Can boys have body image issues too? It seems like this problem is only associated with girls, but I’m worried that my teenage son is overly concerned with developing “six pack abs” and achieving the kind of muscular body idealized for men by the media. How should I start a conversation with him about this?
Wouldn’t it be great if we could make it through our childhood, adolescent and even adult years without defining ourselves by how we look? Although much attention has been given to girls and body image, boys face similar challenges. The language may be different, but the standards are similar. Girls talk about being thin enough, while boys talk about their muscles being “ripped” or “cut.” A Barbie doll is disproportionately tall, skinny and curvy in all the “right” places, and GI Joe is impossibly muscular. These images are presented to children when they are very young and reinforced by peers and the media daily. Some experts even point to the padded costumes of super heroes with their fake muscles that appeal to little boys as another example of how this body type is reinforced as desirable. Indeed, in recent years even boys not involved in sports have been found to use steroids to achieve that hyper-masculine, muscular look.
When approaching your son about this topic, your goal is to create enough emotional safety for him to talk about how he feels about his body without fearing any judgment from you. A comment like, “I’m noticing that you haven’t eaten the lunch I packed for you all week” can open the door for a conversation between you and your son that doesn’t seem threatening to him. Also, since the image of super-muscular men are so often seen in commercials, magazine ads and movies, use these examples as jumping off points for a discussion with your son. Asking his opinion on the subject can give you some insight about how he views his own body.
Keep an eye out for any red flags that would indicate that your son may be struggling with body image issues, such as:
Changes in exercise routines. Does he panic if he misses a workout? Is he obsessed with particular exercises that build muscle?
Worrisome eating habits. Is he eating only one kind of food? Does he talk about dieting? Is he overly interested in reading food labels?
Negative language. Does he criticize his own body or make fun of other body types?
Interest in or evidence of steroids. Does he talk about friends or team mates using steroids? Have you discovered any needles, vials or pill packs in his possession?
Extreme emotional responses to talking about his body. Does he become very defensive or angry when you attempt to talk to him about your concerns?
Finally, no one is immune to issue of body image. One of the challenges we face talking to our kids on this subject is how we often unintentionally model unhealthy behavior or language ourselves. Many children identify with their same sex parent and if mom is always on a diet and makes disparaging remarks about her own body or dad is obsessive about maintaining his “six pack” and makes jokes about people who are overweight, children will likely pick up on those cues and incorporate them too. As a parent, be aware of the messages you may be sending to your kids about what defines a healthy body type. Showing your child that you accept your own body, with its assets and its flaws, teaches them that they can love their body as it is too.
Stephanie Lowe-Sagebiel is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) with Centerpoint Counseling and Baume Psychological Services and has nearly twenty years of experience helping adults, teens and children develop healthy skills to manage life’s challenges.