Boys Struggle With Body Image Issues Too

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
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​If you’re a woman, chances are there was a point in your life when you began critiquing your physical appearance—your weight, your hips, your stomach, your thighs. For some girls, it’s a non-issue and they grow up with a healthy view of their body. For others, it can spiral into severe eating disorders and body image dysmorphia that have a life-long impact. For this reason, parents often watch their girls carefully, model healthy eating, and ensure they have strong role models of women who maintain proper weight, body fat, and nutrition.

But what about our boys?

Did you know that there’s been an increase in eating disorders among males in recent years? And that, according to The American Academy of Pediatrics, boys are more likely than girls to get a binge-eating disorder?

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) says that 1 in 3 people struggling with eating disorders are male. Unfortunately, boys are far less likely than girls to seek help due to societal pressures of “being tough” and not getting what society often says is a “girls’ disease.” In actuality, obsessions over their body—whether it’s to be skinny or bulk up with muscle—plague boys just as much as girls. And, NEDA also says that the mortality rate is higher for boys than girls who struggle with this issue, so early intervention is crucial.

If you have a teenage boy or even a pre-pubescent boy, you might notice he’s already figured out that the “ideal” body type is muscular with little body fat. If your child is naturally skinny, he may feel insecure about his body, wondering how he’ll ever be able to measure up. And if he’s genetically prone to being overweight, he may also struggle with comparing himself to the Hollywood physique—how will he ever turn his body fat into muscle?

For a variety of reasons, boys at an increasingly early age—as young as middle school—are becoming obsessed with their bodies and are making choices to reach an unattainable ideal that could impact their life-long health. According an article on Slate, a new study found that “two-thirds of a group of mostly middle school age boys were taking actions to increase their muscle size; 34.7 percent were drinking protein shakes and 5.9 percent were taking steroids.”

STEROIDS. In MIDDLE SCHOOL. Let that sink in.

This study attributes this rise in drastic behavior to what they call “the Beauty Myth in reverse.” Basically, thanks to scantily clad men in ads (think Marky Mark in Calvin Klein underwear) and bulked up action figures in movies, there is an “epidemic of body dissatisfaction and muscle dysmorphia in young men.”

So as they try to “bulk up” and achieve that often unattainable muscular physique, teenage boys are spending hours per day at the gym, sometimes even working out before school. Obviously exercise is healthy, but it needs to be done in moderation, in a safe way, and with good nutrition alongside it. Seeing boys exhausted at first period English class because they were bench-pressing 200 lbs at 5 a.m. or running a 5k before dawn is a bit extreme.

And they’re flooding their local nutrition centers, purchasing anything they can find that “increases muscle” and “reduces fat.” The problem is that many of these products are not tested and regulated by the FDA. Little is known about the long-term effects of their ingredients, and kids are pumping their bodies full of them.

For example, Dr. Shalender Bhasin — a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and chief of endocrinology, diabetes and nutrition at Boston Medical Center — told the New York Times, “Some contain anabolic steroids, and even high-quality protein supplements might be dangerous in large amounts, or if taken to replace meals.”

Obviously, we know that steroids are dangerous and that’s a road we don’t want our kids to do down. But far too often, kids think that if they can legally buy something in a store a few blocks from their house, that it must be okay to put into their bodies. And that’s not always the case. So if your child is looking to try a protein-building powder or a weight-loss supplement, check to make sure it’s FDA approved, talk to his pediatrician, and read up on any side-effects first.

And it’s not just the obsession with bulking up that plagues boys. They also get eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, just like girls do, and it’s important to watch for signs of these diseases. It’s also crucial that parents keep in mind that boys might be less likely to seek help since these disorders are stereotypically “female” illnesses. We need to ensure our boys do not feel shame in acknowledging that they need help.

So what should a parent look for?

Extreme and rapid weight loss, vomiting, and obsession with diet and exercise are common signs of an issue. Also, binge-eating and purging, laxative use, and fasting for weight loss should be red flags that cause alarm.

It’s not to say we shouldn’t encourage healthy nutrition and exercise. We obviously want our kids—our boys and our girls—to feel good about themselves. My 10-year-old son is naturally very thin and has already started talking about building up muscle. He’s asked about high-protein diets and how to properly lift weights. We’ve encouraged him to eat lean protein and work out safely. But we also ensure he enjoys pizza and ice cream with his siblings on Friday nights and runs around and plays like a kid.

And, most importantly, we try very hard to instill a sense of self-worth in him. We talk about the fact that we were all made differently. That some people are naturally tall, or thin, or bigger in some parts and smaller than others. We talk about his strengths—he’s a brilliant mathematician, funny, and very confident in public speaking and performing on stage.

I know it’s easier to fight off the demons of body image disorders when our kids are young, so I am not naïve enough to say I’ve got this in the bag. I’m well aware that we have a long road ahead of us as we venture into the tween and teen years with our two sons and daughter. And I certainly don’t claim to have the answers. But realizing that these are issues that attack the psyche and mental health of boys just as much as girls is something I will keep in mind.

I believe the most important piece is paying attention and encouraging our kids to stay on a healthy path. Obviously athletes may have a stricter nutrition and exercise regimen, but even that should be closely monitored by parents and coaches. Starving themselves and then hitting the gym is dangerous. Taking the latest supplement to hit the market that has who-knows-what in it can have long-term effects on internal organs and metabolism.

We need to keep an eye out for red flags, and talk to our boys about their bodies as much as we talk to our girls. We need to teach them that pretty much nobody looks like Jason Momoa, that even the “toughest” of boys can face a struggle, and that it’s always okay to ask for help.

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