I have always worried about my daughter. Would she grow up feeling happy in her body? I swore she would learn that brains are more valuable than boobs and that humor is more attractive than hair. I’ve tried to incorporate those feelings into our conversations over the years, and while I’m not ready to declare victory just yet (she’s only 14), I think she got the message.
But what about my son? Unexpectedly, it’s actually her body image that worries me. Is he well in his body? Even more worrying: would I know if he wasn’t?
I am a health psychologist, teacher and body image scientist. And yet, when I recently tried to strike up a conversation with my son about body image, he was reluctant to talk. It was actually more than that — it was as if he didn’t have the words to talk about his body. In my 25 years of body image research, I have found that my personal experience is mirrored by many people.
I interviewed dozens of boys aged 14 to 24 for my next bookBeing You: The Body Image Book for Boys, and conversations often started slowly and awkwardly (a real contrast to my experience interviewing girls for my other books). Guys could tell me they wanted bigger abs and pecs and thought they should eat a ton of protein, but they were often unable to tell why.
A boy has said he patted his chest before going to school one day because he was tired of his friends teasing him about his “man boobs”. The scotch was not up to the task and created an embarrassing mess he had to wriggle out of when he got home that afternoon.
The more I talked with the boys, the clearer it became to me that they couldn’t win. It is almost impossible for them to be tall and skinny and muscular like the guys they see on TikTok bragging about their gym routines. These bodies require a certain genetic predisposition and unhealthy attention to diet and weightlifting.
A boy told me, “Every time I didn’t have my shirt on in public made me feel embarrassed and uncomfortable.”
It’s clear from their actions – whether it’s weight lifting, cutting carbs, grooming or dressing – that the boys care about and care about their appearance. And yet, the boys didn’t view their appearance issues as body image issues.
Boys (and many of us adults too) tend to think that body dissatisfaction only affects girls. But research suggests otherwise. A recent study found that 75% of teenage boys are dissatisfied with their bodies. Until half of the boys use supplements such as protein powders during their teenage years thinking it will increase their muscle. (It is not.) An increasing portion ― a quarter to a third – patients with eating disorders are male. It’s clear that the boys are suffering, but they mostly seem to be suffering in silence.
In addition to interviewing teenagers for “be youI spoke to young men with a history of eating disorders. I’ve heard them confirm what recent research suggests: boys’ eating disorders often go unrecognized until their condition is serious. This is partly because boys who develop eating disorders don’t necessarily have the same symptoms as girls. Boys can “purge” with excessive exercise; they are more likely to eat but eliminate entire food groups from their diet. Their concern and psychological distress are present but not discussed.
Too often parents, peers, coaches, and sometimes even the boys’ caregivers believed that the boys “were fine” when in fact they were in serious trouble. As one boy told me, “It didn’t take long before all that exercise and my ‘healthy’ diet was causing noticeable weight loss. I also found myself obsessing over food. I was always thinking about what I ate ― and didn’t eat ― next.
Dr. Jason Nagata, an expert in boys’ body image and eating disorders at the University of California, San Francisco, is one of a growing number of scientists and advocates helping to shed light on boys’ vulnerabilities and the signs to look out for. He told me, “Boys with eating disorders may pursue a body ideal that is tall and muscular. They may engage in muscle-enhancing behaviors such as excessive exercise and the use of performance-enhancing substances.
Of course, some boys want to lose weight, and many want to lose weight and get fatter, which has led to new language and new techniques – bulking, cutting and shredding – flourishing online. The scientific basis for these practices is questionable at best and the possibility that they lead to disordered eating habits is likely.
What makes the situation worse is that boys are less likely than girls to ask for help for mental health issues. Nagata points out that the longer eating and body image issues go unaddressed, the more habitual they can become. And, in the long run consequences an eating disorder can be extremely serious and life threatening; physical, social and cognitive development may be affected.
When I started writingbe you“I wanted to develop a resource for my son and tweens and teens everywhere, but I wasn’t convinced that the boys’ experiences were as complex or serious as the girls’. I changed my mind.
The bodily experiences of boys are different from those of girls, but just as difficult. They are also bombarded with messages that they need to “fix” their bodies, but are not socialized to understand how to get help when they need it. They’re unlikely to end up in bikinis, but they still don’t want to take their shirts off at the pool. Until we normalize conversations about body image among boys, they will remain stuck in a parallel universe to what girls and women have known for decades.
Recently my son went to the gym with a friend to lift weights for the first time. I asked him when he got home if he thought he would do this regularly. He said, “Nah, I really don’t think so. Do not worry. I am happy with myself as I am. Body positive, mom! I guess he may have been listening all along.
Dr. Charlotte H. Markey is the author of “Be you: The body image book for boys», an accessible, evidence-based resource for teens and tweens.
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