Six-year-old boys feel pressure to be 'more muscular', study finds

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Boys as young as six are unhappy with their body shape and a third of them want more muscles, according to a recent Victorian study.

La Trobe University researcher Dr Siân McLean interviewed 100 six-year-old boys and the results painted a startling picture of the relationship boys have with their body.

She asked the boys a series of "yes-or-no" questions in relation to muscularity and thinness.

"Of the boys interviewed, 32.6 per cent wanted to be more muscular and 20.8 per cent wanted to be thinner," Dr McLean said.

"In comparison, fewer boys interviewed wanted to be less muscular (16.8 percent) and less than ten per cent (8.9 per cent) wanted to be larger or fatter."

The boys were also asked if being thinner or having more muscles would help them make more friends or have more fun.

She found that 47 per cent of boys thought muscles would make them look better, 35 per cent thought having muscles would help them make new friends and 55 per cent of six-year-old boys believed they would have more fun if they had a more muscular figure. While, 43 per cent of boys interviewed said being thinner would lead to more fun and 31 per cent said they'd make new friends.

"This study is really a starting point in understanding how these preferences might develop in young boys and whether this way of thinking leads to some of the unhealthy practices young men engage in to achieve an ideal muscular or thinner body," Dr McLean said.

"We know that in adolescent boys and young men, the desire to achieve a muscular appearance ideal – which is both low in body fat and high in muscularity – can lead to extreme compulsive and excessive exercising, dieting including rigid and restrictive eating behaviours, and use of performance enhancing drugs, including anabolic steroids."

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"If we can better understand if, when, and in what way boys experience body dissatisfaction, we can better tailor prevention approaches and inform relevant policies and practices."

It was also important to examine ways in which young boys formed ideas about the perfect body, from a number of sources including media, family and peers.

"Boys potentially receive messages from multiple sources that muscles and lean bodies are more desirable," she said.

"In western culture, there is a relatively ubiquitous weight and appearance bias, that is, thinness, leanness and muscularity are associated with success, happiness, and attractiveness, whereas larger body sizes are linked with perceptions of laziness, lack of self-control, and lower competence

"We only need to think about how the body shape and size of musculature of superheroes and characters in cartoons and movies are depicted to have a sense of how boys might come to think that being muscular is desirable."

Psychologist Daniel Wendt, from Oracle Psychology, said boys were also being exposed to a whole new era of the need to be picture perfect on social media.

"We now live in a pervasive digital and multimedia world where we are presented daily with images of actors and models in prime condition," he said.

"Moreover, individuals constantly post images of themselves on social media which are meticulously selected from multiple takes, after being cropped and adjusted via digital editing.

"This exposure at such a young age is something never before seen with such intensity."

He'd like to see more research being done into the harmful impacts of social media on body image.

"More research needs to be conducted to explore the short-term and long-term impacts of this modern era of digital saturation," he said.

"We as humans naturally compare ourselves to what we are exposed to. It's problematic to try to measure up to an ideal image or photoshopped picture, which was unnaturally fabricated.

"Perfectionism is a risk factor for eating disorders and can fuel negative self-esteem."

Bullying, peer pressure and family expectations could also play a role in shaping a child's view on what makes a more desirable body.

"Parents can help by modelling healthy and balanced lifestyle choices," he said.

"They can also encourage a holistic approach to life which enhances all aspects of the individual including social connections, family support, community networking and eating regular balanced meals together as a family."

It's also important to support, nurture and listen to children's views about their body.

"Parents can help by talking openly and without criticism about their child's self-belief," he said.

"In day-to-day life parents can also verbalise helpful self-talk, rather than negative/critical beliefs, which can help bolster self-esteem in general.

"Encourage children to take a balanced approach to meeting their goals and seek professional help if you are concerned."