Boys and Body Image

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Earlier this week my husband and I were talking about body image and we each challenged each other to list five things we did not like about our bodies. We had to say the first five things that came to our heads. We both came up with our lists easily. A lot of what we mentioned are things we have not liked for years. What surprised me was that my husband was able to list five things so quickly. I have always assumed that boys have higher body esteem because they aren’t as pressured to be skinny, like girls. But the more I researched, the more I realized that boys also are expected to comply with a certain body type: the muscle man.

Many boys are the target of bullying either because their bodies are too skinny or too fat. They feel pressure to gain weight so they can be bigger. They also feel pressure to work out so their muscles will show. According to a Huffington Post article, “Body image issues often go unreported or undiagnosed for boys, the experts say, which may explain the varying statistics. [One study found that] nearly 18 percent of adolescent boys are concerned about their bodies and their weight. Among those boys, half wanted to gain more muscle and a third wanted to gain muscle and get thinner.”

Just as Barbie created an impossible body image for girls, so too do G.I. Joe toys and bulked-up action heroes create impossible ideas for boys. According to Common Sense Media, “the measurements of the male action figures young boys play with exceed even those of the biggest bodybuilders.” Furthermore, just as there is an increased pressure for girl’s Halloween costumes to be sexy there is an increased pressure for boy’s Halloween costumes to be full of muscle. “Big muscles are typically associated with good health. But what drives a young man to achieve that look can be far from healthy. Researchers have found a significant relationship between men’s exposure to muscular-ideal media and negative self-image.”

Just as I discussed in “Boys Are More Than Strong,” boys should not be judged solely by their strength or muscles. Their manhood shouldn’t depend on how they measure to the social media messages they receive every day. So what can you do as a mother of a boy facing these pressures?

  • Pay attention to what media they are consuming. Point out inconsistencies that you see of body image for males or females. Remind them of the real men that they know and what they look like.
  • Look for alternative role models. While superheroes can emulate many good qualities, their bodies aren’t the most realistic. Try to introduce your son to other role models with different body types. Maybe this Halloween you can help him choose an outfit that doesn’t have built-in muscle pads.
  • Point out the things you admire in your son, other than his muscles. You can say that he is fast or flexible. Or you could focus less on sports-related attributes, and instead compliment him on his drawing, singing, writing, etc.