While we have long been aware that girls struggle with body image issues, only recently have we turned our attention to boys.
Our sons face similar pressures to meet today's standards for body perfection, too. Just as girls suffer in trying to attain the "thigh gap" ideal, for example, our boys yearn to be tall, lean, and ripped.
Of course, it's a rare few who can reach these impossible standards, so the great majority of our teen boys suffer feelings of insecurity about their looks. Body image issues can create low self-esteem and even depression and some boys take extreme measures by using and abusing anabolic steroids, diet schemes, and other dangerous methods to either bulk up or slim down. These can pose serious health risks for a boy's growing body.
Unfortunately, boys are also socialized to be tough and strong so they are less likely to discuss dissatisfaction with their body image or to ask for help in dealing with their issues — they suffer privately.
Parents have an important role to play in helping their boys through the transition of puberty. Effective parenting can help them develop a healthy mindset and realistic expectation for their body development.
Self-love and acceptance can be taught, and here's how:
Provide sound information
Boys need a good education on their body and its developmental process. If they are too shy or embarrassed to discuss puberty with you, refer them to their doctor, a trusted friend or family member, or point them to approved websites or books.
Our boys need to know puberty is a multi-year process, that their friends and peers will develop at different ages and rates, and that it looks different on everyone. Girls also start puberty a few years earlier than boys, so their lag in development is not indicative of anything unusual. Knowledge can normalize what otherwise might feel like an estrangement from one's body as it begins to sprout hairs and pimples.
Health, not beauty
As parents, we need to emphasize the amazing science of the human body, and instruct our children how to care for their health and hygiene, rather than emphasizing beauty and physique.
Keep your comments framed around how well they are doing at eating a balanced diet, getting a good night's sleep, and brushing their teeth. Never be critical of their weight. They may act as if they don't care about being a bit heavy or thin, but they are very aware of their shape and don't need you to point it out.
What they need most at this time is parental approval and affirmation that they are loveable just the way they are, regardless of their appearance.
Modelling behaviours and attitudes
If we want our boys to treat their bodies with respect and develop a healthy body image, then it must start with us first.
What are we modelling as attitudes towards our own bodies? If we moan about our weight or how we don't like what we see when we look in the mirror, we are putting a lot of emphasis on looks.
Remember, our boys are witnessing all this and are likely to adopt our values as their own too. Instead, focus on just how great it feels to be living in a healthy body. Express gratitude for being alive and healthy. Express being at peace with your body.
Other qualities are more important
Emphasize your child's more significant qualities, like being helpful, caring, musically creative, smart, and funny, rather than giving attention to their superficial looks.
It seems cliché, but without reminders, children can lose sight of what matters. Remind them that it's your inside not your outside, that counts. Having good character traits trumps beauty. Tell your boys this, lest they get caught up with the false belief that only the good-looking guys get the jobs, sports cars, and romance.
Education on media images vs. reality
The media presents a distorted view of the beauty ideal to both girls and boys. Adults need to explain to children that images are Photoshopped, that the only selfies that get posted to Instagram or Snapchat are the complimentary ones, and that movie stars pay for personal trainers and cosmetic surgeries.
To maintain the shape of a body builder, you would pretty much have to make personal training your full-time job. Instead, instruct your boys to look around them at the average fella on the street. We are humble humans who come in all wonderfully weird sizes and shapes.
Point out examples of other role models
Are there other people your boy admires in their life or characters in their books or movies that have body types outside the narrow cultural beauty standard? Tobey Maguire is a small but powerful Spider-Man; Eric Stonestreet is one great looking, heavy-set gay dad in "Modern Family;" Peter Dinklage garners great respect on "Game of Thrones" and he's 4'5".
If you are concerned your son is not coping well, there are professionals who can help. Kids Help Phone, for example, has free trained counsellors across the country for youth to talk to. No boy should suffer silently.
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