Interesting question, right? because body shaming to one person could be seen as a complement to another.
For a female, being told your body is a ‘weapon’ by your dad’s mates whilst sunbathing around the pool at the age of 13 can go either way. For me, it made me super self-conscious and extremely uncomfortable. Combine that with being told you’re fat over and over again by your mum (just for context, I was 5ft 6 and 56kgs at the time), and the confusion and hurt led me to laxative abuse, an unhealthy addiction to exercise and a mild eating disorder, which to this day, still plagues me on some level.
For others, it’s just seeing muscle-bound men and underweight women plastered everywhere that sends some spiraling towards starvation.
Then there’s comfort eating, excessive workouts, steroids, and diet pills.
Dr Scott Griffiths, who researches body image, eating disorder and muscle dysmorphia specifically in boys, said:
“We have understood for many years that body image is an issue many girls (and women) experience, but what about boys? Evidence tells us that males are consistently underrepresented in messaging and interventions in relation to body dissatisfaction and eating disorders which can have a devastating impact on boys’ seeking help.”
Even when I felt it, I swore to never refer to myself as ‘fat’ or point out parts of my body I hated in front of my kids - mainly for my daughter’s benefit I thought because I didn’t for one moment think my son would have an issue with his body.
It wasn’t until he was told he was carrying ‘excessive’ puppy fat at the age of 11 by his (well-meaning) grandad, that I realised he too was body-conscious. He started to ‘cut back’ on things, comment on foods that might ‘make him fat’. Always suck in his stomach when his shirt was off and have something covering it - like a pillow - when he sat down. Thankfully, it didn’t last long but it definitely had an impact and made me re-think my ideas around boys and body image.
Being fit and strong and able to ‘protect’ is what society expects from males so it makes sense that:
90% of adolescent boys report that they exercise primarily to gain muscle
Two-thirds of adolescent boys report making specific changes to their diet to gain muscle
But does it make it right? Especially when you learn that:
25% of people experiencing Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa are male
Almost an equal number of males and females experience binge eating disorder
Eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates of all psychiatric disorders and suicide rates are 20% higher in eating disorder patients than in the general population.
It’s time to drastically reconsider how you have conversations with your sons or male students on the topic of body image. Be mindful of the language we use when talking about/’celebrating’ male body shapes. Focus on technique over physicality, health gains, over aesthetic ones, and never make weight and appearance-based teasing ok.
Consider involving the males in your life in positive body image conversations and encourage people to challenge masculine as well as feminine ideals.
The more we talk about and normalise it, the easier it will make it for boys to ask for the help they so desperately need.