by Collett Smart
Part of my day job sees me lucky enough to spend time with teens. I have run media literacy seminars for students, in schools around the world, for a number of years now. Whenever I ask a group of tween or teen boys what they think the main area of body focus is, for boys, they yell out, ‘A six-pack!’ (I’ve even heard 9-year-old boys talking about and trying to compare their six-packs.) This line is the same, whether I am in Zimbabwe, New Zealand, the USA or Australia.
When given the opportunity, a whole lot more gushes out. As if a sudden crack in the wall has given them freedom to leak what’s on their minds – “Boys have body image issues too!”
Our general silence on this leads our boys to believe they are the only ones worrying. Now, they’ve finally been given permission to talk about something they are struggling with. The words come – biceps, jawlines, athletic builds, calf muscles, a broad chest, the triangular body shape, not skinny, but not too muscular, not ‘this’, but ‘that’… The boys laugh out in relief, and nod along in agreement.
Body insecurity is not just limited to our girls
What boys worry about
Boys have body image issues and are more body conscious than we realise. This is not new, but unfortunately boys are far less likely to address their own body image concerns and are more likely to struggle alone. Because body image issues have long been thought of as ‘a girl thing’. Our boys also tend to laugh off criticism or make a joke to cover up painful comments about their bodies. They carry their hurt in secret.
Boys tend to worry about how muscular they are and whether they are too skinny. Yet, when questioned directly about this, boys admit that extreme exercise and dieting are issues for both genders. Us adults are slower to recognise this as a real concern for boys.
What boys believe to be ‘good’ bodies
A UK survey reported that although most boys say that looking good won’t lead to happiness, many still believe there is a ‘perfect’ body to strive for. For boys, ‘perfect’ means muscly, lean and athletic. Boys also tend to associate muscles with being masculine. The survey also found a general naiveté among boys about when they are being advertised to, particularly through non-traditional methods such as social media. Yet, apart from their friends, this is the source with the highest influence on how boys judge themselves. Social media influences how they dress and what it means to ‘look good’.
The most fascinating aspect, to me, is that although boys say they are aware that media changes images, they tend to believe that the media changes the way women look more than men. Boys are often shocked by how much the male image has been adjusted, when it is pointed out. Some boys acknowledge that the way the media portrays men is unrealistic and unhealthy, but still say it can be inspirational.
“In this day and age, boys are expected to look their best; there is increased societal pressure placed upon them … There has recently been more of an emerging market for items that were originally almost exclusively used by girls, for example cosmetics products, hair serums and sprays, hair straighteners and body hair shavers. There is some evidence that from as young as 4 years, the pressure is being felt by children too, as some are worried about eating too much causing them to ‘get fat’.
This idea is called ‘normative discontent’. Unfortunately, it is widely acknowledged and accepted that most women experience weight dissatisfaction. However normative discontent is now more pervasive for boys as well. This is considered to be due to the strong stereotypes of how people should look.”
Sarah McMahon, psychologist and director of Bodymatters Australasia
How body focus affects boys
A US study published in 2019 found that 22% of men aged 18-24 reported muscularity-oriented disordered eating. Paediatricians are now raising concerns over the increase in muscle-enhancing behaviours (steroid abuse, binge eating and exercise dependence) in boys in particular. Essentially, there seems to be a disconnect between the actual and desired body size/shape of boys (much like we see in some girls).
We now know that muscle dissatisfaction (in boys) is significantly associated with psychological issues, alcohol and drug use, lower height satisfaction, sedentary lifestyle, poor subjective physical fitness, and lower life satisfaction.
When should I be concerned about my son?
Muscle Dysmorphia (MD) is a type of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). It is often referred to as “Bigorexia” or “Reverse anorexia” in the media and consists of a preoccupation with not being muscular or lean ‘enough’. Clinical eating disorders and MD are complex issues, with no single cause identified (and beyond the scope of this blog post). It often includes genetic vulnerabilities, psychological factors and socio-cultural influences (social media and traditional advertising are one aspect of this).
Bodymatters Australasia provides clinical guidelines on these.
In supporting our sons, we might:
1. Think about how we comment on other people’s body shape, weight or size.
My number one rule: Don’t comment on other people’s bodies – no matter how much or little they have changed. Talk about people’s character.
2. Notice how we comment on people in the media. Also, what is our own media diet like? e.g. Shows like Love Island celebrate bodies, outward appearances and hook ups as relationship markers. The objectification of men’s bodies is no different to the objectification and sexualisation of women’s. This is part of discussing media literacy to our boys.
3. Talk to boys about their emotions. Be open about boys’ and men’s insecurities. Ask men in your son’s life to speak about male vulnerabilities, men’s mental health, expressing big emotions in healthy ways, demonstrating courage in non-brawny ways too, showing love…
4. Notice (out loud) your son’s character – kindness to siblings / grandparents / strangers, courage when facing a difficult decision, helping around the house, apologies he makes. Notice what his body can DO, rather than how it looks. Notice his effort, team work and reaching his own Personal Best in sport / academics / art – not just his winning.
5. Focus on activities that get them moving, and food that is nutritious (without banning certain foods). For healthy minds and bodies – not for muscle size or shape.
6. Model body acceptance yourself. It might be time for parents to ask ourselves: How do I regard my own body? What does my child hear me say about my body? How do I talk about food and exercise in our home? When we model self-objectification boys quickly learn that only certain types of bodies are acceptable, and that appearance is what is most valued by their families.
7. Connect with your son, in ways that are meaningful to him. Let him know he is both love-WORTHY and love-ABLE
8. Use family gatherings like, meal times, traditions and holidays, to communicate a sense of family and belonging (even if he doesn’t want to talk).
9. Engage the support of male mentors. Our boys need to be invited to participate in the lives of healthy men. Rites of passage programs (like The Rite Journey) also teach boys that growing up doesn’t just involve growing muscles and genitals. Growing up looks like growing in character.
10. Encourage everyday activism. Stay in touch with what’s going on in your child’s world. Encourage teens to balance their social media feed by following positive role models, YouTubers and activist movements. Get involved with activist movements yourself. Like; Collective Shout, eChildhood, Beauty Redefined and International Justice Mission. Talk about the work they do, and explain to your sons why they are important in making changes to the body focused world we live in.
One last thought
EVERY body is valuable and important and worthy. Parents and adults, be gentle with yourselves. I know that many of us need to unlearn the destructive messages we were taught. As you support your son, learn to accept your own body in the process.
Here is my podcast on this topic?. Perhaps there’s a parent of a teen who really needs to hear this? Please share with them today.
I wrote more about boys and body image, in my book ‘They’ll be Okay’.