We may open up conversations with our daughters about how they feel about their bodies, but when was the last time you did this with your son?
As a society, we don’t hear about body image issues for boys as often as we do for girls, but it seems the problems are just as great.
The number of men admitted to hospital with eating disorders has risen by 70% in the past six years and male sufferers - and the people around them - may not recognise their symptoms as those of an eating disorder due to persistent gender stereotypes, according to Dr Marc Bush, YoungMinds’ chief policy adviser.
Body image is as much of a problem for boys as it is for girls, according to a survey by an advertising think tank, which found that out of the 1,000 eight to 18-year-old boys surveyed, 55% would consider changing their diet to look better and 23% said they believed there was a perfect male body.
Therefore it’s crucial for parents to start talking about positive body image with their sons to help boys develop healthy attitudes towards how they look.
“In the boys’ world, we are decades behind what has happened with girls and young women when it comes to the way they view their bodies,” Dr Marc Bush, YoungMinds’ chief policy adviser, told HuffPost UK.
“Many parents may have conversations with their daughters about the impact of yo-yo dieting or similar, whereas very few will have a conversation with boys.”
Issues boys may have with their bodies stem from the fact they have gained the perception that a muscular, athletic or thin body is the most desirable and is attainable.
Bush said with fitness magazines showing boys these physiques on the front covers they are learning that, as a society, this is what men should work to achieve.
Because of this, they try and engage in behaviour to recreate those bodies, - such as, overexercising, continuing to exercise on injury, changing their diet to something that isn’t beneficial for growth or overloading on supplements - which can lead to low body confidence, low self-confidence and body dysmorphia.
“This is crucial to building the foundations of a good relationship with your child,” she said.
“This paves preventative measures for children to understand their parent is a non-judgmental ear, meaning they are likely to turn to them when in need, rather than suffering in silence and hitting crisis point.
“Healthy body image isn’t something gifted to us, especially not in today’s world. We need to teach it.
“Education is power. If anything it’s more important than school topics, as grades mean nothing without your mental health.”
Bush said having these conversations means children will get used to the fact there body will go through changes before and during puberty.
“Children’s bodies are constantly changing,” he said. “Young people are now exposed to pornography and sexualised images pre-puberty - the average age being seven to eight - and they will be wondering why their bodies don’t look like that.
“Of course, it won’t at that age, but there is something in parents explaining that it is just one form of a male look.”
“The media disproportionately creates unrealistic body types for men."”
So what can parents do to help encourage positive conversations about body image with their sons?
1. Look at your own attitude towards your body.
Bush said many parents are filled with shame about their own bodies and they’re unaware they communicate this to their sons. Therefore, it’s important to look and think about how you feel about yourself.
“If you’re a young boy and your dad is constantly at the gym trying to maintain muscle, that communicates that he thinks his body isn’t good enough,” said Bush. “Sometimes it can be these non-verbal things.”
Mendoza said it is also important to be mindful of language you may use in front of your son, such as: “I had a big lunch and feel like a pig” or “I need to lose 7lbs before the party”.
“Children will pick up on these messages, as well as the ones they’re bombarded with on a daily basis via TV and social media,” she said.
“The most effective way to instil confidence in your child is to practise body positivity yourself.”
2. Look for opportunities to start conversations about male bodies.
Any moment when you see a body displayed that doesn’t marry with what bodies that are not photoshopped look like, parents should point it out in a normative way, suggested Bush.
“If you’re walking past a huge billboard and someone with a ripped six pack is on it, ask them what they think of the image,” suggested Bush. “They might say what it reminds them of, and you would say: ‘Yeah, but it doesn’t look like many other men’.
“The media disproportionately creates unrealistic body types and there is this base assumption that what the media puts out is something that can be obtained. Point out the variation in mens’ bodies.
“Allow young boys to talk about it and allow them to have time to voice their understanding about why they think these bodies are aspirational.”
Mendoza agreed, adding that a good way to do this is to watch TV or films together around the topic and initiate conversations after.
“The TV or films don’t need to be educational resources, if anything, I would encourage the opposite as you want to relate to your child’s world,” she said.
“So whether it’s a bullying storyline in ‘Eastenders’, a BBC doc on protein shakes, or watching ‘Love Island’ and discussing why all the boys have muscles and all the girls have cosmetic procedures, get on their level so the conversation seems less textbook.”
3. Ensure conversations are approached sensitively.
“Recognise this is a sensitive topic for boys,” said Bush. “It isn’t an easy conversation to have. It’s about talking through why they see their body in a certain way or what body they want.
“Offer this opportunity to discuss it in a sensitive way and do it in a way that isn’t shaming - bring up the issue of body image hoping it will lead onto how they feel about their own bodies.”
If your son does open up, be sure to validate his feelings.
“Instead of hushing him with ‘you’re beautiful’ or ‘don’t worry’, listen and validate his feelings,” said Mendoza.
4. Remind him we are more than just bodies.
“Tell him how he makes you laugh, or what a good listener he is, or celebrate his efforts on a project,” advised Mendoza.
“So he knows his value is tied up in more than the number of likes on his last selfie.”
5. Talk about food and the body.
This is a great avenue to educate boys simply about why we eat. Mendoza said there tends to be a belief that anything green and raw is good or “clean”, which by default makes everything else “dirty”.
“If we can teach boys why fats are good for the body and that we need calories for our organs to keep us alive, then it helps combat the binary way in which we view food,” she said.
“For example, people tend to say ‘I’m not eating carbs’ without having any idea of what they do for the body, i.e. that they’re a powerful and vital nourishment for energy and cognitive function.”
Mendoza said it’s also important to make sure food is not equated with moral virtue, so don’t refer to it as being “naughty”, or your son being “a good boy” for eating spinach.
6. Encourage them to enrol in sport.
Mendoza suggested it may be good to encourage boys to enrol in sport so they can begin to view their bodies as more than just an aesthetic and see its strength, agility, energy and fitness – all while building self-esteem, setting goals and working with others.
Signs to look out for if you’re worried your son has an unhealthy relationship with their body:
One sign your son may be struggling with how they view their body is a misuse of supplements, such as steroids, protein or caffeine, said Bush. Many boys will take these in order to push their body further that it can go.
Another sign may be disordered eating - whether that is overeating, undereating, or restricted diets such as only eating protein.
Mendoza said some boys may go out of their way to hide any changes in food consumption as they don’t want to draw attention to themselves.
“Look out for excuses to avoid eating with the family, such as them frequently saying ‘I ate on the way home’, ‘I’m not hungry’ or ‘I had a big lunch’, or equally an open interest in dieting,” she said.
“Be mindful that negative body image doesn’t necessarily manifest itself physically, but also mentally, for example becoming withdrawn and disinterested in daily activities, moodiness or irritability.”
Bush added: “It’s also common for some boys to exercise on injury or sometimes even self-injure as a way of punishing their body - through boxing or martial arts - as a way of getting the sense of tackling something superior.
“And suicidal or self-harming behaviour is another sign, because it’s distressing to have low body confidence.”
For More Information:
If you are worried your child may have an eating disorder:
- YoungMinds have a free helpful for confidential and expert advice. Call 0808 802 5544.
- Speak to your GP, who can advise about mental health services like CAMHS [Child Adolescent Mental Health Services].
- B-eat is the UK’s leading charity supporting anyone affected by eating disorders. See their support services here.