As our boys reach their teen years, body image becomes an important aspect of their lives. How they look promotes self-esteem within themselves. When they look good, they feel good! It's just an important part of growing up so cultivating a healthy body image is vital, especially now when teens are at the age where they are the most impressionable age of their life and when outside influences are rampant and easily accessible.
As they reach puberty, their body goes through a lot of changes. This coupled with their need to fit in becomes important to them. When they feel good about their body, they are more likely to have more confidence and good self-esteem.
Much has been said about girls and body positivity. Socially we have realised that whatever is out there on social media is affecting how our girls look at their own bodies. The outrage at the unrealistic standards that have been thrown in their faces is widely known. Great efforts have been put in place to raise awareness about body image, the negativity surrounding it, and the health conditions associated with it.
We see big brands getting on the bandwagon with the movement of changing the general perspective of the 'ideal' body by featuring real people with real bodies in their promotional campaigns which is an outstanding effort. But more needs to be done. Awareness on what's realistic and what's not needs to be widespread.
The thing is though - it is most often than not assumed that body issues mostly affect girls. However, they are not solely unique to girls. Teenage boys also carry concerns about their body image too. Generally, boys are highly concerned about their weight, physique, and masculinity. They too fall prey to the concept of having the 'perfect' body - leaner, more muscular, taller. Concepts that are currently being projected on social media of what the perfect body 'should' look like.
As a result of the assumptions that body image only affects girls, our teenage boys may be more likely to keep their insecurities and dissatisfaction with how they feel about themselves a secret, and we as parents may be less likely to recognize it.
I recently found out that a class in school were teaching the importance of nutrition to 8-year-olds - which is great. But the teacher then proceeded to weigh each child and categorise them into groups of thin, normal and fat (those are the words the teachers used), in class. Now THAT didn't sit with me well. There should be a better approach to it, right? I don't think any of these kids had any issues or negative thoughts about their bodies until it was highlighted to them. These are the small things that we might not put much thought into that might affect the way a child looks at himself. It starts with what we say to them and then carries on to what they say to themselves.
Subtle comments and messages can add up and influence the way our children feel about their bodies without us realising it. Even saying - ' you're looking good, you've lost so much weight!' can send a message that being of a certain weight is what they should strive for, regardless of whether they were at a normal weight to begin with.
It’s important for our family to know that teasing about weight is simply not okay. Let's not deny the fact that this happens in all families, especially during family gatherings. It happens but it's still not okay.
When my son was 16, he wanted to build some muscles. He asked for a gym membership and a personal trainer. I was all for it. He had always been slightly underweight. It was always a struggle for him to put on weight. He was eating normally but was super active and had the metabolism I wish I had!
I thought that muscle building combined with proper nutrition to support this new endeavour of his would encourage a healthier weight. It did. And he looked much better. He was proud of himself. He was stronger and proud.
At 17, he decided to join a particular football club. In preparation for the tryouts, he amped up his training at the gym, and started on protein shakes and properly curating all his meals, so he gets a lot of protein and carbs to help build his muscles.
The heavy training eventually caused a hairline fracture to his shins. Even with the fracture, he was relentless, he didn't want to quit, let alone accept it. On one of his tryout sessions, he trained with the club with a hairline fracture, he was so determined, but my heart broke watching him knowing very well he was in so much pain but trying to mask it as well as he could. You could see it in his eyes. He had to undergo several months of therapy to heal.
With all the muscle building and the diet that went along with it, his body of course filled out a bit and so did his face - I didn't even notice it, but he did and was not too happy with the fact that he lost the defined jawline that he once had. Because of that, he stopped working out altogether. He has lost almost 10 kilos since then.
As we know it, teen boys who participate in sports are often times required to lose or gain weight or develop defined muscles in order to excel in their chosen fields. It's widely known that sports that require them to maintain a certain level of weight like dance and gymnastics, they may be at greater risk for developing an eating disorder.
On the other end of the spectrum, boys who are inactive can be subject to bullying because of their weight or appearance, which could also trigger an eating disorder.
Body image issues in boys come in many forms. Some boys struggle with their obsession with being thin while others want to be muscular. And some want both, slim and muscular which is almost impossible. These body dissatisfaction with how they look combined with their quest for the 'perfect' body can affect their overall confidence as well as their physical and mental well-being.
Teen boys tend to put aside the fact that their bodies are still developing. Some of their muscles are not fully developed to support the strenuous exercises they tend to put their bodies through. They can become frustrated and try harder only to injure themselves and get even more frustrated when they find that the only way to heal is to rest.
We should definitely encourage our teens to take care of their bodies through nutrition and exercise. It's all about balance. We should also make them understand that each body is different and can depend on genetics which ultimately affects their height, bone structure and even the level of muscles they can put on. Not forgetting the effects of puberty on the body of a growing teen.
I believe that teens understand that everyone's body is different and they know that they should learn to accept their bodies instead of comparing themselves to others. They just choose to ignore what they already know because their desire for the 'perfect' body is greater than the actual truth of the matter.
Signs You Should Look Out For
We've never been more aware of what our bodies look like, even as adults (let's be honest, we're affected too, it's just that we have better judgement - sometimes), and we're more surrounded by negative body image messages than ever before. For young people, this can cause serious problems with self-esteem and body image.
Your teen might seem generally anxious and stressed about his looks by:
not wanting to leave the house because of the way he looks
not doing activities or trying new things because of the way he feels about his body
obsessing about losing weight, or about specific parts of his body, like his face or legs
obsessing about muscle building and time spent in the gym
spending lots of time looking in the mirror - and seeing nothing but flaws
obsessing about the food he consumes - either linking food with feelings of guilt or obsessing about the number of calories he needs to consume to build muscles.
constantly criticising how his body looks
frustrated with how his clothes fit on him
constantly comparing his body with others
Causes of a Negative Body Image
During their teen years when significant physical and emotional changes are happening, maintaining a healthy body image is not easy. Added to the intensity of technology and societal influences, teen boys are continuously under pressure to be stronger, leaner, and taller.
Factors that might harm a teenager's body image and how they feel about their own bodies and appearance include:
Natural changes caused by puberty; for example weight gain
Peer pressure to look a certain way and to fit in with a certain crowd
Images on social media promoting the 'ideal' body (whatever that means) of being fit, thin or muscular, especially when it's people they look up to. You can deny the fact that social media is such a powerful tool. It connects people and builds relationships. At the same time, it can also destroy and shame an individual.
Having a parent or family member who's overly concerned about their own weight and/or always on their child's case about his weight and appearance.
Consequences of a Negative Body Image
Teenage boys who have developed negative thoughts about their body image are at risk of :
1. Low Self-Esteem
A healthy body image is a cornerstone of self-esteem. And that is why, when a teenage boy starts to develop an unhealthy body image, it can be a major problem that might affect his entire life. Having a negative body image and disliking the way their body looks can often be debilitating and are often linked to lower self-esteem, lack of confidence and overall lower life satisfaction.
That is why he needs to receive proper guidance and support from his parents and family.
2. Depression and Mental Health Issues
A survey has shown that 37% of teenagers felt upset and 31% felt ashamed of their bodies. Not liking how their body looks and comparing their bodies to the 'perfect' bodies they see online and on social media, if not careful, can be detrimental to their mental well-being. Your teens may develop severe anxiety and depression due to the self-loathing that they themselves feel.
Anxiety and depression may result in a need to isolate themselves from friends and family.
3. Unhealthy Nutrition and Addiction to Exercise
An unhealthy outlook on how they feel about their bodies can lead to unhealthy eating habits, exercise regimens, and even anabolic steroid abuse. Some teenagers might resort to smoking in an effort to suppress their appetite. On the other hand, they might resort to taking nutritional supplements or growth hormones to bulk up.
Some may resort to extreme dieting or disordered eating, masquerading it as simply trying to be 'fit' or 'healthy'.
Whether they strive to lose weight or build muscles, exercise will always come into play. They are uncomfortable about their weight and shape and want to modify their bodies. We're not talking about a 30-minute cardio or gym session, but an excessive amount of exercise and time spent on it which can eventually lead to burnout and long-term injury.
All this to achieve their desired physique without considering the long-term effects these have on the body.
Without proper support and knowledge from family and friends, body image issues can have a major impact on both, their physical and mental health.
4. Developing Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders
Body image issues can also lead to disordered eating as well as eating disorders. Both share some commonalities but are not the same.
Oftentimes, what starts with disordered eating, will end up with an eating disorder. Eating disorders can include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. Once these were normally associated with young girls, but this is far from the truth.
5. Lack of Interest in Other Areas of Their Lives
Spending time worrying about their bodies and how they measure up can also take away your teen's ability to concentrate and focus on other areas of their lives, like school, social events and friends. An excessive need to exercise might not leave time for anything else.
Those with an eating disorder might refuse to go out with friends and family for fear of being judged for their eating habits.
Ultimately, talking with boys about body image is as necessary as talking with girls.
Talking to them might let them know that you are a space for him to turn to should they have a concern.
Above all, let's support our boys and encourage them to look within themselves for their identity, self-worth and confidence.
Let us celebrate their successes and achievements and let them know that they are valued and loved for the unique individual that they are.
It might not guarantee that they will change their mind about their body image, especially if they're not happy with it, but with a lot of support and unconditional love, it will go a long way towards offsetting other environmental and societal factors that might lead to unhealthy behaviours.