Body image issues in children and young people have traditionally been thought more likely to affect girls. Yet recent research has shown that males today also feel under pressure to look a certain way. What can parents do to support their son if they are affected? By Parent Info editor, Eleanor Levy
A recent report from campaign group BeReal has found that boys in the UK are suffering from body confidence issues, alongside their female friends. And while girls are still more likely to suffer from self-esteem issues about their bodies as they grow, boys are less likely to talk about them and seek help.
Somebody Like Me surveyed 2000 UK children between 11 and 16 on how they feel about their bodies.
Twice as many boys as girls admitted they would never discuss body issues with their friends, but nearly three quarters of boys agreed that how they looked mattered, with 59% thinking that what other people thought of their looks was also important.
The findings echo research published by the University of Sydney the previous year, which found that men are up to four times more likely to go undiagnosed with body image issues than women and that, as a consequence, often suffer more than their female counterparts.
Another 2016 study, this time from advertising think tank, Credos, focused on the way 8-18-year-old boys responded to male models featured in advertising and the media.
‘Almost half of secondary boys would consider exercising with the specific intention of building muscle and bulking up (48%) and a fifth having already done this previously (21%), suggesting that a staggering 69% aspire to a muscular physique,’ the study found.
‘Worryingly, 10% claim to have previously skipped meals and a further 19% would consider this as an option to change how they look. Even more concerning is that 10% would consider taking steroids to achieve their goals and a slightly higher proportion would even consider cosmetic surgery (12%).’
As well as this, 22% of boys admitted to doctoring images of themselves they shared with others on social media to make themselves feel better, including removing blemishes or changing their body to look thinner or more muscular.
The BeReal study quoted 16-year-old Josh on the same subject. ‘I Photoshop every one of my profile pictures, I kid you not. I get rid of my spots, I get rid of my double chin. It genuinely takes me 25 minutes to make a profile picture.'
This greater interest in appearance among males can also be seen in changes to the way they view fitness.
Personal trainer Jonny Jacobs told Shortlist magazine last year, ‘The worrying thing about the fitness industry at the moment is that actual fitness is becoming secondary, and it’s all about appearance.
‘Twenty years ago [my clients would] want to be able to run a half marathon or climb Snowdon, but now it’s “I want or need to look like this.”’
Even small boys are coming under the same kind of pressures to aspire to a certain body type as girls traditionally have. Search for Spider Man or Batman fancy dress costumes on Amazon and you’ll find costumes aimed at boys as young as 5 with fake six-packs and padded biceps.
But how do you know if your son is affected?
Signs your son may have a problem with body image
- He constantly takes selfies but never seems happy with the results.
- He talks a lot about his weight, shape or appearance and expresses feelings of failure or dejection about them.
- He seems to be obsessed with fitness apps or step counting. (See Fitness apps – a cause for concern?)
- He regularly notices imperfections in other people’s physical appearance.
- He gets upset because he can’t find anything to wear that feels or looks right.
- He worries about comments from his friends about his appearance.
Things you can do
- Find ways to talk to your son about body image in general.You don’t have to ask him outright if he is lacking in confidence about how he looks – you know your child best and can judge the right way to raise the subject. Sometimes, you can open conversations by talking about other people you know who lack body confidence and see if he responds, or highlight quotes from celebrities he admires who may have talked about the issue.
- If he puts himself down in front of you, correct him and point out positive things about his body – not just how it looks but also the incredible things he can do with it.
- Lead by example by showing him that it’s wrong to judge people by their looks. Find ways to compliment him, people you know and celebrities on things other than how they look, and avoid criticising other people’s bodies.
- Avoid complaining about your own body in front of him. Even older children still learn behaviour from parents and the people close to them.
These articles may help
- Three tips for raising a child with a healthy body image. Advice from mental health charity Young Minds.
- Body confidence: how you can help. What causes lack of body confidence – and what you can do as a parent to promote it.
- Boys and body image: practical advice and resources for teachers. Excellent support for teachers from Dr Pooky Knightsmith, which includes a really useful guide to help parents spot if your son may have a problem.
Further reading and resources
Body image and self-esteem tips for children and young people (a partnership between Parent Info and the Dove Self-Esteem Project)
How our obsession over shirtless six-packs is hurting the next generation
Be Real: The Campaign for Body Confidence
11 Early Signs Your Kid May Be Developing Body Image issues
Men Get Eating Disorders Too
The Dove Self-Esteem Project has produced a parents guide, Uniquely Me. Download the pdf at the foot of the page.
The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or CEOP.