Boys and body image: am I buff enough?

written by Carrol Baker

Boy weights Credit: iStock

After footy practice, 13-year-old Bailey jogged 3km home, then hit the home gym after dinner to do some reps. One of his mates, Troy, also 13, goes to the gym most days, pushing himself to the point of soreness, but he says it’s worth it because his “guns” are getting bigger. As part of his fitness regime, Troy’s also started skipping meals because he wants to stay lean.

Body image and how it can negatively affect teenage girls has been scrutinised in the public arena for decades. But mention the words “boys” and “body image” in the same sentence and most people just look baffled.

“Some researchers are ... predicting that you might see the balance shift in the next 10 years, that men and boys will be a lot more dissatisfied with their body image than women.”

It is, however, a big issue. Ask those in the know and they’ll tell you that negative body image does not discriminate across gender. In fact, the 2014 Mission Australia National Youth Survey of 13,600 teens identified body image as one of the top three concerns for boys.

Dr Vivienne Lewis, a psychologist with expertise in body image and eating disorders, says it’s something that needs to be taken very seriously. “In the last five years it’s become a significant mental health issue,” she says. “Some researchers are also predicting that you might see the balance shift in the next 10 years, that men and boys will be a lot more dissatisfied with their body image than women.”

Girls vs boys

While both boys and girls are concerned about the shape and size of their bodies, there are often differences between the sexes regarding how they think they should look. Girls typically desire to be thinner, many wanting to emulate the waiflike models they see sashaying across a catwalk. Boys, on the other hand, typically want to look like their sporting heroes, to be fit and muscular but also lean so they have muscle definition.

According to Dr Lewis, it’s a tough call for boys. “That lean, muscular physique is much harder to achieve than a thin physique, so generally speaking boys will struggle to meet their perceived ideal body image much more than girls will,” she says.

The shapeshifting male

In the past, men were portrayed in the media in a number of ways. The tradie with his singlet and tool belt, the sombre-looking businessman swinging a briefcase, the larrikin bloke fishing with his mates and sharing a beer. These days, though, a man is more likely to be photographed wearing a six-pack rather than drinking one.

Instead of hitting the gym, pre-teens and those in their early teenage years benefit from a variety of different sports and physical outdoor activities.

Dr Lewis says the idea of the functional, hardworking man is being replaced by media images that primarily focus on a man’s appearance or, specifically, the aesthetics of the male. “On the cover of a men’s magazine you’ll see chiselled abs, legs splayed open so the genitals look larger and content inside the magazine on how to get fitter and leaner,” she says.

Media madness?

The portrayal of a slim-hipped, muscular male begins at an early age, about the time when boys start playing with action figures. Unlike the impossibly proportioned Barbie doll (whose life’s purpose seems to be modelling sparkling frocks while zooming around in her pink car with Ken), these hulky male figures are heroes with a serious agenda and super powers that can save the planet.

Are advertising gurus and the media inadvertently messing with our boys’ heads?

But, then again, social media arguably also has a part to play. Some say the rise of the selfie is spawning a generation where narcissism is the norm, where kids have to look a certain way to fit in, no matter what the cost. The more “likes” they get when they post a new selfie, the greater their ego boost.

Looking for clues

Achieving the “right look” can bear a hefty pricetag for boys as well as girls. Unlike girls, it’s unusual for boys to binge and purge, but you might notice your boy being extremely restrictive about his food intake and snubbing whole food groups.

“When you comment about a person to your child, emphasise their qualities ... not how slim or attractive they might be.”

Dr Lewis says the boy may also show secretive or unusual behaviour. “You might find your child refusing to attend a social event because it interferes with their gym routine, or not wanting to eat at a particular restaurant because they don’t have particular foods on offer on the menu,” she says.

To further cloud the issue, some signs that your son is struggling with body issues could also be confused with normal teenage hormonal-driven behaviour. For example, being secretive or putting personal boundaries in place, like not wanting to get changed in front of others.

Puberty blues

A boy’s body changes with the onset of puberty. Along with a deepening voice and the growth of facial hair, he grows in height and his limbs lengthen, chest broadens and bones increase in width and length. Growth spurts can be not only rapid but also uneven, so if you think your teenage son appears to be all arms and legs he probably is!

This is why teens can appear gangly and unco-ordinated, and their chances of injury or accidents increases.

Pushing the boundaries

In search of a svelte muscular form, boys and young men are working out: pumping iron and, in some cases, pushing themselves far beyond their physiological limits. Clinical exercise physiologist Dr Bill Sukala says that, at the extreme end of the spectrum, exercising too much can cause permanent damage to the growth plate: the area of growing tissue near the ends of the long bones in children and adolescents. “If boys exercise too hard when growth plates aren’t fully developed, you can potentially prematurely close the growth plate, which results in a shortened bone,” he says.

According to Sukala, instead of hitting the gym, pre-teens and those in their early teenage years benefit from a variety of different sports and physical outdoor activities that work a broad range of muscle groups: playing team sports like soccer, bike riding, swimming, rough-and-tumble play, shimmying up monkey bars or other play equipment and swinging off ropes hanging from tree houses, for example.

Around the mid-teenage years when testosterone begins to surge and your teenager starts to notice the opposite sex, he might start to want to bulk up a bit. And, of course, the place he’ll want to do this is at the gym. If a teen wants to work out at a gym, Sukala says, they need to be fully supervised. “What you don’t want is teenage boys simply mimicking what they see others do because, more than likely, they’re going to be in for a world of hurt,” he says.

They should aim for moderate weights and moderate repetitions, coupled with learning good form and proper breathing techniques, he adds. “These are all good habits to develop early.”

It’s best if a teenage uses lighter weights until he reaches his early 20s, when he’s physiologically mature and can build muscle. Then he can progress safely to bigger weights.

A hazardous habit

Unfortunately, with the desire to boost muscle mass and strength to gain a competitive edge, boys are also using steroids. Anabolic steroids are extremely dangerous, especially in young people. They can cause permanent liver damage, high cholesterol levels, diabetes and heart problems — and that’s just the long-term effects.

“Steroid abuse, particularly among late-teenage boys, is unequivocally a real issue,” says Sukala. “Boys want big muscles to look good for the girls and to be the cool guy in the group, but some boys are so driven they’ll do anything to gain that competitive edge.”

So, what are the signs that may tell you your son could be abusing steroids? Sukala says early telltale signs can vary from individual to individual, but there are usually some common denominators.

“If your child is abusing steroids you might see them devouring muscle magazines (this is where muscle envy kicks in). They might also get acne and they’ll possibly become more agitated or angry,” he says.

To make matters worse, there are now also designer drugs that athletes and bodybuilders use that are a form of steroids that are reportedly undetectable. As soon as the long arm of the law catches up with one lot of unscrupulous manufacturers, another lab springs up elsewhere, peddling these harmful performance-enhancing drugs.

What can you do to help?

There are many things parents can do to gently guide their sons in the right direction. Being a role model for healthy lifestyle habits is one thing parents and caregivers can definitely get on-board with.

The right chow

Kick-starting a healthy lifestyle starts with encouraging your child to eat healthy foods. As pre-teen and teenage boys grow into manhood, their nutritional needs change. According to nutritionist Lisa Guy, they need far more nutrients: extra calcium to build strong bones and more protein and iron to support muscle growth. “Teenage boys appear to be eating all the time — this is because they need extra calories and nutrients to fuel their growth spurts,” she says.

This is where parents can help children to make healthy food choices that will hopefully become lifelong eating habits.

Guy says one important consideration is healthy “food-to-go” options. “If hungry teens start snacking on convenience snack foods that are full of sugar, saturated and trans fats, and soft drinks, this is where the risk of becoming overweight or obese and developing health issues can occur,” she says. Instead, encourage your busy child to pack healthy food-to-go options: cheese and crackers, trail mixes (raw nuts, seeds and dried fruit), homemade protein balls or healthy muesli bars.

Make your mealtimes family times and get kids on-board with preparing family meals. It’s a great way to connect with your kid while you are slicing and dicing, and you’ll be teaching your child an invaluable life skill (one their future spouse will thank you for).

Teenage boys tend to eat a lot of cereals and grains, so make sure they are going for the wholegrain option instead of the white variety. Choose oats (muesli, porridge), brown rice and pasta, grainy bread and wholegrain crackers. “These are rich in fibre and contain important nutrients like B vitamins, iron and vitamin E, and slow-releasing complex carbs for energy,” says Guy.

Look within

If you are worried

Be alert to diet and behavioural changes. Some changes are, of course, more obvious than others and they can vary, depending on whether the child is seeking to buff up or slim down. Internal alarm bells should be going off if you see a boy who exercises to the point of exhaustion, refuses to eat certain meals or regularly binges on food then disappears after dinner for a shower or to the toilet.

If you are concerned about your child, contact your health provider for referral to a health professional.


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Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.