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