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Boys and body image - and muscle dysmorphia

boys and body image

There's a changing cultural story around boys and body image just as there is around men and body image. The image of boys bodies is changing rapidly, in line with the changing images that young boys are exposed to on a repetitive basis.


  • TV shows touting gladiators and www wrestling stars, 
  • to male magazine covers preaching 'The Perfect Body' along with pictures of rippling photoshopped images,
  • to sports heros with their beefed up and padded bodies, 
  • to larger than life bionic robot male toys with their bulked up physiques
  •'s no wonder that boys and their body image are taking a beating with these new images of apparent 'manliness'. It's no wonder that boys bodies are under siege in a way that leads to body dysmorphia and more boys getting eating disorders.

    How boys and body image are impacted...

    In previous generations the role models boys had to aspire to were much more 'normal - sized'. It wasn't necessarily all about physique - there was more emphasis on other qualities such as intelligence, empathy and compassion.

    Parents want their boys to be healthy – and that includes feeling confident living in their bodies. Most people think eating disorders and body image issues are the domain of girls and women, but that's a mis-perception. The obsession with having a “better” body is far from a girls-only issue. In 2003 a child psychologist colleague and I did research with 9-12 year old boys and I have to admit to being quite startled that they all drew their ideal body with hugely distorted chest muscles.  Muscle dysmorphia begins at an early age.  

    It's really not surprising when boys are surrounded by images of six-pack abs, ripped bodies, and perfect hair styles on stars like David Beckham. And computer games are filled with hero's with unrealistic body builds which affects body and body image. The media profoundly affects boys’ expectations of what a 'real' and 'acceptable' body size and shape is.

    But the male body image isn’t something that’s often discussed. It's considered normal (how sad is that) for girls to be unhappy with their bodies - in fact if girls are happy with their body no-one would believe them. But boys, especially adolescents, don't often have an outlet for their lack of confidence with their bodies and when one considers the prevalence of muscle dysmorphia amongst even young boys, that's a shame.

    Boys bodies and Muscle Dysmorphia

    Eating disorders have affected men who have admitted to having them such as Dennis Quaid and Elton John, but most men suffer in silence. And of course the media is full of scandals about steroid use used by sports stars.  According to NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) boys generally believe they need to be lean and muscular and tall to be acceptable.  And up to 68% of normal-weight males believe they need to increase their muscle mass.   Boys body image concerns have increased dramatically over the past 30 years from 15% to 43% of men being dissatisfied with their bodies.  It's should come as no surprise then that  Bigorexia (commonly)/ muscle dysmorphia (more formally) are on the increase.

    Increasingly, boys are becoming more and more obsessed with dieting (or at the very least watching what they eat), taking supplements to bulk up, or working out excessively in order to get the “cut” bodies they see in magazines such as Mens' health with their photo-shopped images. Bulking up to impress your peers and girls, and to make it into sports teams is the 'in' thing to do when it comes to boys and body image.

    Boys bodies and muscle building

    But as part of the boys and body image field, there is a growing interest among boys in bodybuilding and muscle building. The October 2005 issue of Psychology of Men and Masculinity published a study by Linda Smolak who surveyed almosts 400 6th-8th graders and found that between 7 and 11% of middle school boys have used steroids in order to increase muscle size and tone.  

    It's important to recognize that staying fit and having healthy muscles would usually be considered to be a good thing, it's only when body and body image go 'over the top' and are indicators of excessive body dissatisfaction that they are bad. Linda's Smolak's study investigated investigating what contributes to bulking up, steroid use and taking of food supplements. 

    The most obvious cause of boys and body image problems was the body ideas portrayed in the media leading to the belief that they don't match up the the media ideal. Those boys who took food supplement and steroids reported that they compared their appearance unfavorably to other boys, and had parents who had teased more than those who didn’t use.

    Help for younger boys and body image

    Tips for parents of worried about their younger boys and body image:

  • Talk about what their bodies can do, rather than what their bodies look like, in other words place the emphasis on health rather than looks.
  • Keep kids active. Don’t let them “veg” in front of a screen too long at any given time.
  • Be aware of how you feel about your own body. They will be inclined to copy your behavior. Are you very critical of your own body? Is healthy exercise and eating well a part of your every day? You are their role model and who they will emulate?
  • Help them do a reality check so they can form realistic expectations. Point out that the celebrities they admire have dedicated chefs and sports physiologists helping them work out and feeding them special meals. Point out the botox and the surgical doctoring to them. Point out the drama-filled and stressful lives these people often have behind the scenes. 
  • If your son is on a sports team, check in with him about the kinds of messages coming from his coach and from other team members. Does the team have a healthy or an unhealthy culture? The culture coaches create is important. especially during a boy's formative years
  • Help for older boys and body image

  • Ask your son about the weight control methods used by his friends - evaluate if they are risky or healthy. Boys talk more easily about other people than themselves. Ask about steroids or supplement use. Ask about who is constantly at the gym working out. Ask about who purges after a big eat up. Ask if he's ever thought he should follow suit.
  • Be on the look out for signs such as sudden intense interest in the gym and muscles and working out, or a big weight loss, or radically changed eating patterns. All these could be hints about eating disorders such as anorexiabulimia or exercise bulimia. 
  • Be aware of teasing or remarking on your son's physique - and steer away from ever doing it.

  • If you want to joke with them, that's great, just don't choose to make their body the subject because it's a topic your son may be particularly sensitive to 
  • General tips for boys bodies

    boys and body image

    Tips for parents about boys and body image in general:

  • Make sure your child understands that weight gain , and that shooting up and being tall and skinny, are all normal parts of development, 
  • Don't make negative statements about weight, and body size,shape and musculature 
  • Give your son positive feedback his efforts, talents and accomplishments - build his confidence in his ability to succeed regardless of his body size or shape
  • Use TV viewing to point out, and discuss unrealistic bodies
  • Teach your children to trust their bodies and to eat intuitively. This fun and healthy way of eating is great for the whole family. 
  • Actively encourage your son's school to take a stand against bullying, teasing, name calling, public weigh-ins and fat measurements 
  • Encourage active participation in sports by going to watch them play, by playing with them in the back yard instead of allowing them to sloth in front of TV