to give male characters diverse body types but not do the same for the women).
Another good example of body positivity comes from the anime Real Drive, which was created by Masamune Shirow (of Ghost in the Shell fame). The sci-fi series features multiple characters who are physically heavier than the average anime character. This is due to the show’s aimed attempt at portraying realistic-looking people in a post-cyberpunk setting. The characters are all framed positively (or at least neutrally). While the series does have some issues, body positivity isn’t one of them.
This leads us to a surprising popular example of body positivity in mainstream anime and manga: My Hero Academia.
The main cast of the series show a diverse range of body types in the manga, though many are distinctly slimmed down for the anime adaptation. However, characters like Ochaco Uraraka are presented in the manga (and sometimes the anime) as curvier and with more visible muscle. They are not stick-figure characters. This portrayal of girls in media who are not only not rail-thin but also strong, and who are never told to diet, is an important step in the right direction towards body positivity.
There are, on top of that, two very noteworthy characters who are noticeably heavy in the series: Midoriya’s mom, Inko; and Taishiro Toyomitsu, otherwise known as “Fat Gum.”
Fat Gum’s Quirk is his ability to absorb energy and material around him. The character is incredibly friendly and warm towards others, but also demonstrates great knowledge and planning, despite often rushing into scenarios without thinking things through.
Much like Choji (Naruto) and Chocho (Boruto), Fat Gum is a character who uses his fat as a weapon. This could be seen as a way the story “justifies” him being fat, but, unlike Choji, he really doesn’t seem uncomfortable with his weight at all. No one fat-shames him. Most people seem in awe at his sheer size, as he’s just over eight feet tall! He is also, allegedly, one of the manga-ka’s favorite character designs.
What makes Fat Gum so good is that, whenever his weight is brought up, it’s depicted as a positive: a weapon for him. The main exception is when Uraraka and Asui see him for the first time and think he looks incredibly cute—and even that is a far more positive reaction than most fat characters receive. Fat Gum’s abilities do allow him to convert fat into muscle (which is impossible in real life, given fat and muscle are very different structurally). However, he always returns to his natural fat form, and never seems upset by the change.
However, the more immediately apparent example of body positivity to most people experiencing My Hero Academia is Inko, Midoriya’s mom. We see her in flashbacks as a particularly fit and slim woman, only to grow heavier over time. It’s implied that, after learning her son was Quirkless, she emotionally ate because she blamed herself for Midoriya being unable to achieve his dream of being a hero. However, most of that isn’t really brought up in the main text because Inko’s weight is rarely, if ever, brought up at all.
Inko is defined by her love of her son and her intense need to keep him safe while still understanding he needs to fulfill his own dreams for his own self-satisfaction. This leads her to several great moments, most notably following the fight with All-For-One where she directly confronts All Might about how she fears for her son’s life and doesn’t want him to go to U.A. anymore.
This sheer level of strength—to stand up to the greatest hero of all time, even while crying and dealing with her emotional anxiety—is arguably the epitome of her character. She’s defined not her appearance, but her strength of will despite the great anxiety she feels.
Body positivity like in My Hero Academia is vital for audiences to develop an understanding that everyone has value, even if they don’t perfectly match what society considers to be the “physical ideal.” Personal value exists far beyond what that “ideal” is, because everyone is ultimately inherently valuable. But what My Hero Academia also manages to do is show that people with heavier bodies can be great with their bodies, not despite their bodies. Their bodies aren’t an obstacle to overcome.
While many already understand on an intellectual level that a person’s worth isn’t defined by their appearance, it can be difficult to truly believe it when practically every piece of popular media around you is saying the opposite. That’s why depictions like those in My Hero Academia are so important: to remind us that body diversity is something to be accepted, even celebrated, instead of shamed. We need to see stories that validate our sense of accepting all bodies and seeing everyone as a person worthy of respect, beyond whatever physical form we all might take.