Body Image in Men and Boys
We’ve most likely become accustomed to how girls and women experience their bodies, but we could use a lot more dialogue about how body image in men and boys is also affected.
Take Barbie and GI Joe, for example. We’ve probably all heard how if the Barbie doll from 40-50 years ago had been a real person, she’d have to walk on all fours because of her height and size. This may have smuggled the idea to young girls that beauty comes in the form or unrealistic ratios related to height, weight and shape. But in contrast to the messages the Barbie doll has sent to many young girls, GI Joe's can be considered an equivalent message to boys in today’s society. GI Joe's from the 1970s were less muscular than they are now and also the shoulder to waist ratio was not as pronounced. Boys are inadvertently sent messages that unless they have this perfect triangular shaped upper body and rippling muscles throughout their bodies, they are not "good enough" to protect, attract or succeed in life. Sure these are not direct messages, but we have to look at various methods of subtle marketing and how it impacts how we feel which then impacts what we buy.
Boys are also going to experience different types of body image disturbances as girls. Have you ever heard a boy aim for a thigh gap? Probably not. Concern about circumference of waist, yes, absolutely. Maybe even concern about losing hair!
Eating Disorder Risk Factors
In terms of eating disordered behavior that can lead to poor body image, boys are more prone to being concerned about their father's health issues. For example, if a teen boy has a father who had a heart attack, the boy is more likely to internalize this fear and take measures (perhaps go overboard) to protect his own health which may end up in restriction and over exercise.
Of course the proverbial icing on the cake is that boys are also socialized to hide their feelings and "be strong" and "not cry." So they end up with all the feels and no place to go.
How Families Can Help
Families are one of the most important aspects of prevention and treatment. Parents can help boys with eating disorders and/or poor body image by giving their boys space to express their thoughts about these concerns. Sometimes pressing for the feelings or emotions will just push the boy away, so it's okay to talk about these issues in a way the boy responds to. Talking side by side, such as on a car ride, might be a much better strategy than sitting across from each other at a table or in the living room. That's usually too much "heat on" for boys who, again, aren't really socialized to talk in that way.
The good news is that there is more dialogue on this topic than there used to be and we need to build on this momentum so we can recognize boys and men also need a place to work through and process poor body image and eating disordered behavior.