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Traditionally, most of the concerns about media and body image have revolved around girls. While it is undoubtedly important for our daughters to learn empowering messages about body diversity and self-acceptance, our sons are similarly exposed to pervasive social & cultural pressures on what it means to be “masculine” and are often left out of the conversation. Mainstream media including movies, TV, video games, and comics often portrays unrealistic male body ideals and contains content that criticizes other boys for being “too small” or “too big”. This places boys in a unique position in that they are subjected to both fat-shaming and thin stigma. So while the desire to be “more muscular” has been a focus in most research done on body image among boys, boys are more likely to focus on achieving an “average” weight to avoid standing out among peers.1
There have also been notable increases in eating disorders in boys, particularly in athletes. It is estimated that 1 in 3 individuals diagnosed with an eating disorder is male. This percentage may actually be much higher as eating disorders in boys & men can present differently than girls and their behaviours may be seen as normal (or even healthy) by adults in their life. Consequently eating disorders in boys and men are often underdiagnosed. Sadly, boys are also at a higher risk of dying, in part because they are often diagnosed later in their illness. Despite this, less than one percent of eating disorders research has focused on eating disorders among males.2
If you are concerned your child may be struggling with an eating disorder, reach out for professional medical help.
When it comes to fostering a healthy body image in your sons, I encourage you to try the following 5 tips:
1. Normalize body diversity: Become familiar with the types of media your children are viewing to better understand the messages they are receiving. Work with them to seek out body diversity in their media consumption. These could include diverse Olympic athletes, sports players, influencers and even people in your community. When you are out and about, notice and appreciate all the unique forms the human body can be, healthy bodies come in all varieties of sizes! This will further help normalize body diversity and set more realistic expectations of self and others.
2. Focus on function over appearance: What amazing things can our bodies DO? Run, jump, swim, heal broken bones, fight off infection. Notice and appreciate the wide variety of things bodies are capable of and celebrate them. Avoid weight-based or appearance focused comments or judgement about your child’s body, your body, or those of others. Showing your sons that you love and accept yourself, and those around you, is an important place to start.
3. Avoid stereotypes & promote internal value: “You’re so strong” or “look at those muscles” reinforces gender-based body ideals for boys. What is ACTUALLY valuable about your child? Their inner qualities of course!
Here is a list of non-appearance based compliments
You always make me laugh
You are so creative
You are a great listener
You are a very hard worker
I love how nice you are to your brother (or sister)
You are generous
You always think of others first
You are so smart
You are a really great friend
You are kind
You make my day so much nicer
You never give up
You think outside the box
You are so brave
4. Focus on holistic health: Being healthy is more than just nutrition and exercise; focus on the multi-dimensional aspects of health including physical, emotional, mental, spiritual health and how balance (not sacrificing one for the other) is needed to help support holistic health. Practice selfcare and help your kids learn how to tune into their own physical and emotional needs. Even small acts of selfcare can decrease stress, improve relationships, and promote wellness of the body and mind.
5. Challenge unhealthy expectations. As your boys grow older, have honest conversations about how it is not realistic or sustainable to develop body expectations based on their favorite superheroes, actors, or those on social media. Similarly dispel myths that you can tell how healthy someone is based on their body shape or size. Health isn’t defined by a six-pack or the amount of protein powder consumed and body strength does not make someone more worthy of love or respect. Revisit earlier conversations around holistic health, selfcare, balanced living, and body diversity.
If you observe your son commenting negatively (or if you see media content where others comment negatively) on body weight, shape, eating habits, or appearance, have an open conversation about how these are not acceptable or appropriate and are hurtful & disrespectful to others.
Parents, I know you are doing your best! Keep these tips in mind are you help to raise the next generation of boys into men who feel good about themselves!
Jenn Messina is a Registered Dietitian based in beautiful Vancouver, B.C. Jenn is passionate about all aspects of holistic health and practices through the lens of Health at Every Size® and Intuitive Eating. She works with individuals who are ready to break up with dieting and find balance and joy with food! She also works with families looking to support their children to have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. Follow her on Instagram: @jennthedietitian and visit her online www.jennmessina.com