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So, as you know, superheroes and heroines have been popular for many decades. All superheroes wear some form of colorful spandex, but it seems like female superhero costumes are a little more…revealing.

Ok, so there are two superheroes, Bionic Bob and Heroic Holly. Bionic Bob wears a costume that goes from neck to ankle, cape, boots, utility belt, average super hero get up. Then you have Holly. Wearing a costume that shows cleavage, thighs, and etcetera. Why might superheroes wear revealing outfits?

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    $\begingroup$ Many martial artists find it hard to find clothes that don't restrict their flexibility and agility in combat. Perhaps these superheroes are not wearing 'revealing' costumes per se; just wearing something that lets them move without restriction? $\endgroup$ – Tim B II Jun 26 '18 at 0:01
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    $\begingroup$ And I do believe that this is a real question (or a real problem). There are legions of scantily clad female warriors in animation/movies/computer games, and the only explanation is "because genre". $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jun 26 '18 at 0:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexander pretty sure its to sell more copies to horny boys/men and not just genre. You pull them in with skin and if you can deliver a good story/plot even better $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Jun 26 '18 at 1:02
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    $\begingroup$ This question, while mostly valid, manages to miss the forest for the trees. Why would a person wear tight revealing clothing? I'm not playing a gender role pronoun game - People just do this. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy Jun 26 '18 at 5:34
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    $\begingroup$ one word: marketing $\endgroup$ – Valerio Pastore Jun 26 '18 at 5:53

17 Answers 17

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To sell comics to teenage boys is the real reason.

But revealing costumes is to be memorable and identifiable. If the hero doesn't bother with a secret identity, it might be worth sponsorship. If you look at sports people, it's not always the best that make the most money. Being attractive helps greatly.

After all stopping bank robbers doesn't pay well.....

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    $\begingroup$ "Why robbing the banks when you can get them pay you?", said Miss Fantastic giggling her skin tight and very revealing body suit... $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jun 26 '18 at 3:17
  • $\begingroup$ How can this not be the only -- and obvious -- answer? $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Jul 24 '18 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ Most obvious answer, but noth the only one: Fanservice. Both IC and OOC. $\endgroup$ – Anonymous Jul 27 '18 at 5:58
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If I was bulletproof or had super strength, what need would there be for clothes other than aesthetic? If I was also in superhuman fitness, why wouldn’t I want to show off my body?

Superhumans must have huge egos.

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    $\begingroup$ Actually, superhumans have superegos. ;) $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Jun 26 '18 at 7:15
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    $\begingroup$ This doesn't answer why the male superheros doesn't also wear shorty shorts and tops showing their abs. $\endgroup$ – WendyG Jun 26 '18 at 11:12
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    $\begingroup$ @WendyG the skin tight outfits of male heroes don't leave much to the imagination. $\endgroup$ – Dan Clarke Jun 26 '18 at 14:17
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    $\begingroup$ @DanClarke whereas the females one don't leave anything to the imagination, I often wear more fabric to swim. $\endgroup$ – WendyG Jun 26 '18 at 14:23
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    $\begingroup$ Men in general are attracted to physical appearances of women, and feminist response is to argue all objectification of women is bad. Women in general are attracted to successful masculine men, not necessarily focused on looks as much. Insofar as superhero men fully display there success and hyper masculine traits, as well as the dark triad o narcissism, machiavellian tendencies (and whats the other one?) i would argue that male superheroes are very much hyper sexualized at least as much as women $\endgroup$ – user22106 Jun 26 '18 at 16:24
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Two good reasons that nobody has mentioned yet:

Reason 1: Exposed skin is required for the superheroine's power(s) to work.

This is an increasingly common justification for female characters to wear skimpy outfits. A good example would be Midnight from My Hero Academia: her power is to emit a gas from her pores that sends anyone in the vicinity to sleep, so the more skin she exposes, the more gas she can release at once. When she first debuted, her outfit was so skimpy that the government actually passed a law regulating superhero costumes. (See also: Kill la Kill, Metal Gear Solid 5)

Reason 2: To distract the bad guys.

If those skimpy outfits are, out-of-universe, designed to make male readers stare, they're gonna cause men to stare in-universe as well. With any luck, that'll include the villain you're fighting, and while he's distracted looking at your cleavage (or trying not to look at your cleavage), you sock him in the jaw. Granted, this will only work on het/bi male villains (or lesbian/bi female villains, like Poison Ivy), but in my experience those tend to make up the majority of comic book villains anyway.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for reason #2. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jun 26 '18 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ Gay villains, the bane of heroines. Also a good example of #1 is Illya from RWBY. She has colour changing so keeps her arms and legs fully exposed, but the designers did a great job of making it so that she doesn't look skimpy at all, what clothing she does have(covering the main body) is made of highly practical material $\endgroup$ – ArcWraith Jun 26 '18 at 23:51
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I have seen many female superheroes wearing full coverage costumes. However, they seem to have almost all been in movies and TV shows for children, not for teenage boys.

I have just looked at pictures of bathing suits for children, and it looks like most of them were designed by manufacturers of sunblock hoping to increase sales. One piece bathing suits for little girls cover at least as much as most swimming trunks for boys, but two piece bathing suits for little girls usually cover a lot less skin than bathing trunks for boys.

looking at photos of female gymnasts, it looks like most of them wear the equivalent of one piece swimsuits, while male gymnasts often wear shirts, and wear shorts or long pants, and seem to wear more clothing on average than females.

I'm starting to see a real world trend that may be carrying over to fictional female superheros.

One possible theory is that female superheroes want to have boyfriends and get married just as much as non super women do. But because of all the time they spend fighting super villains, they don't get to meet as many men as they would like to. Also they probably only want to meet, date, and eventually marry male superheroes. I believe that the majority of women are attracted to men who are stronger than they are. And if a woman is a superhero, the only men more powerful than her are likely to be male superheros.

Thus most female superheros probably want to make good impressions on male superheros. So the first time a female superhero used a sexy and revealing super costume to impress male superheros, she started a costume arms race with all competing female superheros to make the best impression on male superheros.

Such a costume arms race might not benefit anyone in the world of superheros, but many male readers of comic books probably think that it benefits them.

At least, that is one possible theory about the in universe reasons for the typical female super hero costumes in comics.

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  • $\begingroup$ So male superhero have "super" shallowness too? $\endgroup$ – Lio Elbammalf Jun 26 '18 at 5:50
  • $\begingroup$ Did you ever stop to think just how silly it is to wear clothes for swimming? (Scuba diving wetsuits excluded, of course.) Same applies to a lot of clothing (other than supportive gear for one's floppy bits) for gymnastics &c. It's all about freedom of movement. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jun 27 '18 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Jamesqf But wearing a swim suit that cover more skin skin reduces the amount of sun block that one has to wear, which is why I joked that swim suits usually seem to have been designed by sunblock manufacturers. $\endgroup$ – M. A. Golding Jul 14 '18 at 3:41
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Because superheroics are theatre. Sure, you fly, make forcefields and shoot lasers out of your hands, but if somebody shoots you with a gun or clubs you over the head you'd go down. So you want to make clear to potential threats that you have powers, and you want people to generally think that a person with powers beats a person without, hands down.

So you get really into branding. You pick a cool name, you wear a flashy costume, you talk to PR people and sell the rights to use your likeness to merchandising companies; you make sure that when people see your strikingly-costumed figure, they know that they're seeing Laserdream or Wonder Woman or Elastigirl. And you make sure that your victories are boosted in the press and so on so that when some mugger sees you drop out of the sky their first instinct is to surrender, not shoot.

And every other superhero gets into the same act, because they're driven by the same incentives. Even the villains buy in to some extent, because a general culture of not bringing guns to a capefight benefits them, too.

tl;dr: branding.

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    $\begingroup$ Heh: not bringing guns to a capefight $\endgroup$ – Piomicron Jul 24 '18 at 17:14
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For the same reason that male superheroes wear tight spandex clothes. Or that female ice skaters/dancers wear as little skirt as possible. Have you ever tried to fight in layers of skirts and restrictive blouses? Those types of clothes bind and actually make it more dangerous for the wearer to fight in. Skirts wrap around quickly moving legs and trip you up.

It is possible to wear them, but the wearer must be EXTREMELY well trained, and even then circumstances can change things in an instant.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, Malachainn! If you have a moment, please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox (both of which require 5 rep to post on) useful. Here is a meta post on the culture and style of Worldbuilding.SE, just to help you understand our scope and methods. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – FoxElemental Jul 24 '18 at 17:44
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No one will remember her face as long as there is cleavage to look at. Especially if it is combined with big, loose hair that hides half her face and lots of make-up. (There are some pretty crazy make-up / removal videos on youtube to support this claim.)

Then she can wear normal clothes when she is not super-heroing and no one will suspect her.

Also, thermoregulation is very important during strenuous physical activities, like beating up a baddie or jumping over skyscrapers.

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Merchandising

It turns out that heroing doesn't pay very well. To make ends meet most heroes sell the rights to their image to toy companies, and it appears that action figures of female heroes sell much better when they are scantily clad.

The Superhero Fashion Industry is irrational

Women have been complaining about the apparent impossibility of creating women's clothing with real pockets for ages. After that, is it really surprising that superhero clothing would be needlessly revealing?

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Also, Skin-tight is Easier to Draw

As I understand it, comic artists pretty much start any figure (male or female) undraped, so as to get the musculature and stuff correct, then cover it with clothes. If the clothes are skin-tight and/or show bare skin, then that's less work than getting looser clothes to drape correctly, especially in action scenes.

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Reduce damage to clothes

If the superhero is bulletproof, then it may be easier to make rip resistant clothing if it is close to the hero's skin. This allows the superhero's skin to stop the bullet as soon as possible after it hits the clothing. If the clothing were further from the skin, it might rip before the bullet gets a chance to create pressure on the skin.

To demonstrate, set up a paper towel such that it is stretched tight an inch in front of a board. Fire a BB at it. The BB probably goes through. Now move either the board or the paper towel such that they are touching. Fire the BB gun again. The paper towel likely stays intact.

This applies even more to making clothes abbreviated. Superheroines are often bulletproof or have accelerated healing. Clothes? Not so much. The sleeves and hose that you are not wearing are not in danger of getting ripped.

Freedom of movement

Put on a skin tight leotard. Try to move in it. Put on a woman's dress, try to move in that. In which would you prefer to fight for your life and those of your family, friends, and community?

You want your fighting clothes to move easily with you. Athletic clothing tends to be close fitting because that moves easily with you.

Easy to hide

Superheroes can wear their skintight suits under their clothes. That doesn't work as well if the suit is as bulky as the clothes.

Empowerment

She's a superheroine. Is she going to dress to hide herself? Or is she declaring that she is woman, hear her roar.

Many superheroines are overcoming shyness and timidity when in costume. Part of that may well be a reluctance to dress sexy. So when she is expressing herself, it's not just physical power but sexiness. Mousy in real life but sexually aggressive in costume. She may not even realize that she is doing it. She represses herself in real life, but she can let go when in costume. This includes hitting the idiots as well.

Supervillains are sexist pigs

Supervillains are evil right? So clearly they are exactly the kinds of people who objectify women and can be distracted by the fan service shots.

Ooh, boobs! Kick to head. Ooh, birdies! Passes out.

Hit 'em while they ogle, ladies. That's how the smart heroines do it.

Hide her secret identity

Flashing skin draws attention to the skin and away from the face. She doesn't have to give the "Eyes are up here" speech. She can simply travel in anonymity, as she won't show those parts of herself in her real world identity.

This may not work as well on women, particularly straight women. But presumably women will better understand why a superheroine might want to keep her identity secret. After all, men have enough trouble with smarter women. Where would we be if women didn't even need us to open jars?

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  • $\begingroup$ Easy to hide +1 - Male superheroes usually wear full suits at work. Females wear skirts that reveal at least part of the legs. They also tend to have short sleeves and lowish necklines. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Feb 13 at 9:53
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I don’t think that all superheroines would choose this kind of outfit, if it weren’t for us, the spectators, but some would. Here are some ideas:

Vanity and memorability coupled with no fear? Superheroines have been very reasonable!

These superheroines (regardless of attire) tend to look exactly the way average joe finds super attractive. In our world there are already many provocatively small hot pants(resisting urge to link). Imagine how these people would dress, if they needn’t fear sexual harassment, criticism... Considering that, superheroines have been very well behaved girls. Add to this, that superheroes such as The Flash or Superman are the hope of their respective cities. I guess many heroines are the same. They need to wear memorable costumes!

Spider Man style money making

Remember what spidey does when he’s low on money? He sells pics of himself. Superheroines might have a similar business going with help of a friend - many superheroines have suitable friends, such as Cloak and Dagger, Arrow and Black Canary.

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Wearing anything else costs too much.

Have you ever thought about how much it would cost to have someone make a custom outfit for you? How about how much time people like cosplayers put in to making their costumes? Simply put: heroes who don't need armor in their outfit will wear revealing outfits as every inch of skin the immortal demigod who can not be harmed by mortal weapons exposes is an inch of their body where if they get hit they don't have to go pay a tailor or slave over with a sewing kit.

For some heroes I could see they have to replace their outfits every time they get ripped since if they repair it to many times they stop looking like the invulnerable god that they are and more like some one who's wearing a patched quilt.

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To keep cool.

Superheroes routinely engage in some pretty energetic actions. While there are hot-climate outfits that are fairly covering (think Arab robes) that's to reject solar heating. The superheroes' heat is internal and thus such approaches don't work.

Hence superheroes wear attire that exposes the maximum skin consistent with social requirements, and where they must cover it's with skintight material to maximize thermal transfer.

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  • $\begingroup$ Neat idea. It doesn't explain why the male superheroes don't have to keep cool! Maybe female superpowers interact with female hormones and increase the chance of hotflashes (similar to older menopausal women) $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Jun 27 '18 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ @EveryBitHelps It's not that it's absolutely required, the heat isn't going to kill them. Thus they wear the least covering clothing that is socially acceptable. Scantily clad women are far more acceptable than scantily clad men. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Jun 27 '18 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ Also worth mentioning: maybe superpowers cause a higher metabolism, and therefore a higher production of body heat $\endgroup$ – Piomicron Jul 24 '18 at 17:13
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Why wouldn't they? If you are basically a god, as all heroes look like Apolo/Hercules/Ares and all heroines look like Athena/Diana/Aphrodite, why would you hide your perfect body behind clothes? So, the heroines would use revealing clothes because they can.

Ps.: the REAL question is: Why aren't the male heroes walking around "dressed" as Conan the Barbarian.

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For most superhero getup there is very little justification. As there is for the powers. As there is for the actions. Why should not all three be connected?

The advent of superpowers is a very traumatic event, one that leaves every superhero/ine deeply disturbed. They are thrown into a world of violence and chaos, with few rational guidelines left. Relationships crumble, everyday societal norms become ephemeral. They crack. Just as many disturbed people, their looks reflect their inner turmoil, dicumenting their dwindling grasp on what is normal. By insulating their alter ego from the crazyness of super-existence, they manage to keep that persona looking normal, (although, notice, sometimes too normal).

Crazy cat lady goes for layering long skirts and wild hair, catwoman goes for tight leather and slick hair. Just expressions of their derangement. Superman wore his undies over his suit - either he was mormon and needed the extra protection, or he was not coping with his traumatic childhood.

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Simple: the fashion trends in female superheroes were set by a couple of superheroes with regenerative abilities. They could regenerate any part of their body, as long as their (heart, liver, stomach, intestines, etc.) was intact.

Many superheroes have powers that negate the need for armour, and those that don't will often wear things more like full-body suits.

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Male superhero struts around in a leather loincloth and little else: Look how strong and masculine he is! Female superheroin wears a spandex bodysuit with some cleavage: Sexism, female exploitation by the patriarchy!

Me: Let people wear what they want. If I were an attractive woman who has a job that requires freedom of movement I'd wear something like that as well. Victorian style dresses or burqahs just don't work in a superheroin's line of work, they get snagged on things way too easily :)

And why not look attractive while saving the world? If it distracts the villains even for a second while it even helps you.

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  • $\begingroup$ :-) I'm not one of the downvoters, but I suspect that most if not all of the downvotes are due to paragraph #1, which is making a social comment and not answering the question. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jul 2 '18 at 23:39

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