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Sex, Gender, and Body Image

My teenage son wants to try a fitness/diet routine he found online. What should I do?

The pursuit of a perfect body is no longer just a "girl" thing. Boys also are 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.

Messages in the media about feeling and looking powerful have a huge influence on boys. According to a study by the gender-equity nonprofit Promundo, young men' sense of attractiveness is primarily tied to muscle bulk and body shape, as opposed to inward qualities such as confidence. 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. So, how do we help our boys pursue health and fitness safely -- and to derive their sense of self worth from who they are, vs. what they look like?

Check in. Ask your son whether his friends use risky methods to control their weights. Since boys will talk more easily about other people than themselves, you can get more information by asking about what his 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 only 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 either of letting you down or of being criticized.

Focus on health, not looks. De-emphasize the value of physical attractiveness and focus instead on how important it is to have a healthy lifestyle and friends who support you for who you are.

Talk to a doctor before starting a new fitness/diet routine. Your son's pediatrician will help him understand the risks of following any nutrition plan found online, as well as what is an appropriate diet and fitness routine for your son's age.