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Raising Boys with a Healthy Body Image

When baby boys are born, they usually look close to perfect  - their parents gaze at them with the rose-coloured glasses that are issued to all new mums and dads. And apart from snotty noses, muddy knees and bruised shins, those little boys remain cherub-like in the eyes of their parents until their early teen years. By then, teenage boys are starting to define and compare themselves with others and will be making efforts to show how different they are from their doting parents. Enter the influence of the media, the movies, peers and reality television, and all of a sudden a teenage boy notices that his muscles are not as bulked up as his favourite television show character, and his hair is not as straight and cool as the popular boys in his year.

It has always been this way, teenagers comparing themselves with each other, to movie stars, to sporting heroes and to images of people they admire. But what has changed? Teenagers are now exposed to so much more media (print, television, mobile content and internet) and often they are consuming these images without adult input or commentary. ‘Maleness’ is less well-defined and less stereotyped and it is more acceptable for boys to use cosmetics, take an interest in fashion and follow gossip-style media reports of celebrities. The sophistication of photo-editing software has also made it possible for magazine picture editors to make significant but invisible adjustments to celebrity images that was not possible twenty or more years ago.

So raising boys with a healthy body image is more challenging for parents of Generations Y and Z; many boys are saying they are under a lot of pressure to look good even at school, and parents report that their teen boys are spending inordinate amounts of time ‘preening’ themselves before leaving the house.

Parents Concerned about Boys’ Negative Body Image and Eating Disorders

The Butterfly Foundation in Australia is a useful resource for anyone concerned about eating disorders or body image issues; their website reports that although eating disorders are most frequent in young women, there is an increasing incidence among males, with “disordered eating” growing two fold in the past decade in Australia in males and females 15 years and older. Also disturbing  is their report that “disordered eating is emerging as a norm in Australian society with 90% of 12-17 year old girls and 68% of 12 – 17 year old boys having been on a diet of some type.”

It’s normal for teenagers to be more concerned about their appearance – part of that developmental stage includes thinking about individuality and expressing that in clothes as well as following trends popular among their peers. But if parents and carers suspect that a boy may have an eating disorder or negative body image disturbance, it is important to seek help. Eating disorders are often accompanied by, or cause serious psychological or physical effects. As body image is reported as the number one concern of young Australians aged 12 to 28 years, it is important for parents to act on their gut feelings if they think their teenage boy may have an eating disorder or a disturbed negative body image.

Negative Body Image in Boys – Some Signs to Watch Out For

Parents who have a close and involved relationship with their teenage son are in a good position to notice if their son appears to be developing an eating disorder or has an unusually negative or obsessed approach to his body image. Some signs to watch out for include:

  • Low self esteem with excessive dieting
  • Sudden increase or loss of weight
  • Unusual changes in what your teenage boy is willing to eat
  • Negative talk about his own body
  • Constant self – weighing
  • Interest in taking body building supplements
  • Any or some of the above with anxiety or depression or excessive mood swings

Parents should refer to the expertise of their doctor and sites such as the Butterfly Foundation for more comprehensive information and diagnosis if they have a concern.

Ideas to Promote Healthy Body Image in Your Teenage Boy

There are many things parents can do to protect their sons from the possibility of developing an eating disorder or a negative body image. Ideas include:

  • Maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle and emphasise this in your family. Finding time for the whole family to be regularly active together is a good idea.
  • Avoid conversations about your own, your children’s or other people’s body size and shape; instead focus on the benefits of health and exercise. Point out aspects you admire in famous people or celebrities that are not associated with their appearance.
  • Remind your teenage boy of his personal strengths and what you admire in him, such as creativity, participation in a sporting team or efforts to complete his schoolwork.
  • Don’t tease your son about aspects of his body (even in a loving way); teenagers are particularly sensitive about this and may take your innocent jibes to heart.
  • Talk to your son about how and why the media adjusts images of celebrities and their sporting heroes and keep them aware of this issue throughout their childhood

Places to Seek Help and Information

Your doctor, counsellor and general practioner for referral.

Butterfly Foundation telephone helpline: 1800 33 4647

The Butterfly Foundation Website
Headspace website
In New Zealand – Eating Disorders Education Network website

Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria
Reachout website
The Australian Psychological Society website