No Middle Sliders: Body Diversity in Anime

When I lived in Japan, I rarely bought clothing. At 5’4” and 140 pounds, I was on the smaller side of average for an American woman, but finding clothes that fit, let alone flattered, my hips or shoulders was a chore to find at best and a self-esteem-destroying battle at worst. The only jacket I bought there is size XL and is loose everywhere but the shoulders. The story was the same for most of my foreign female coworkers, and we generally did all our clothes shopping on visits to our home countries. It was frustrating, but it was just one of those things you have to learn to deal with when living in a foreign country.

As an American feminist, body positivity and the struggle for diverse bodies to be respected and represented in the media is a huge issue. However, when I’m watching anime, it’s probably one of the things I pay the least attention to when considering the show’s representation of women. I prioritize the themes and roles they play within the story, and whether they reinforce gender stereotypes or break away from them. Physical appearance is rarely something I concern myself with except for how it relates to those things.

Let’s face it – the primary purpose of most anime featuring girls and women is to appeal to the male gaze in order to sell models and other merchandise, regardless of whether or not female fans identify with the characters. In a country that values thinness as a major component of a woman’s attractiveness, chunky characters are a tough sell outside a narrow set of fetishists. Anime character designs have two sliders: height and boob size. They can occupy a large range between short and tall, flat-chested and grotesquely busty, but no matter what, they are almost always slim.

So, when DOES it matter?

When it does things very, very right…

If an anime does have women with a believable variety of body types, I’ll pretty much fall all over myself praising it for that. After all, it means that someone went out of their way to design women outside of the default cookie-cutter shape. Princess Jellyfish is a story about fujoshi who have given up on society, and their shapes range from lanky and angular to short and rounded – none are traditionally attractive other than the “Hollywood ugly” main character – and even then, she is far from shaped like a model.

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The cast of Princess Jellyfish

Even better about displaying women with diverse body types is Please Tell Me! Galko-chan. Now, I’ve already written a lot about this show, and I think it’s an unfortunately rare perfect example body diversity in animation. Galko-chan puts a huge variety of body types on display, from short and skinny Otako to curvy Galko to average-build Ojou. Galko isn’t just skinny with huge breasts but genuinely curvy, with a booty to match as well as a thicker middle and broad shoulders. The show also sympathetically discusses how she gets backaches because of her breasts, the difficulty of finding cute bras in her size, and the chauvinistic assumptions her classmates make about her because of her shape. Also, her breasts don’t move like water balloons attached to her chest! It’s a beautiful thing. On top of Galko herself, several background characters also show a multitude of body types. My favorite is Nikuko, a fat girl whose name translates literally to “meaty child.” Fat women in anime are often portrayed as lazy, gluttonous, or falsely confident in their own attractiveness. In contrast, Nikuko is cheerful and athletic, nicknamed “Sonic Meat” because of her speed. When we see her in her underwear, she has believable proportions including large, round belly, but she is never the subject of mockery or cruel jokes about her weight.

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Please Tell Me! Galko-chan is unafraid to put larger bodies on display

Positive portrayals of diverse bodies in Please Tell Me! Galko-chan are important because it’s a show about bodies. Much of the show is spent discussing breasts and vaginas in such a matter-of-fact, frank way, and it’s essential to the show’s message to teen girls – that all these things, in all their gross glory, are normal – to depict so many different body types as being worthy of recognition, of appreciation, and even of celebration.

Or when it does things very, very wrong

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HELP HER BOOBS HAVE ESCAPED AND ARE TRYING TO STRANGLE HER
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The anime for which the phrase “calm your tits” was invented

Okay, a lot of anime distorts female bodies to the point of grotesquerie for the sake of fan service. The appeal of the infamous Eiken will always be a mystery to me, as are the rippling water balloon breasts of recent shows such as Valkyrie Drive. The increasingly insane proportions of the women of One Piece and its conflation of obesity and villainy were a factor in why I stopped reading it. However, these shows are all aimed at the male gaze and honestly, they’ve become more of a quaint curiosity than a point of contention to me. No, the one series where the lack of body diversity always bothers me is Shirobako, because it is otherwise such a rare treat.

Shirobako gained critical acclaim when it premiered for its wonderful depiction of a group of fully-grown women working in the anime industry. The women are intelligent and competent, and their career struggles are sympathetic and believable, such as an animator having difficulty making ends meet or a producer covering for her thoughtless colleague. Much of the male secondary cast is based on real people, allowing for unusually realistic character designs. The side-by-side comparisons are incredible, and it’s fun to watch and see how these individuals’ personalities and passions have made the world of Shirobako simultaneously colorful and completely believable.

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Too bad the main female cast all have identical infantilized same-faces!

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Maybe they’re identical quintuplets?

The show handles everything else so masterfully, so it creates an odd disconnect with the female character designs. It doesn’t ruin the series by any means, but it is distracting and takes away from the narrative of capable adult women breaking into a tough, competitive industry. Instead, it carries the nasty reminder that anime production remains a boys’ club. If a female character doesn’t sell models and other fanservicey merchandise, no matter how much a viewer may relate to her or even look up to her, she is worthless from the studio’s point of view. “Don’t lie to yourself,” it whispers to me. “This is not for you.” Their lives may not revolve around men, but their existence does.

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13 thoughts on “No Middle Sliders: Body Diversity in Anime

  1. Actually your mention of shirobako made me wonder something: there are many women animators: how do they feel about all of this? I always felt weird (almost guilty as a consumer) seeing the females at the Musani production team talk about directing or drawing shows such as Jiggly Heaven with a straight face.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s something I’ve thought about myself, and something we’re unlikely to ever get an answer about. Japanese animators just don’t talk smack about their productions. Ever. There may be a few outspoken exceptions, but generally they’re as vague and noncommittal as can be when asked about ANY opinion, positive or negative.
      One thing I do find interesting is that Kyoto Animation, the studio best known for its moe productions, also trains and employees the highest concentration of female talent of any studio. What does that mean? No clue. But it’s interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. On the topic of getting straight answers, I have actually seen some from KyoAni staff. There was a recent group interview Yamada Naoko (one of their most prominent directors) along with I think the character designer (who was I believe female) for the new season of Hibike Euphonium. An outfit showing off one of the girl’s stomach/ab area came up, and Yamada asked the character designer about it playfully, which prompted a reply along the lines of “I guess I like designing things that are a bit racy” (sorry I don’t remember specifics or have a link on hand).

        I’ve seen this trend pop up on a few occasions. The argument can certainly still be made that the design trends of the industry tend to push women away, but there are definitely those who enjoy and completely buy into it. Another example that comes to mind is a female mangaka. Manga often have little pieces by the authors at the end, and she decided to tell the story of her seeing a jogger in the city with a white shirt that had soaked through with sweat and become translucent. She went up to them and simply said “thank you.” From the female perspective of at least some in this industry they also seem to like cute women, and getting a little perverse with that concept.

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  2. mdmrn

    You make some excellent points. I love anime, but there are often all manner of unrealistic and ridiculously proportioned body shapes; it’s great to see realistic portrayals of women of all shapes. Lately I’ve seen a lot of children’s anime with my kids…with a lot of cats presented. That said, I think about Chi’s Sweet Home as an example of more natural appearing body types drawn, including for the female characters. While it has its own style of art with oddly shaped faces at times, the body proportions on the characters feel more natural. But perhaps part of the difference there is the aim of the program. It’s aimed for children, so there is no sexualizing of the characters.

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  3. On Shirobako’s faces: the common ‘moe’ look that binds them all together was something I really appreciated in the show. That kind of ‘infantilized’ face is so frequently used in anime because engaging with ‘moe’ involves infantilizing one’s self in the viewing process. The five girls’ similar faces speak of their unified youngness when it comes to entering into the anime industry, and we join them in that youngness as viewers. Them all having the same face also reminds me that they all have the same dream.In fact, the use of moe for many of the show’s more experienced characters binds them all back into that high school sense of being at a prime time of their lives. I can think of no other way of actualizing this sense of ‘out of high school but still in high school’ than by casting the anime industry in the very moe aesthetic it makes.

    It may remind you that ‘anime is a boys club’, but remember that moe is about ‘becoming’ the figure you feel moe towards; I find nothing wrong with an aesthetic that, while indeed targeted at men, works to feminize them, unless that aesthetic becomes reductive to the point of pure commercialization and objectification of gender, which moe only does at its extreme. That going on in the background of Shirobako’s moe shouldn’t make us unable to see Shirobako’s moe as something positive and as contributing to what the story speaks of for its characters and themes. Even if it does feel irradiated by issues in the anime industry, it’s up to you to decide while you’re watching whether you’ll allow it to be distracting, or whether you want to see it in terms of how it speaks to the story; whether you want to only see it from one angle, or from as many as possible. Moe often means a lot more than meets the eye!

    Aside from that quibble, really cool article.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. As I said, in Shirobako they’re not drawn that way because they’re thematically tied through the iconography of moe. The male characters also share this theme; consider the childishness of the director and the ‘child at heart’ of the oldest animator there. As characters as a whole, also, the women of Shirobako obviously have a lot of differentiating traits; they are not their image alone. They vary in expressions of maturity while performing under a similar guise of youth.

        I think you’re forcing realism into an art style that revels in formalism. Though the women of Shirobako are not drawn realistically, they speak of a realistic experience of the industry in their characterisation as a whole. We mustn’t divorce their style of artifice from how we receive them as a whole; that would be a kind of objectification, on our end as critics; a reduction to image that no longer evaluates them as the full characters the story presents them as.

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      2. As for variety in women representation, I can think of the mom/key animator and the female inbetweener. Granted, they’re among the minority and also minor characters, but I really liked their exchange at the streetside food cart. It served very well to highlight them both as actual people with human ambitions and worries.
        On the other extreme, we have Kunogi Ai, whose behaviour is unrealistic enough to break my engagement with the story. But I tolerate it, and it doesn’t ruin the show for me.

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  5. Thank you for making this article! I think about this all the time, more being a foreigner living in Japan (I totally relate to the first part because SPANISH HIPS). And yes, Shirobako is such a great series that it’s so sad it’s so lacking in that department (and the vast amount of merchandise and key visuals depicting the main cast in totally OOC attitudes didn’t help either!).

    Another game/anime/novel franchise that could be better (because they’re still very exaggerated and some are quite standard) but it’s slowly getting there and I love them for that is Danganronpa IMHO!

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