Boys and Body Image

Boys are affected by the media's depictions of unrealistic body types. Help them attain their own ideal -- not someone else's. By Caroline Knorr

Did you know?

  • Body image develops early in childhood.
  • Body image is influenced by family and culture.
  • Exposure to traditional media is a risk factor for developing body dissatisfaction.

3 facts about body image

  • The proportion of undressed males in advertising has been rising steadily since the 1980s.
  • 33–35% of boys age 6–8 indicate their ideal body is thinner than their current body.
  • The measurements of the male action figures young boys play with exceed even those of the biggest bodybuilders.

"Body image" definition: one's perceptions, feelings, and behaviors toward one's body

What's the issue?
The pursuit of a perfect body is no longer only a "girl" thing. From padded Halloween superhero costumes that give 5-year-olds six-pack abs to action movie stars with exaggerated physiques, representations of men in the media have become increasingly muscular and unrealistic. Boys are falling prey to the images of ideal bodies splashed across magazine covers; in video games, movies, and 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.

Big muscles are typically associated with good health. But what drives a young man to achieve that look can be far from healthy. Researchers have found a significant relationship between men's exposure to muscular-ideal media and negative self-image. With the advent of social media, online forums and blogs make it easy to seek and share information about diet and fitness. And some boys are going to extreme efforts to get a muscular, chiseled physique. Finally, frequent exposure to sexual material can impact men's self-consciousness about their own appearance, as well as lead them to view women as sex objects.

Why body image matters for boys
Although research on boys lags behind that on girls, it's clear that negative self-image can affect boys' physical and mental health.

Boys are encouraged at an early age to think that being a man and being physically strong go hand in hand. As they grow older, the pressure to "man up" can sometimes lead to crash diets, over-exercising, smoking, or even taking dangerous supplements. Exposure to highly sexualized material can impact men's self-esteem and relationships. And in a culture that discourages boys from talking about their feelings, it can be that much harder for parents to detect a son's body dissatisfaction.

What families can do

  • Make health a habit. If you take care of yourself, you'll help your kids appreciate all that bodies can do. By fostering a healthy lifestyle, you're helping your kids resist extreme dieting messages.
  • Look for alternative media. Avoid TV, movies, and magazines that promote stereotypes and outdated gender roles. Seek out unconventional role models and talk about people from media and real life who have different body types and say why you find them beautiful (for example, they're kind or wise).
  • Do a reality check. Point out that the sports celebrities they admire have teams of people helping them to work 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.
  • Keep an eye on your kid's social networks. Online, 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 a doctor or coach. Also, boys can expose themselves to constant criticism by posting photos of themselves.
  • Talk about "real" girls. Highly sexualized media can distort boys' understanding of girls, relationships, and what the opposite sex looks like. Talk about how porn represents an extreme perspective that's not realistic.

Get more information on media's impact on girls' and boys' body image.

Download a printable version of these tips.

About Caroline Knorr

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

Add comment

Sign in or sign up to share your thoughts

Comments (11)

Adult written by adilkhatri

This is an excellent post I seen thanks to share it. It is really what I wanted to see hope in future you will continue for sharing such a excellent post Bonus
Teen, 14 years old written by Darksouls444

wow everyday workouts and muscle magizines lead up to this the advice is very good and I will follow it thank Caroline!
Adult written by Senser123

I feel both Boys and Girls of today are more pressured to develop a certain body image cause the negative body images of both Male and Female celebs are being blasted more by today's media than in decades past P.S you heard Meghan Tranior singing All About That Bass? well I personally feel that the boys and men deserve a body anthem like that song too.
Adult written by TheGraphicDesigner

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.
Parent written by David1234

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.
Parent of a 7 year old written by Mrs. Crabapple

"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?
Teen, 17 years old written by flattire

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!
Adult written by Safety-mom

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.
Adult written by GrayWolf

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.