How Can We Expect To Improve Body Image Without Parenting Against Toxic Masculinity?

by Emily Lauren Dick
A mother sitting in front of the house and talking to her two little boys about toxic masculinity
MoMo Productions/Getty

Most girls learn two things as they develop: that their bodies define their worth and that it is their responsibility to protect their bodies from men. We teach our girls to follow dress code standards to avoid unwanted attention, never to walk home alone, and what to do to avoid being attacked. As a young woman, I’ve ignored catcalls and walked away from inappropriate touching. I’ve been told that my skirt was too short, to cover up with a sweater in hot weather, and take my drink with me to the bathroom, so I don’t get drugged.

These things may have taught me to protect myself, but none of them ever addressed teaching men not to objectify or assault me. By only viewing girls as potential victims, we fail to address the more significant issue of toxic masculinity and how it perpetuates violence against women and maintains body image ideals. As a mother to a young boy, I’ve defined some strategies to prevent my son from preserving these damaging standards.

If I hear another comment from a cartoon character about how “boys are stronger” or how vain girls are, I might just break the television. As a body image expert and parent of a six-year-old boy and three-year-old girl, it can be pretty challenging because anything my kids learn from somewhere else (teachers, schoolmates, television, etc.) seems to create a learning opportunity. Being an open-minded parent means being on high alert for those situations where you can teach your child to be objective and tolerant people. It’s better to have these conversations now while your child is still developing their value system rather than waiting for situations or the consequences of their teens and adult years.

Thanasis Zovoilis/Getty

Getty Images

I believe in taking every opportunity I can to defy gender stereotypes and correct misinformation by teaching them to challenge these so-called “normalities.” Like why does Superman wear pants and Wonder Woman wears a skirt – certainly, she would be more comfortable in them to save the world? I also have a responsibility to actively seek out positive forms of influence so that I can make these life lessons fun. The same way my kids know that Daddy does vacuuming and Mommy plays hockey, they know that even though stereotypes exist, it’s okay to think differently.

In progressive households like ours, we let our son play with dolls, wear pink and paint his nails if he wants to. Just because our home is a safe space to explore these interests doesn’t mean everywhere else is as accepting. The other day my son came home and told us that a friend didn’t like the pink shirt he wore, so I reminded him that some people like different things and we shouldn’t change what we like just because of someone else’s opinion. Teaching your children to be respectful of others, even if they disagree with their views, is essential. Modeling your own behavior with this in mind, such as not speaking negatively about people’s bodies (including your own) and being cognizant of the language we use, is needed to teach children compassion and acceptance of others despite differences.

When we say things like “Boys will be boys” or “He just likes her” in response to hurtful or violent actions, we let our sons know that it’s okay to be aggressive. We also let girls know that they should accept this kind of behavior. As children get older, comments can become even more demeaning and hurtful, such as “Don’t be a pussy” or “You throw like a girl.” We need to teach our sons early on to be advocates for women. My parents always taught me to handle confrontation with humor because it can lighten the tension and make an uncomfortable situation more manageable. I am a fan of using the “so what?” response, but a direct approach is good too.

Thanasis Zovoilis/Getty

Getty Images

Toxic masculinity thrives when men don’t stand up to the objectification that girls and women face. It’s considered acceptable to speak about girls’ body parts and make comments about their size, which reinforces misogyny, beauty standards, and fatphobia. Since bullying commonly involves comments about body parts or looks as the target of negative attention, we need to teach our children, especially our sons, that appearance has nothing to do with worth. I personally like the comeback “We all have fat, just like we all have fingernails.” It’s important to teach our sons to humanize and empathize with girls so they aren’t just seen as objects of their affection. Implore your children to stand up for those who are targets of bullying. When boys feel sympathetic towards girls who are being objectified or sexualized, they can become agents of change simply by choosing not to be a bystander when others speak negatively about girls.

I have vivid memories of being yelled and honked at walking to the beach at my family’s cottage as a pre-teen which was something that, at the time, felt very normal and even sadly a little flattering. Today, I know it was inappropriate and bordering on predatory. As our sons get older, it’s important to remind them that behaviors that objectify women are not acceptable—things like whistling at girls, making sexual jokes, or unwanted touching. Girls and women simply existing in their bodies is no reason for this kind of disrespect, yet we learn early on that girls are objects of male desire, and their purpose is to be “beautiful.”

Boys learn about sexual standards from the media and pornography, which can be a harmful depiction of real bodies and sex. As uncomfortable as it may be, they need to know that pornography is performative sex, often focuses solely on male pleasure, and features violence towards women, which can give them the wrong idea about how partner intimacy works. Keep your kids safe online by keeping the dialogue about these kinds of things going, and so they can develop their own instincts and make good choices. Consent is no joke! Fluffing off certain behaviors (like trying to kiss girls without asking), even at a young age, only preserves toxic standards. If we teach boys empathy at a young age, by letting them experience their emotions, we dismantle the stereotype of them having to be aggressive and tough. This sets the groundwork for better human connections and a healthy body image.