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Common Sense Media: Boys and Body Image Tips

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Common Sense Media,
Wed Jan 16, 8:45 PM UTC

Obsessed with Their Bodies: The New Truth for Boys

The pursuit of a perfect body is no longer just a "girl" thing. Boys are also falling prey to the images of ideal bodies splashed across magazine covers, in video games, in movies, in music videos, and now on social media. Unlike their female counterparts, however, most boys aren't out to get skinny. They want to bulk up. And some are going to extreme efforts to get a muscular, chiseled physique.

Why Body Image Matters for Boys

Messages in the media about feeling and looking powerful have a huge influence on boys. Over the past 30 years, the ideal male physique has gained muscle and lost body fat. Now, online forums and blogs make it easy to seek and share information about diet and fitness that's not always healthy.

Boys are encouraged at an early age to think that being a man and being strong go hand in hand. Halloween superhero costumes are padded to make 6-year-olds look like they have six-packs. As they grow older, the pressure to "man up" can sometimes lead to crash diets, over exercising, smoking, or even taking dangerous supplements. And in a culture that discourages boys from talking about their feelings, it can be that much harder for parents to detect their son's body dissatisfaction.

So what can you do to help your son develop a healthy body image?

Tips for Parents of All Kids

  • Make health a habit. If you take care of yourself, you'll help your kids appreciate all that our bodies can do. By fostering a healthy lifestyle, you're helping your kids resist extreme dieting messages.
  • If your kids are struggling with body image, you might share your own insecurities and how you dealt with them. You want your kids to know that you understand. After all, this is just the beginning of a life-long dialogue.
  • Keep an eye on your kid's social networks, texts, and other online comments. The online environment carries some risks because boys can feed their obsession in isolation. Bodybuilding and fitness forums can promote risky training and unattainable body ideals that boys may pursue without checking with their doctor or coach. Also, boys can expose themselves to constant criticism by posting photos of themselves. Pay attention to what they're doing online.

Tips for Parents of Elementary School Kids

  • Emphasize health over looks. Talk about what boys' bodies can do, rather than what they look like. Make sure your son knows you love him for who is he is.
  • Keep kids active. Don’t let them "veg" in front of a screen too long at any given time.
  • Keep an eye on your kid's social networks, texts, and other online comments. Today's kids are living in a constant feedback loop of criticism. They can post, send, and read comments about their friends and themselves instantly -- and obsessively. Many boys take advantage of anonymity and online distance to insult one another's weight and appearance.

Tips for Parents of Middle School Kids

  • Check your own behavior. Are you overly critical of your own body? Do you exercise and eat well? You're setting an example of adult behavior.
  • Do a reality check. Help your children form realistic expectations. Point out that the sports celebrities they admire have teams of people helping them work them out, feeding them special meals, and, in some cases, surgically altering them. The same holds true for "hot" movie stars. One glance at the real men in their lives will drive home this point.
  • If your son is on a sports team, check in with him about training. Find out what kind of messages he's getting from his coach and from other team members. Make sure his diet and exercise regimen are part of a larger goal of being healthy.

Tips for Parents of High School Kids

  • Check in. Ask your son whether his friends use risky methods to control their weight. Since boys will talk more easily about other people than themselves, you can get more information by asking about what friends do. Ask: Are any of your friends using steroids or supplements? Working out too much? Talking about "purging" after a pig out? If so, ask your son how he feels about it and whether he's ever been tempted to engage in any of this behavior.
  • Check for signs. Sudden weight loss (or gain), dramatically increased workouts, large muscle growth, and radically altered eating patterns are just a few signs of eating disorders or potential steroid or supplement use. If you think your son is at risk, make a doctor's appointment immediately. This is critical not only for your son's health but also for his mental well being, since eating disorders create a lot of feelings of shame. Sometimes your child might be more forthcoming with a health professional than with you, for fear of either letting you down or being criticized.
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