Diet culture, disordered eating, excessive exercise, beauty, ideal body types, and socially accepted physical features are viewed through lenses that often have women as the focus. Not only does society pressure girls and women to look a certain way, but many women are working hard to undo the harmful messages they have internalized for years. Feeling good about your body doesn’t come by just saying all body shapes are beautiful; there are layers that need to be pulled away before real peace can come. And parents like myself are working to block the messages before our daughters see them. We reinforce body positivity and by example show them the physical and mental health benefits of food and exercise. But we can’t forget to focus on and worry about our sons and masculine-presenting children too.
My son, my sweet sensitive boy, isn’t afraid to cry or talk about his emotions. He’s observant and a helper. He’s also painfully insecure about his looks. The things he has said about himself break my heart, and the last thing he wants is for anyone to notice anything about his physical features. He is currently in a phase where he doesn’t want to get his hair cut because he doesn’t want anyone to say anything to him about it. He doesn’t want or like any attention that has to do with his body.
Even though I talk to him about his body in the same ways I do with his sisters, I need to do it more often and with more intention. We talk about how the food we eat helps us stay strong and have energy for things we need and love to do. We talk about moving our bodies because it’s fun and makes our brains feel good. We talk about clothes as tools that keep us warm and help express ourselves; we work to find ones that work for us and don’t change our bodies so that they work in any specific size or style. And when it comes to muscles, or lack thereof, we talk about how it’s more important to be kind, grateful, and educated — not in terms of school, but in their wide view of the world and other people. Biceps are fun, but critical thinkers are super fun.
I worry about my son’s positive body image as much as my daughters’. One in three people who struggle with an eating disorder are male, and they are just as likely to binge, purge, or fast as women. Men and boys aren’t nearly as confident with their bodies as we would like to believe either. One study reported that 90% of the male participants expressed dissatisfaction with their bodies and another showed that 25% of “normal” weight males thought they were underweight and 90% of teens exercised to bulk up. Men, boys, and masculine presenting people are just as vulnerable to media images and sexual objectification as women. Yet men and boys are less likely to talk about body image and their insecurities because it is seen as a “female” problem, and our society has done a good job at convincing men and boys that the last thing they want to be is a girl, or worse: gay.
If your son is gay or bisexual, he has a higher risk of developing an eating disorder than a heterosexual male. Or perhaps your son may be nonbinary or a trans girl, who will be under even more scrutiny to look a certain way based on the constructs of gender and gender expression. Maybe you have a kid like I was, one who was assigned female at birth but who wants to look male, or whatever the going version of maleness is. I didn’t care about being thin or having specific measurements. I wanted muscles. I wanted my breasts to disappear. I wanted to appear more masculine according to what I was shown on TV. Yet I knew wanting those things were also “wrong” according to my female gender. I was supposed to desire boobs and an hourglass figure like the other girls were conditioned to believe. And I was supposed to look good for the benefit of a boy.
I’m a nonbinary transgender person and have struggled with my body and feeling comfortable in my skin for a long time. I have socially and physically transitioned parts of myself to make my body a home I want to live in, but I may always be in some stage of mental or physical transition. I am very aware of balancing what I want for myself versus being in a constant state of comparison. To not be seen as female means I need to be seen as male and that comes with a narrow standard of acceptance. Yet, there is toxicity in that too, and I’m trying to find balance.
I love to exercise and challenge my body. I also love the science of being able to tinker with movement and food to get results I want in my body and in my workouts. I recognize the slippery slope in taking a passion to an obsession and am always evaluating my motivation. Looking up workout videos and researching ways to get the most out of my body in healthy ways means looking at men who have muscles on top of muscles, narrow hips, and fans who follow them just to drool over them. It means revisiting images I crave for myself at times, but knowing what I crave more is a sense of inner peace. I know I don’t need to look a certain way to feel good about my body, but that doesn’t mean I’m not receiving mixed messages.
A male friend recently mentioned that his wife got upset when he said Gal Gadot was hot, but that he wasn’t allowed to get upset when she said Chris Hemsworth is hot. He recognizes that hotness comes in many packages, but he was frustrated by the double standard and hated that he couldn’t point out that her comments hit on the same insecurities for him as his did for her. If it’s never okay to comment on a woman’s looks, should the same be true for a man’s? Or for a nonbinary person? We all have bodies, and for us to feel at home in our own skin, we need to remove gender from the equation when it comes to talking about self-love and body confidence. Women don’t hold the exclusive rights to body insecurity.
I’m not saying that sexism, misogyny, and arrogance aren’t gross contributing factors when it comes to how women see themselves and how they feel about their bodies. Cisgender men and our patriarchal society have a lot of wrongs to make right. However, we can’t demand our boys grow to be better men if we don’t address issues like body positivity — for themselves and others — in the same way we do for girls and those assigned female at birth.