Boys And Body Image - A Growing Problem
By Helen Young
We tend to think about trouble with body image, and all of the psychological issues that come with it, as a girls' problem. It’s true that the majority of eating disorders and body image problems impact girls, but more and more boys are experiencing pressure to have a certain kind of body. As a result, boys are increasingly experiencing body-related anxiety.
Buff, Built Bodies
Many marketers have started selling things to boys and men in the same way that they have long sold things women and girls. They show "beautiful" people that the customer might be attracted to in their ads to get attention for their products. There is a new wave of images of shirtless, muscular, six-packed, oiled men gazing provocatively at us from magazine covers, billboards, and our computer screens.
This is leaving a lot of boys vulnerable to thinking that they too have to have "perfect" bodies to be accepted, and feeling stressed if they don’t. While resources for girls and healthy body image have been available for years, efforts to support boys and body image are not as readily available.
Starving And Steroids
The 'ideal' male body is different from the 'ideal' female body in that it is typically bulky with muscle, while women are supposed to be bone-thin. So, while boys are increasingly experiencing eating disorders, we're seeing boys seeking ways to put on lots of muscle in the same way that girls try and lose lots of weight.
More and more young boys try to engage in strict diet control, displaying a knowledge of muscle-building science far beyond their years. They may exercise obsessively, spend a lot of time studying their muscles, and take drastic measures to ‘convert’ fat to muscle if they think that they're becoming flabby. This obsession is so serious that some boys resort to using anabolic steroids. We know that this is happening because illegal steroid production has gone into overdrive, and they're advertised everywhere on the internet.
Steroid abuse by boys is a growing problem in the United States. Five percent of teens will admit to have taken steroids - and there is likely to be many more who aren’t saying anything. Needless to say, the obsessive pursuit of muscularity at the expense of all else - particularly when it involves the use of dangerous steroids - is a potentially life-wrecking thing. It’s time that we talked to our boys about their bodies.
The trouble is that boys are encouraged by society to keep their insecurities hidden. They must appear ‘strong’ on the inside, as well as displaying ‘strong’ muscle on the outside. To say that you feel vulnerable, or insecure, or that you worry about how you look is to be ‘unmanly’ - and that’s something many boys can’t bring themselves to do.
It is very important that we change this. Silence when it comes to troubling issues can lead to a whole host of psychological issues which tend to worsen later in life. If we can get our boys talking about what troubles them early on in life - rather than trying to ‘fix’ those problems through obsessive exercise etc - then we could be saving them a world of pain later on.
So What Can We Do?
We can encourage our boys to talk with us about problems they're having with their body confidence or other things they might be experiencing that they need help with. This involves breaking a lot of masculine taboos about vulnerability. This is hard to do, which is why it’s so important to create a safe, loving, non-judgemental space for open communication with your child.
Our kids need to know that they can come to us, no matter what. It’s also critical that we start talking with boys about body image with the same intentionality that we have these conversations with girls, and encourage our children’s coaches, teachers and counselors to do the same. Most of all, keep a close eye on your child's behavior around food and exercise, and to gently encourage them to talk to you if you think that there's something wrong.
You can get more tips and additional support from these resources:
- National Eating Disorders Association Parent Toolkit
- The National Association for Males with Eating Disorders (N.A.M.E.D.)
- Teen Eating Disorders: Tips to Protect Your Teens