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Body Image

Boys Are Unhappy With Their Bodies, and We Need to Talk About It

"I really wish society put less importance on things like beauty."

Key points

  • Boys experience body dissatisfaction but often have a difficult time articulating their concerns.
  • Conversations about body image have been feminized, leaving boys ashamed to ask for help.
  • It is important that parents and practitioners normalize discussion about body image among boys.

When I first learned that I was having a baby boy at my 20-week ultrasound appointment, I remember feeling a bit of relief. I had already embarked on my current career as a psychologist studying body image, and I focused mostly on girls. I expected that my son would be less likely to suffer from body dissatisfaction and eating disorders.

Fast forward to today and that boy is nearly a man several inches taller than me, and my career has taken an unanticipated turn. My research focus for the last couple of years has been almost exclusively on boys’ body image and what appears to be a hidden crisis among boys.

I was not the only psychologist who spent decades believing that because girls were endlessly striving for thin, nearly emaciated figures and boys were not, boys were “safe.” However, recent research indicates that the majority of boys are dissatisfied with their bodies. During dozens of interviews of boys and young men that I conducted while I wrote Being You: The Body Image Book for Boys (with coauthors Dan Hart and Doug Zacher) I further found that they are all too often at a loss when it came to articulating their body image concerns, even though those concerns start early in life.

One recent study even suggests that boys as young as 6 years old believe that muscles make boys look better. Keep in mind that before puberty, boys are not apt to build anything resembling the bulky muscle of bodybuilders, apparently leaving a growing number of boys disappointed in their bodies from an early age.

This dissatisfaction is not merely a superficial concern but one that can have serious consequences, including eating disorders. One-fourth to one-third of eating disorder patients are male and eating disorders are among the deadliest mental health disorders (only behind opioid abuse).

Perhaps even more concerning is the growing number of boys—11 percent in one recent study—who admit to using supplements or steroids to increase their muscularity. TikTok seems to encourage these maladaptive body image behaviors by popularizing trends such as “dry scooping” protein powder (pre-workout consumption of chalky powders without dissolving them in water first).

New Africa/ Shutterstock
Source: New Africa/ Shutterstock

Why Don't We Talk About Boys' Body Dissatisfaction?

After decades of feminizing body image concerns and marketing most diet messages to girls and women, it’s not surprising that boys and men have trouble discussing body dissatisfaction. During interviews that I conducted while I wrote Being You, boys often went to great lengths to assure me that they didn’t have any “body image issues.” They’d tell me that they were embarrassed to take their shirt off at the pool, or they were currently embarking on a new weightlifting regimen, or they tried not to eat sweets. One interviewee, Levi (19 years old),* told me that it was easy to get stuck in the “I hate everything about my body rabbit hole.” But, nope, no body image issues here.

Boys and men are less likely than girls and women to seek out help for both physical and mental health concerns. The brand of masculinity most familiar to them is that of the strong, stoic, independent type. In medical help-seeking research, awareness and problem recognition are considered essential first steps in obtaining treatment. If boys fear stigmatization or ridicule, they will continue to try to manage their body image distress alone; this will only intensify the current mental health crisis among teens.

Improving Boys' Body Image

Improving boys’ body image requires first acknowledging that boys have concerns and that this is typical, not something for them to be ashamed of. We can further help boys to understand that body dissatisfaction is a natural reaction to an appearance-focused culture that bombards all of us with messages about the importance of how we look, not who we are. There is a lot of money to be made in keeping all of us insecure about our appearances; why would the beauty and wellness industry stop at catering to girls and women when they could double their profits by targeting boys and men?

Lucas (21 years old),* who I interviewed while writing Being You, was vocal in his annoyance at the endless marketing of beauty ideals—and the products that are supposed to help us achieve those ideals. He was emphatic when he said, “I just wish everyone would take a step back and say, ‘Hey, we are all actually pretty beautiful already.’ I really wish society put less importance on things like beauty and a bit more on real things like emotions and how we treat each other. Life is not a beauty contest.” Lucas seems to appreciate what many older adults have a hard time coming to terms with: our appearances are only one small, fairly uninteresting part of who we are.

Less than two years after my son was born, I had a daughter. Although I’ve always felt some anxiety about how to raise her to appreciate that she has much more to offer the world than her appearance, I’ve also felt equipped to talk with her about body image. When it comes to my son, the conversations haven’t always come as easily. I’ve done my best not to reinforce outdated views of masculinity; I want him to value communication and social connectedness over (physical) strength and self-sufficiency. More than anything, I want both of my children to feel comfortable in their own skin. I just don’t see how that will be possible for many boys until we begin to normalize conversations about body image for them too.

*Pseudonyms are used to protect interviewees' identities.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Mike_shots/Shutterstock

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