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Body Image

Building Boys with Better Body Images

Boys need to feel parental acceptance to accept themselves.

Key points

  • The majority of adolescent boys have body image concerns.
  • These concerns often go overlooked by parents and healthcare providers.
  • Parents need to talk to boys about the unrealistic appearance ideals they see.
  • Parents can help boys to communicate about body image and mental health issues.

When other parents learn that I study body image and eating behaviors and how to improve these attitudes and behaviors among young people, I tend to get one of two responses. Parents of girls have a lot of questions; they can already see concerns brewing among their young girls and are looking for advice. Parents of boys tend to indicate that body image and eating behaviors are not relevant to their boys and they express relief that this is one set of issues they don’t have to concern themselves with.

I’ll admit to having a similar response to learning that I was having a son. I thought my professional and personal lives wouldn’t have to cross paths because I would be parenting a boy. Of course, now that my son is mere months from being a man and my research on body image has evolved considerably, I appreciate that this dichotomous reasoning oversimplifies the reality of boys’ experiences.

Some of it has to do with how body image is defined. It’s true that boys are less likely to desire weight loss than girls and are more interested in building muscle than girls. However, body image is not merely about our desire to have a particular size or shape body. It’s also our general sense of self; a critical piece of our identity—a piece that everyone has, no matter their gender. In other words, our body image is really how comfortable we are in our own skin.

And if you think that boys are feeling comfortable in their own skins, then you haven’t talked with many teen boys lately. In a recent study, over 70 percent of adolescent boys were dissatisfied with their bodies.

Related research suggests that adolescents wished their parents addressed issues pertaining to body image and weight in a more compassionate and respectful manner. They indicate that when parents discuss these issues they tend to feel embarrassed, insecure, and even hurt by what are likely well-intentioned conversations.

MyBoys Me/Shutterstock
Source: MyBoys Me/Shutterstock

Jennifer Fink, author of Building Boys: Raising Great Guys in a World that Misunderstands Males, writes about the importance of parental-child communication in her forthcoming book. She reminds us that compassion and acceptance are critical when broaching sensitive topics with our sons.

“Parental acceptance is key to kids’ emotional and physical health. Children who feel accepted by their parents tend to fare well, while those who do not feel accepted are more likely to display aggressive behavior and decreased self-esteem,” Fink says. “Parents who want to raise good guys need to pay attention to the words and unspoken messages they send about male bodies.”

It’s almost as if most of us parents get the memo when we have a daughter that we need to approach issues of appearance, bodies, weight, and self-confidence with care. But there’s no memo when you’re raising a boy.

Popular messaging about masculinity focuses on independence, stoicism, resilience, and lack of emotionality. Boys grow up believing they should become big, strong, serious men. It’s no wonder boys are increasingly turning to muscle-building supplements and even anabolic androgenic steroids. Building bulk is viewed as critical to embodying male gender roles.

According to Fink, external pressure to live up to sexist stereotypes of masculinity intensifies around puberty. In a 2020 report by the Kering Foundation, boys ages 10-12 report feeling increased pressure to fit masculine stereotypes. Approximately 60 percent of parents of boys who were surveyed say they recognize the social pressure boys face to be physically strong.

How should parents protect their sons from these pressures and encourage the development of a positive body image?

  1. Take care in the language you use to talk with boys. Don’t inadvertently reinforce stereotypes of masculinity that focus on physical strength.
  2. Teach boys to be emotionally sensitive and comfortable expressing themselves and asking for help. Boys may turn to maladaptive behaviors (e.g., steroid use) when they don’t feel heard and supported.
  3. Communicate with boys about the unrealistic images of masculinity they see in the media. Remind boys that they do not need to strive to approximate these ideals; they are valued for much more than their appearances.
MyBoys Me/Shutterstock
Source: MyBoys Me/Shutterstock

In the wake of the pandemic, greater attention has been paid to the mental health needs of youth. But much of the focus remains on girls’ mental health. It’s important that we are careful to support our boys as well. The fact that they aren’t as communicative about their mental health concerns is actually part of the problem.

Copyright 2023 Charlotte Markey


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