Something has happened to our teenage sons. They swap tips on the best fat-burning workouts. Many of them shun carbs. They agonise about their hair, their height. They won’t go swimming with their friends because they think they need to lose weight.
Parents of adolescent boys may not be surprised to hear that a study from the Children’s Society, published in August 2021, has found for the first time that teenage boys are just as self-conscious about their body as girls. Just over ten years ago, around 7.8 per cent of boys aged 10 to 15 expressed unhappiness about their appearance (compared with 15.7 per cent of girls). This has now risen to around 13 per cent of boys.
As a mother of sons aged 14, 16, and 19, I suspect they always have been, but haven’t felt able to say so. In fact, are we sure only 13 per cent are unhappy with how they look? “There’s much more distress among boys around their bodies and their body image than we realise,” says consultant clinical psychologist Dr Elizabeth Kilbey.
How our boys feel about themselves and the way they look is closely linked to what society teaches them about being male from early on. And, says Dr Kilbey, gender stereotypes for boys are “as narrow and constraining” as for girls, if not more so. “For boys to fall outside of the stereotypical male presentation attracts a lot of attention. It’s still quite taboo.”
The primary school she works at is typical in that boys who don’t want to play football at playtime can feel “quite isolated”. She says, “There’s something narrower about the ways that boys can invent themselves, and so then all of that about who you are, what you do, what you should look like… that also becomes narrow.”
Society hasn’t moved on from its stereotypes of “big strong men” and “boys don’t cry”, she says. No wonder, then, that “boys want to be tall, they want to be strong, they want to be broad”.
And yet, just as they are less likely to address their mental health than girls, Dr Kilbey says, “Talking about their physicality and their size and their body image is absolutely something boys don’t do.” To complain about it would be seen as a weakness. “It’s almost a double bind. They can’t avail themselves of the support that they might need – or normalise the issue – because they can’t even talk about the thing that’s bothering them.”
To help our sons feel comfortable and confident as they are, we must be aware of what we are communicating and not “narrow their options”, says Dr Kilbey. “Even when they’re tiny, we say things like, ‘Be a strong boy!’” She adds, “If something needs carrying, do we ask the boy or girl?”
Encouraging them to have girls in their friendship groups throughout childhood is helpful. Notice and push back against male stereotypes. “Keep it as open as you can. Make sure that as a family, you’re saying, ‘You’re OK as you are, and there are lots of different ways to be.’ Encourage them to express themselves in a variety of ways.”
Parents can help, though it’s definitely an issue we as a society need to address. Kathryn Dombrowicz, an addictions and eating disorder specialist at the Soke, a mental health and wellness centre in London, notes that one study by the Mental Health Foundation found that 25 per cent of boys between 13 and 19 have body image concerns.
She says, “That’s a lot of boys looking at themselves thinking, ‘I don’t know if my body is right, if I’m slim enough, muscular enough, masculine enough’ – whatever messages they feel they’re getting back from the world driving their perception about how they should be male in order to succeed. We also see a lot of anxiety about other perceived masculine traits. ‘Am I tall enough? Will I lose my hair?’”
But again, says Dr Kilbey, the culture is, “You’ve got to tough it out.” She recently noticed that her adolescent son was gaming with friends but texting, rather than using his headset – it turned out one friend’s voice was “funny” and “the boys at school were being mean to him” and he was too mortified to talk.
“I don’t think anyone would tease a girl for starting her period,” says Dr Kilbey. “I still think boys are mocked for things like their voice breaking, or getting hairy, or growing.” And not just their peers – adults tease boys.
We parents can’t protect them from every cruel or thoughtless remark. Though we can reassure them and discourage “banter” (aka bullying). In our family I banned the phrase “man up”. People forget that boys are as sensitive as girls – partly because of our prejudices, but also because they’re socialised to hide how they really feel.
Parents’ power, says Dr Kilbey, lies in “modelling tolerance, speaking about these things – because boys may not be insightful about this stuff. It’s easy to assume your son will be OK, that it’s your daughter who will have body image concerns. Ask a few more questions, be more curious. It’s the gentle rowing back against a toxic culture that says, ‘This is what it means to be male.’ Challenge it. The antidote to toxic masculinity is tolerance, compassion, empathy.”
We might also point out that toxic masculinity (and its rigid tenets of what men do and look like and its bullying of those who don’t conform) is actually a defensive “frightened position – it’s very anxiety-based”.
We should be particularly alert and sensitive as boys reach their teens. Adolescence is challenging and worries and insecurities (not just about their physicality) can play out through their body – in disordered eating or exercising too much.
We’re taught very early that food and what we eat is a way of manipulating how we feel, says Dombrowicz. When the world feels scary and overwhelming, particularly around puberty and beyond, and you’re finding your identity, she says, “Food is one of the first things young people can control.
“Some boys, especially on the cusp of young adulthood around 16, realise, ‘I feel nervous and I feel a bit better when I don’t eat.’ For a while, the less we eat, the less we can actually feel the stress and emotions.” At first, exercising makes them feel better – but it can quickly become self-destructive.
“It becomes compulsive and feels self-punishing. ‘I have to eat less, or I feel fat.’” Then parents should gently step in. She says, “In the context of body image issues, ‘I feel fat’ is generally code for something else, and it’s about helping them identify what that is. You might say, ‘That fat is a feeling. I wonder what it is.’ Often it’s anxiety, fear, overwhelming worry, stress, low mood or low self-esteem. Boys are often ‘worried about not fitting in, not getting it right, getting teased’.”
We can blame our sons’ exposure to all those images of men’s bodies presented as desirable, ugly, or ridiculous – on social media, on television and film, advertising and (alas) porn – and they have a powerful, pernicious influence. “There’s a lot of fattism out there,” says Dombrowicz. But check attitudes at home too. As Erica Komisar, a leading New York psychoanalyst, notes in her book, Chicken Little – The Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety, “If you disparage your body or your child’s body, weigh yourself constantly and obsess about what you eat, or diet constantly, your children will adopt those attitudes.”
If your son’s worries have become entangled with body image, how do we help him express what he’s feeling (and tolerate difficult emotions) when he might not even have the language for it? If boys aren’t talking, be present, says Dombrowicz. “They might just need to be in the same room as you. Sometimes, it’s just about doing things together. Or playing with the dog. If they’re grumpy, let them get cross. Even if in that moment they don’t know what they’re feeling. Even saying ‘I don’t care!’ can be a way of expressing that they do care.”
Dombrowicz advises that you focus on your son’s internal qualities – “because he’ll have got stuck on the external perception”. Chat about social media if you sense he’s comparing himself unfavourably – “social media isn’t real life – it’s all staged”. Even if you’re anxious about his preoccupation with his body image, be gentle (no snapping, “Eat more, for goodness’ sake!”).
Ultimately, she says, if body image issues are driving him to unhealthy habits the important thing for parents to determine is, “Underneath it all, what’s the meaning of it? Is it about making him feel better and less anxious? Is it a lovely distraction from his stresses? Is it a sense that if I’m thinner or more muscular that I will be more accepted by my peers, more attractive, have a better sense of self-esteem? What does he believe it’s giving him?” Only if we understand, can we help him feel better.