I Was Blindsided By My Son's Body Image Issues (It's Not Just A Girl Thing)

by Amy Porterfield
bowdenimages / iStock

Women don’t have the market cornered on body image issues.

I have no memories of being a little girl. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada. They just don’t exist because I have never been a little girl — not ever.

Some of my earliest memories are of my grandfather affectionately calling me “Lard,” my father squeezing my chubby toddler thighs and calling them “hams.” And looking back at photos of myself as a toddler, I have to wonder what my parents were feeding me because I was quite a chunk to be honest.

As I grew up, I often heard, “Oh, it’s just baby fat. You’ll grow out of it.” But the thing is, I never did. As my girlfriends grew taller and thinned out, I just didn’t. When I was 10 years old, my mother told me we were going on diets. When I asked her why, she said because my best friend at the time had lost weight. So from the very beginning, I learned to compare myself to others, that I was bigger than other girls and that was bad.

Growing up, through middle school, high school, and eventually college, I learned that that this was how women related to each another. Even girls whose figures I envied were not immune. We talked about food all the time. We were either “good” or “bad” depending on how we ate that day. We compared notes to see who ate the least.

And even now as an adult, my Facebook feed is full of women sharing “skinny” recipes and selling shakes and wraps meant to shrink your waist. We join diet programs and subscribe to meal plans and workout regimens. If you don’t have a “good body,” you better get one. If you do have a “good body,” you better keep it. This is our life — our normal. This is what it is to be a woman. And it’s maddening.

All of this is why I was so relieved when my first child was a boy. I didn’t believe it would be possible for me to raise a daughter with a healthy body image and self-esteem. How could I possibly give someone something I didn’t have? I had a beautiful son. He was just like his father with curly hair and dimples. He got my blue eyes and husky build, but I thought nothing of it. “He’ll be a football player,” everyone said. “He’s so big and strong!”

When my son was about 6 years old, he started jogging. We went to the park to play, and he wanted to go for a jog. I thought maybe he was imitating the adults he saw at the park, but he started jogging every day. He began asking how many calories were in everything he ate. He started weighing himself every morning and would be either happy or sad based on the number on the scale — at 6 years old. Upon investigation, I learned that the children had been weighed in P.E. class at school and another child had called him fat.

I was totally unprepared for this. It was completely beyond my imagination that boys and men could have body image issues too. None of the men in my life had ever seemed self-conscious or less-than-pleased with their bodies. I remember my father, his hand on his own big belly, making fun of my mother’s cellulite.

Body image was not even on a man’s radar, so I thought. But here I was, looking at my beautiful son, watching him pinch his belly, watching him search for workout videos on YouTube, watching him obsess over numbers — his weight, calories, fat grams, carbs. It broke my heart because I felt so acutely the pain he was feeling. My own demons were haunting my son.

Our children are living mirrors, reflecting back the best and worst of ourselves. All of my unresolved issues were going to continue to resurface, for both me and my son until I chose to address them. I knew what I had to do. It was time to be the parent I wish I’d had at his age.

I started by getting rid of the scale. We will not weigh ourselves every day, multiple times a day. Weight is just one measure of your body, it fluctuates, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect overall health and fitness. I’m in charge of groceries and meals, so I make sure we all get plenty of healthy vegetables and lean meats. We do our best to limit sugar, which is quite a task in itself. (Have you ever noticed how much sugar-blasted, candy-coated bullshit is marketed to children?) We snack on things like cheese and nuts. We stay active, bicycling, skating, playing outdoors.

My son is active in sports. Our conversations have shifted from weight loss to being fit and healthy. I ask him, “How do you feel? Do you have plenty of energy? Do you feel strong? Can you run and play without getting winded?” These are the markers of health and fitness, not the number on the scale.

It isn’t perfect, but it is a start. There are days I have to fight myself, bite my tongue and chew my lips to keep from talking about food and diets with the other women in my life, especially within earshot of my children, but all we can do is get up every day and do our best. One day at a time, one moment at a time, one choice at a time.

I can’t control the other people in my son’s life, what other children may say to him about his body. I can’t control the images he sees, what the world will try to sell him or convince him that he should be. But I know that the way I talk to him and the things I teach him now will become his inner voice and shape his values. Just being aware of this is half the battle.