Watching your child gain their independence and start to choose their own clothes is one of parenting’s more entertaining moments. Mismatched clothing, costumes worn for weeks on end and penchants for branded t-shirts can all be quite fun. Yet, when my four-year-old son raced into the bathroom one morning dressed in his red skinny jeans, pyjama top and green monster sneakers it wasn’t his splash of colour that shocked me. “Mum do I look good in this? Do I look fat?” These two little questions not only stunned me into silence. I stood there lost for words on how to answer him.
As a mother of two boys I am aware of some of the parenting challenges that lie ahead; juggling their high energy levels, the one-word conversations of adolescence and keeping a well-stocked fridge to cope with their exploding appetites. What I didn’t expect was that my boys would face the very real concerns of body image, especially at such a young age. For a long time, as a society we have acknowledged that girls face immense pressure from the media and their peers when it comes to body image. Yet it seems boys do not escape these very same pressures. A recent study published in the journal Body Image interviewed sixty-eight children, aged 8-10, to gain an insight into how body image is influencing our boys. Deakin University researcher Gemma Tatangelo, who coordinated the study, acknowledges the misconception that boys are immune to body image. “We don’t expect young boys to have body image concerns and a lot of the ways we used to measure body image concerns with girls were not working with boys.”
Through a series of twenty-four questions, asking about physical appearance, expectations of how they should look, ways they spent their leisure time and which famous people they are influenced by, Gemma was able to identify that boys have a very clear idea of what they want themselves to look like. “Boys desire a fit body with little or no fat, with a focus on function and sport.” Now to parents these may not seem alarming, being fit is good and playing sport is always good. Yet, Gemma cautions “if it was just a fitness thing where they thought about health that would be fantastic, but I think kids are misinterpreting this a little bit.” Research into boys and body image is really only in its infancy and only through more studies can we gain further insight. “We really need those longitudinal studies to see how these young boys navigate that process into early adolescence and how that impacts their view on body image and body change.”
After the bathroom encounter with my son I started thinking about the influences in his life that may have prompted his questions. He plays with toy action figures which are all trim and buff. He watches cartoons where the heroes are not only lean and muscular they also have incredible physical abilities. He is my little side kick when we go shopping. Not only do we have conversations about looking good in one outfit versus another. He is often the one I ask in the fitting room if I look good in what I have just tried on. So it is no wonder that he has body image concerns. Maybe I should have been more surprised if he didn’t.
Clinical psychologist at The University of Canberra Dr. Vivienne Lewis stresses that body image in boys is a big issue. “We used to think that it only affected girls, but now we know it affects boys.” Vivienne encourages that one of the best ways to balance boys being conscious of their body image versus being obsessed is to be a good role model. “If we talk respectfully about other people’s bodies and our own bodies then our children will follow that.” She encourages parents to start having conversations with their child even from an early age. “Talk about how bodies come in all different shapes and sizes, point out people’s traits and positive characteristics, instead of just commenting on how they look.” Even conversations about being active and playing sport need to focus on fun and not just fitness. “Parents need to help their child understand that being physically active is important because it is fun, it is good for your body and makes your body feel good.”
New conversations have started in our house. Now when my son asks me if he looks good in what he is wearing I simply tell him that he would look great in anything he chose to wear. Then I ask him “Are you comfortable? Are you going to have lots of fun today?” The one size fits all mentality portrayed by the media may be something that never changes. However, as parents we can start to school our boys from an early age to have the right attitude and confidence towards a healthy body image, learning to appreciate who they are and what they look like, without the need to conform to an obsessive stereotype.