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 nine-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 (in my seminars), 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 Girls
In short, boys have body image issues and are more body-conscious than we realise. In fact, between 20 and 30 per cent of all people with eating disorders are male. In Australia, the figure is estimated at 1 in 5, in the UK 1 in 4, and in the USA 1 in 3. This is not a new problem, 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’.
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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 problems for both genders. Us adults are slower to recognise this as a real concern for boys.
A UK survey reported that even though most boys don’t believe looking good will 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 even though boys say they’re aware that media publishers edit photographs, they tend to believe they do this for images of women more than men. Boys are often shocked by how much male images have 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.
Sarah McMahon, psychologist and director of Bodymatters Australasia, talks just how far the impact is going:
“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.”
How Body Focus Affects Boys
A US study published in 2019 found that one in five young 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), particularly in boys. Essentially, many boys are living with a constant sense of dissatisfaction over their body size or – 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 weight satisfaction, a sedentary lifestyle, poor subjective physical fitness, and lower life satisfaction.
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 article). It often includes genetic vulnerabilities, psychological factors and socio-cultural influences; social media and traditional advertising are one aspect of this.
Bodymatters Australasia has clinical guidelines on these conditions for anyone wanting to find out more.
10 Ways to Support Our Sons
There are many positive steps parents, family members, friends and mentors can take to support boys and young men in the way they think about their bodies, such as:
1 – Watch Your Body-Talk
Think about how you comment on other people’s body shape, weight or size. My number one rule is: 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 You Comment on Celebrities
Do you make comments about people in the media? This is a form of judgment, too, that can shape the way our children think about their own bodies.
3 – Consider Your Media Consumption
What is your own ‘media-diet’ like? Shows like Love Island and The Bachelor 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 an important part of discussing media literacy with our boys.
4 – Talk to Boys About Their Emotions
Be open about boys’ and men’s insecurities. Ask the men in your sons’ lives to talk to them about male emotions – their vulnerabilities, their mental health, how to express big emotions in healthy ways, how to demonstate courage in non-brawny ways too, how to show love.
5 – Affirm Your Son’s Good Character and Effort
Give positive affirmation to your son when he shows kindness to siblings, grandparents or strangers, when he shows courage in making a difficult decision, when he helps around the house, when he apologises for something. 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 or art – not just his winning.
6 – Focus on Movement and Health
Help your son to focus on activities that get them moving, and food that is nutritious (without banning certain foods). The aim is to promote positive thinking around healthy minds and bodies – not around size or shape.
7 – Model Body Acceptance Yourself
It might be time, as a parent, to ask yourself: “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.
8 – Connect With Your Son
When you reach out to connect with your son and spend time with him, do so in ways that are meaningful to him. Let him know he is both love-worthy, and love-able.
9 – Have Family Gatherings and Tradition
Even if your son is a little detached and doesn’t want to talk, continue including him in family gatherings like meal times, traditions and holidays. These things will be communicating a sense of family and belonging to your son, even if you don’t see it on the surface.
10 – Find Male Mentors For Your Son
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.
11 – 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 social causes yourself that make a difference in this area, such as 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 have been taught ourselves. As you support your son, learn to accept your own body in the process.
Article supplied with thanks to Raising Teenagers. About the Author: Collett Smart is a psychologist, qualified teacher, speaker and internationally published author. The heart of her work is to support and bring Hope to parents of tweens and teens.