“Body image is a person’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings about his or her own body and physical appearance.” Basically it’s what you think you look like.
For many years now we have become increasingly aware of the negative effects that many media images can have upon a girl’s self esteem. We talk about photo-shopped images; tv shows promoting ‘super slim’ body types as the norm, hairlessness for female bodies, tans (achieved in all different ways), extreme dieting and exercise. We worry about our daughters and, as parents, try to walk that very fine line between inadvertently encouraging a negative self image by talking about weight and food intake, and allowing a child to have a BMI that is considered too high.
It is well known that many girls first experience concerns about their bodies as they enter the puberty years, when their breasts develop, their hips and thighs often become more rounded, and hair starts to become obvious on new areas of their bodies.
What is less well known; and what needs to be highlighted and discussed and researched is the fact that BOYS might also start to feel less comfortable about and even down-right concerned with their bodies; again often starting in adolescence or the teen years. They may worry about its shape, pimples, height, their voices, even the way they smell. Some boys may love the effects puberty is having on their bodies, but others may loathe it.
Linda Ricciardelli, Associate Professor of Psychology at Deakin University states that “more than 30% of adolescent and young adult men are concerned about their weight and try to shed excess kilos..…” In fact, the ideal for young men might be seen to be lean, muscular, sweat and odour free and with little-to-no body hair. While this is far from a new situation, with historical evidence of male body consciousness going back as far as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, it does seem to becoming more prevalent or perhaps more ‘talked about’ in the 21st century.
Just as it does with photos of women, the media promotes and enhances male images. Think of the ads you see on tv, the bumbling, buffoon dad is balding or ‘chubby’ or unshaven and sloppily dressed; the attractive, talented tradie is toned and tanned, clean shaven and neatly dressed. Many boys aspire to have the bodies of their sporting heroes; but unfortunately nature (genetics) doesn’t always have the same aspirations. A desire to have a particular body type can lead some boys to take up unhealthy eating habits and exercise behaviours; and unfortunately society and medical professionals often don’t recognize that there is a problem.
For boys and young men with negative body images, we can often trace their discontent back to a variety of causes. Some of these kids were teased in childhood or as adolescents, others might be bowing to peer pressure. There is an ever increasing cultural tendency to judge people on their appearances (today I read a newspaper article stating that ‘handsome’ men earn more money than their less-handsome counterparts).
Just as our daughters do, our sons look at the idealized images in ads and the media. We need to teach our children that these images are altered, air-brushed, muscles added and hair removed. In some cases the handsome face of one man is digitally attached to the muscular body of another.
As well as encouraging a discerning view of media images and recognition that there are an infinite number of body shapes and types – short, tall, wider, slimmer, muscular, stringy, chubby, scrawny and everything in between – we also need to build in our young people a better body image. One that takes into account much more than comparing the way someone looks. Teach our kids to recognize and work with their strengths; to have a healthy body, not necessarily a ‘buff’ body. Consider not only what a child might be good at, but also what they LIKE to do. And remember, a long distance runner has a hugely different body type to a weight lifter or a dancer or a horse rider. Teach your children to respect their bodies, to treat them well and celebrate their abilities. Teach healthy eating habits, think about body function rather than form (looks), see exercise as stress relief and fitness rather than a means of changing body shape or size.
Things to remember
- Body image is the way you perceive, think and feel about your body.
- Poor body image is just as much a problem for boys as it is for girls; up to 50% of males feel unhappy with their body shape or size.
- Males can suffer from eating disorders; they may have unhealthy eating habits or exercise behaviours.
- Many boys are reluctant to seek help or ask for advise about body image issues. Look for clues such as avoiding swimming or beach outings, wearing long sleeves and trousers in hot weather. Start the conversation. Listen.
- Remember, you are a role model, set a good example and have realistic expectations for yourself, teach your child to do the same.