Making Sense

Boys and Body Image Tips

Boys are affected by the media's standards of perfection, too. Help them attain their own ideal -- not someone else's.
Caroline Knorr Parenting Editor | Mom of one Categories: Media and body image
Parenting Editor | Mom of one

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. (Learn how one mom dealt with these kinds of comments on Formspring.)

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.
How do I talk to my son about the suspicions that some of his favorite athletes have used steroids?

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About Caroline Knorr

As Common Sense Media's parenting editor, Caroline helps parents make sense of what’s going on in their kids' media lives. From games to cell phones to movies and more, if you're wondering "what’s the right age for... Read more

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Comments (10)

I feel both Boys & Girls of today are more pressured to develop a certian body image cause the negaive body images of both Male & Female celebs are being blasted more by today's media than in decades past.
I never understood why boys would want to look "bulked-up" in the first place. Muscular guys have never appealed to me; I'd take a svelte bishonen over a chiseled bodybuilder any day.
Good article. One concern I have is the media's obsession at portraying boys/men in negative stereo types (junkie, crim, incompetent) and the portrayal of women as their defenders (defense lawyer and judge) I am not objecting to the positive portrayal of women, by should it come at the expense of men. Anyone with sons should be concerned about the sterotypes being constantly presented.
"Unlike their female counterparts, however, most boys aren't out to get skinny." Beware of generalizations. My 7yo son has been saying he wants to be skinny since he was 5. I know this started from listening to girls in his kindergarten class (more's the pity). For now I'm countering with messages I've always given him about being healthy - listening to his body, eating good foods, getting enough sleep and exercising and playing every day - and he's always been great at knowing his own appetite and eating a variety of foods. He doesn't play organized sports but loves to run and play and ride his bike, and takes tap dance once a week. Still, I'm worried about how he might react to his changing body once he gets into a real growth spurt and then reaches puberty. How can his dad and I be most helpful to him?
Yes, I agree. Ever since I was very little, I had an obsession over becoming skinny. I was constantly saying I was fat. 11 years later, and I've struggled with anorexia. Too many people think that boys 'just want to be buff'. This is not true at all. I know other guys at my school that also struggle with anorexia. In my case, one little joke about 'how fat I am' would cause me think about starving myself for weeks on end. It is truly scary what one little comment can do. I think the best thing to do for your son is to always encourage him and boost his confidence. However, if he does say that he wants to be skinny, don't overreact and panic about future possibilities of eating disorders. It is important to remain calm and act as if it doesn't really matter to you. This way, he won't purposely have an eating disorder just to receive a lot of attention. However, I strongly recommend that you encourage him to eat healthily and exercise. This will help him to realize that it is attractive to be fit and muscular, not just skinny. Hope this helped!
Sounds like your doing a good job so far! Keep up with those healthy eating and active living messages, but also let him know when he reaches 11 or 12 that his body is like a tree and needs to get rounder before getting taller--it happens with all kids in puberty. They will pack on a few extra pounds and want more food, but as soon as he reaches a growth spurt his body will naturally thin out as he gets taller--believe me it just happened to my own son and I saw it happen to my niece as well. Now I have worries about the muscle building, so I am glad for the tips--probably going to get our health professionals to discuss this aspect with my own son.
It's about damn time someone is talking about this. For far too many years everyone has been focused on girls body image while totally ignoring the fact that boys face the exact same unrealistic images. Parents need to read this and take it to heart, don't dismiss your sons self-image and being irrelevant, don't focus soley on how "fake" Hollywood and magazine models are. Talk to your daughters and get them to realize that the images they are being bombarded with regarding male physique are just as unrealistic. Just as very few girls/women are naturally "perfect" so to are very few boys/men born with sculpted muscles, ripped bodies and six-pack abs.