The female body positive movement is stronger than ever. While there is still room for improvement, numerous brands are promoting healthy self-esteem by featuring “real” women in their ads and creating clothes for all sizes and body shapes. Unfortunately, little attention is being given to young men and their physical worries.
Having a “perfect body” is not an exclusively female concern in today’s world. In fact, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, a New York-based nonprofit, more than 10 million individuals in the United States suffer from an eating disorder, and nearly one in three of those individuals is male. In addition, 25 percent of normal-weight men perceive themselves to be underweight, and 90 percent of teenage boys have exercised with the goal of bulking up.
Young men have different challenges than young women because the spectrum of bodily imperfection is much broader. From an early age, boys are socialized to believe that muscular bodies are ideal. If an adolescent male is too small or too big, he often feels inferior.
The pursuit of the perfect look is not just about emulating a movie-star look. Social media is full of schoolmates posting pictures for all to see. Although most photos are spontaneous moments, many are carefully chosen to present one’s best feature, which serves only to enhance angst-ridden adolescents’ anxiety as they compare themselves to their friends and openly invite peer criticism.
To ensure healthy development, it is important for parents to be sensitive to male body issues. If your son chronically compares himself to others, struggles to accept compliments related to his appearance or goes to the gym more than he should, then he may be overly concerned with his appearance.
Parents, fortunately, can have a big influence on their teens’ self-perceptions. The most important thing that mom and dad can do is be good role models. Even if your teens cringe at your words, they do pay attention to your actions and attitudes. So eat healthy, exercise and put your phone away. Present a positive attitude, and avoid self-criticizing comments about your waist size, thinning hairline or height.
Frequent conversation will help, too. Dads and their boys should talk about “feeling” good more than about “looking” good. Going to the gym is great because it is part of a healthy lifestyle, not because it makes you ripped. Also, focus on what your body can do versus what it can’t do. Being strong is great, but so is being able to draw, play music or dance. Happy people are confident people, and confidence is one of the most attractive qualities anyone can possess.
Boys and girls who overly focus on their looks are at a significantly higher risk for other issues, too. Having a poor body image and low self-esteem makes one more susceptible to depression and anxious moods. As technological and peer pressures shift and intensify for maturing teens, parents, schools and social media influencers need to send the message that you don’t have to have a perfect body to have a positive body image.
Prior to going into private practice as a psychotherapist and learning-disabilities specialist, Russell Hyken, Ph.D., Ed.S., M.A., LPC, NCC, worked for more than 15 years as an English teacher, school counselor and school administrator. Visit him online at ed-psy.com.