Jeff describes himself as a former fat kid. For most of his childhood, he thought nothing of it. "Honestly, who cares about how fat they were as a child?" he says. But around the eighth grade he began to realize that he didn't look like everyone else. His male classmates' bodies were changing -- some were growing tall and lanky, others starting to develop broad shoulders. Biceps would bulge subtly beneath their t-shirts during gym class. They were starting to look more like men. Jeff was still just fat.
"I used to look at them, and then myself, and think, 'Why can't I be that lucky?'" he remembers. No one was teasing him; he was just aware that the others looked somehow better. Definitely different. Or, rather, he was the one who looked different. "It wasn't specifically about girls or even sports, and no one ever told me that I shouldn't look the way I did," he says. "But I could sense that they were somehow better than I was."
For years, we've acknowledged the fact that no matter how much we try to temper it, girls face immense pressure to look a certain way -- from the media, Hollywood, and probably most of all each other -- a pressure that many would say starts early and doesn't ever really end. Research from NYU's Child Study Center has reported that girls become aware of the role physical appearance plays in how they're perceived, and received, by others as early as age nine, when their self-esteem peaks before plummeting drastically.
But while girls are still three times more likely than boys to have a negative body image, according to the National Mental Health Information Center, those numbers are changing. More and more boys report being concerned with -- at times consumed with -- how they look. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics reported that 40 percent of boys in middle and high school exercise regularly -- and 90 percent at least occasionally -- with the specific goal of bulking up. An earlier study in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that boys overwhelmingly reported feeling pressured to fit a certain physical ideal -- and that ideal was "toned and muscular."
While it may seem that society's expectations for boys are simply catching up with those long held for girls, the fact is that old gender stereotypes play a significant role in what's happening here. Even as our acceptance of less rigid gender roles grows in other areas -- girls, we know, are just as good as, if not better than, boys in math, while boys who play with dolls don't necessarily grow up to be any less professionally aggressive than those who play with Matchbox cars -- the pressure on boys to be "toned and muscular" represents a return to a traditional notion of masculinity and what it means to be a man. The message: It's fine if boys want to go around wearing sparkly nail polish as kids, as long as they grow up to be big and strong and macho.
It's hard to avoid, in a way. On a daily basis, boys are inundated with images of a beefy sort of masculinity, from the guys of the Jersey Shore, whose collective abs inspired their own line of workout DVDs, to Hollywood hunks like Channing Tatum, named by People magazine as the Sexiest Man Alive, and Taylor Lautner, who reportedly asked that his shirtless scenes be limited in the final installment of the Twilight series, so objectified had he begun to feel. During the recent holiday season, shirtless young men greeted shoppers entering some locations of Hollister, a clothing store that caters to teens and pre-teens. And while we've long blamed Barbie, let's face it: Ken's no slouch.
Still, many boys report that the biggest pressure they feel comes from their coaches and peers --both male and female. After all, girls, too, are exposed to the many images of muscularity, and attention from girls (or lack thereof) helps fuel boys' desire to compete with one another for the title of biggest, strongest, best. But here's where it gets trickier for boys: Boys, more than girls, want to look good, but they don't want to admit it. That's because traditional notions of masculinity exclude any interests or traits that could be considered girlish -- things like grooming and dieting. And so while many pre-teen and teen girls take pride in openly preening -- whether that means painted nails and perfectly stick straight hair or a carefully cultivated disheveled Goth look -- boys have to "play tough" and stoic.
In sixth grade, Neil, a baseball player, began lifting weights once or twice a week, at the encouragement of his dad. But as his body began changing, he grew dependent not on the strength it gave him on the field, but on the compliments he got from others. Lifting for the physical benefits became second to lifting for an ego boost. And the bigger he got, the more he had to work out to keep eliciting reactions, even as he tried to downplay how much time he was putting in at the gym. He didn't want it to seem as if he wanted, needed, approval as much as he did. "I began going to the gym before school, so I wouldn't run into anyone I knew," he says. "I would go crazy if a day went by where I was kept from working out." Even now, at 22, he still feels that if skips a few days at the gym, he's "less of a man." Outwardly, though, he works hard to project the image of the guy who can eat an entire pizza and look great.
If an increasing awareness of body image encourages boys to eat well, go to the gym, and take better care of themselves, that's not a bad thing. Health club memberships are going up: Hooray. But when awareness turns to obsession, secrecy, or shame, the results can veer into the dangerous. According to the Pediatrics study, 38 percent of middle and high school boys use protein supplements and 6 percent admit to having experimented with steroids. Jeff, who eventually lost 40 pounds by going to the gym and eating less, maintains he was never anorexic or bulimic. But he admits there were many days he was really, really hungry.
And the negative implications aren't just physical -- not at all. Too much emphasis on fostering masculinity and defining "what makes the man" has significant consequences. Gender typing is believed to impede emotional development and account for violent behavior in boys. Boys who don't feel pressured to adhere to gender roles, on the other hand, grow up to be more independent, more open-minded, and more sexually tolerant than their peers. They are more respectful of themselves, and of women. All of which to say: Working out isn't bad. A generation of boys becoming more aware of their bodies isn't bad. But working out in pursuit of an outdated notion of masculinity is most definitely not the direction in which we want our sons to be headed. We've just come too far.
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com