Boys should be targeted in body image programs too

Body image: It has been assumed that boys don’t experience body dissatisfaction
Body image: It has been assumed that boys don’t experience body dissatisfaction Photo: Getty Image

Boys should be targeted in body image programs too.

Research presented to the APS College of Health Psychologists Conference over the weekend showed pre-adolescent boys and girls have differing body image issues, meaning body image programs should be gender specific.

Research fellows Dr Catherine Connaughton and Dr Gemma Tatangelo at the Institute for Health and Aging at Australian Catholic University (ACU) say boys aged eight to 10 are using tactics to lose weight and gain muscle.

"Girls as we know…are primarily concerned about being thin but for boys it's more complicated than that," says Dr Tatangelo. "They are concerned about having little body fat, being muscular but also about being athletic."

"For boys it's [body image] more focused on the functional aspect of the body, so what they can do and how good they are when it comes to sports and that kind of thing."

Though previously assumed that boys don't experience body dissatisfaction, according to Dr Connaughton, recent research says otherwise.

"They do use tactics to try and change their body," she says.

Addressing the needs of boys and girls separately, Dr Tatangelo and Dr Connaughton developed an evidence–based prevention program for preadolescent children.

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The school based program assessed the influence media, peers and parents have on children, how satisfied they were with their bodies and if they had tried to change their appearance. They also looked at happiness, fruit and vegetable intake and BMI index.

A total of 652 school children between the ages of eight and 10 participated. Boys and girls were placed in separate rooms where they learned about acceptance and diversity.

"Basically the boy side of the program looked at that functionality aspect of it and the girls, it centred around the appearance side," says Dr Tatangelo.

For boys it was about accepting that maybe, "I can't run as fast as other people but that's okay."

As a result of the program researchers found both sexes had developed healthier eating habits.

"We found that for girls there was an improvement in the way they felt about how they looked," says Dr Connaughton.

"And for boys we found that they actually ... didn't buy into gender norms as much. So statements like "It's important for boys to run faster than girls", they didn't buy into these masculine physical attribute ideals anymore."

Something Dr Tatangelo says parents often overlook is the impact they have on their children. 

"When you ask the parents, where does your child get their message about body image from, they will generally say the media. But the parents are the first point of socialisation for the child," she says.

In terms of the message parents need to be sending their children, Dr Tatangelo says: "It's really about being healthy."

"But there is still obviously a lot more research to be done and a lot more we can do in terms of future programs and making that happen.

"Body image research in young boys has come a long way in recent years but there is still a lot of work to be done."

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