Having a son has opened my eyes to the intricacies of body shaming for males and those who identify as male. It was shocking to me when this body shaming started at just 7 years old. Now that my son is in middle school, the obsession with the right male body size and idea of what it means to be a man has gotten worse, not only amongst peers but in the way some parents of tween and teens talk about kids.
Recently when we were talking about this topic, my son said to me; “You can’t win. If you are skinny, you get made fun of for being skinny and weak. If you are big, you get made fun of for being fat. If you are in the middle, you still get made fun of for being too big.”
As a woman, I know about how body shaming plays out for women, but I did not realize what it was like for men. I did not know how insidious it is and how it is attached to perceived strength or manliness. Apparently, you can overcome some of these body failings, if you can prove you are strong enough. And, what proves that? Well, if you are big and you play a sport like football and thus prove you are physically strong and aggressive, then your size is often forgiven. Skinny boys though, no matter their strength, are almost always seen as weak and not much can overcome that. The kids in the middle are left struggling to figure out what will make them “okay” in the eyes of their peers and society at large. If you happen to also be short or very tall, with any body type, then almost nothing you can do can make up for that.
This is a problem, because constant body shaming, even from small comments each day, wear on our kids. Every time our kids are told they are too skinny, too fat, too weak, etc... they start to question if those things are really true. They feel ashamed and start to wonder, "Maybe if I just lost a few pounds, or worked out a little more, I would be a better person or I can prove that I am enough of a man." This leads to not only general sadness and feelings of worthlessness, but can develop into more severe disorders.
10 million men will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life.
In a study of 1,383 adolescents, the prevalence of any DSM-5 ED in males was reported to be 1.2% at 14 years, 2.6% at 17 years, and 2.9% at 20 years (Allen, 2013).
90% of teenaged boys exercised with the goal of bulking up (Eisenberg, 2012.)
Muscle dysmorphia, which is a form of body dysmorphia, is showing up in males. (Body dysmorphia is a disorder where a person is obsessed with imaginary defects in their appearance.)
I don’t have all the right answers for how to stop body shaming with boys. I do have some tips, based on our own experience, for you to use with your own kids in two different areas- how you talk to your boys about body image and how you coach your boys to talk to others about body image.
5 Ways to Teach Your Son Body Positivity
Start at a young age showing them that all body types and heights are normal. Don’t characterize people as fat, weak, slow, or anything based on their body type.
Show them people of different gender identities with all kinds of body shapes and sizes doing all kinds of things, not just athletic pursuits.
If your child likes athletics, be selective about the programs they enter and who their coaches are. There is always another team or another coach and you do not need to stick with one that focuses on men needing to be a certain weight or needing to be a certain kind of strong to prove that they are strong enough or good enough. Make sure the coach is aware of body shaming and addresses it when it happens, and that they do not have an idea of manliness that means being aggressive and emotionless.
Never talk about food as “good food and bad food.” Always frame eating as a way to fuel your body so it feels good and it can do the things you love.
Call out body shaming or unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a man when you see it in movies and tv or read it in books. This is one of the best things we have done in our home. Kids see this stuff almost all day long and they think this is the way people interact. If we don’t tell them that it is not okay, they will just repeat what they are seeing and reading.
5 Ways to Help Your Son Respond to Body Shaming
(Note: Kids always need to have a choice and need to be able to assess their safety level in the situation they are in. It is not always safe for a child, especially in the teen and tween years, to confront another kid or an adult. In all of the following scenarios, let your child know that saying nothing is always an option. In fact, most of the time, your child will probably choose to say nothing. The fact that you gave them a choice to speak up and they know body shaming is not okay is what makes them feel safe in their own body and will help combat body shame; no matter what anyone else says to them. )
If someone comments on your size or abilities, they can choose to say something like “My body is fine the way it is.”
If someone else comments on their own body being fat or in any other way “bad”, teach your child not to reply with “No, you are not fat or weak…” This reinforces the idea that a body or person can be fat or weak, which is bad, and that this person is just not there yet, but one day they might be. Instead your child can respond with “Every person’s body is right for them.”
If they hear a child comment on someone else’s body, they can say “There are lots of different body types and they all are fine.”
If someone comments on their food choices or calorie content, etc… they can say “I eat whatever I need to do the things I want to do.”
Teach them to never keep what they are feeling inside. The biggest contributor to kids feeling bad about their body and possibly ending up with an eating disorder is that they feel this constant shame about their body and they don’t tell anyone. When they feel unsafe to talk to someone about it, they feel trapped, and the only logical way out, that they can see, is to attempt to change their body. Help your child find an adult that they feel comfortable talking to, and that may not be you! It may be a teacher or a friends’ parent or a therapist.
Here are some more resources about boys and body image and what it “means” to be a man: