Whenever we think about teenagers with body image and body positivity problems, we always think that girls are the main people that suffer with these problems. We believe that girls are always the people with body negativity, and that boys are very safe from this problem. But a lot of recent research suggests that the majority of boys have massive body image problems, so why do we still focus on girls when there is clearly a much larger problem? That’s what we’ll explore in today’s podcast episode.
This episode had been sponsored by Abnormal Psychology: The Causes and Treatments For Depression, Anxiety and More. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
Body Negativity In Boys
One of the miniature themes of this podcast is that I always like to investigate underexplored areas and help to bring them to the attention of all of us. For example, that’s why I investigate suicide on the podcast, how mental health conditions could in fact be adaptions and not disorders amongst other topics. Therefore, I really want to highlight how boys can be very badly affected by body image issues, and how this is not a problem limited to girls.
In addition, the author of the book Being You: The Body Image Book for Boys mentioned that young men and boys are often at a complete loss when it comes to talking about their body image concerns, even if these concerns start early in life.
And before I start talking about studies and the research side of this argument, I want to give you a little bit of my own personal interest in the topic area. Since as a child I was obese and as you imagine I was an easy target for bullies so I was really bullied for it for years and years.
As well as even though I was basically change between being underweight and having a normal weight depending on the week and my body attitude, I still think I will always see myself as
Wow, even writing that’s difficult because during my first year of university, several people did suspect I had developed an eating disorder because I was barely eating maybe a thousand calories a day and I was doing extreme amounts of exercise. Looking back I know that wasn’t healthy and I was had that I didn’t hospitalise myself, but it just does to show how powerful bullying can be, and whilst there are other factors that are more or less influential for other people. That’s my story in short.
In addition, McLean et al. (2018) found that even boys that are as young as 6 years old believe that muscles make boys look better, and one of the real dangers about this particular belief is that before puberty, boys aren’t apt to build anything looking like the bulky muscles of bodybuilders. Resulting in a lot of young boys being disappointed in their bodies from an early age.
Personally, I think that’s heart-breaking and a massive shame that somewhere in our society, we have created an atmosphere where pre-teenagers feel the need to get muscles to look good.
And possibly connecting to my own personal story, this concern about body image isn’t just a superficial concern as it can and does have very serious consequences. Like eating disorders because one-fourth to one-third of eating disorder patients are male, as well as eating disorders are among the deadliest mental health conditions. If you want to see the source for that fact see the reference list below for the website.
So yes, it is very, very fair to say that body image issues can kill people.
Finally for this section, a very concerning finding is that this problem isn’t going away since a growing number of boys, as much as an 11% growth (Glazer et al., 2021), are using steroids or supplements to increase their muscle mass. As well as TikTok seems to only encourage these maladaptive body image behaviours by increasing the popularity of trends like “dry scooping” protein powder. This is where you take a pre-workout consumption of chalky powders without dissolving them in water first.
That is actually very dangerous.
Why Don’t We Talk About Body Image Issues in Boys?
Now this is one of my favourite areas to explore because I really am interested in why certain mental health conditions are steered or limited towards only affecting certain populations or genders, or at least that’s what the mainstream wants us to believe.
Thankfully, unlike other areas of mental health, like telling female rape survivors in the last century that what they experienced didn’t matter, the body image conversation around boys isn’t quite as dark, but it is still outrageous.
Since the reason why body image and negativity surrounds girls and women so much is because out of concerns over the decades’ long marketing and objectifying and basically society telling women they had to be thin, attractive and feminine if they wanted to have any hope of succeeding in society. Well that’s the gist.
Therefore, to combat the damage this marketing and other societal-level factors had done over the decades, the focus on was protecting the mental health of women and young girls.
However, this has caused men and boys to have a lot of trouble speaking out about their own mental health in general but especially surrounding their body image.
Furthermore, in the book, Being You: The Body Image Book for Boys, a lot of boys emphasised how they were embarrassed about taking off their t-shirt at the swimming pool and generally just showing off their body.
This is something I certainly understand because again, I truly believe I will always see myself as fat and even now, I don’t take off my t-shirt on holiday, in front of my parents if they want me to try on clothes they’re bought me and I am seriously concerned for my future relationships to be honest.
Moreover, as I’ve repeatedly mentioned on the podcast before, boys and men are far less likely than women and girls to seek out help for their mental and physical health concerns. Due to a number of stupid societal and personal factors, like the outrageous belief about talking about feelings makes you weak, real men don’t cry and all that other rubbish that I hate beyond words. Because it is those dumb myths that are causing so much damage to the mental health and wellbeing of our men and women in our society.
Anyway, the problem with this brand of masculinity, the type were men are only allowed to be seen as strong, stoic and independent, is that it stops them from coming forward. As well as Lynch et al. (2016) shows that recognising and having an awareness of the body image issue is the first step in obtaining treatment for it. therefore, if boys are scared of being ridiculed or stigmatised by coming forward then they will continue to try to manage their body image distress alone and I know that doesn’t work.
Also I want to mention that before we move on to the last section of the podcast episode, I now know after researching this, how lucky I was and I suppose I really do need to try to be more careful about body image and try to remain positive. I think in the future, dating would help with that because that way hopefully people would tell me I’m beautiful and they like me and my body, but that is a long way off for personal and situational reasons. And again, this is just my experience, a lot of other people would have other experiences too.
Overall, this will only intensify and worsen the current mental health crisis in the teenage population, and to be honest this will kill people too.
How Do We Improve Boys’ Body Image?
Now that we know how serious body image issues are and their serious consequences, we need to look at how can we solve this and start to help these boys.
Firstly, we need boys to acknowledge that they have these concerns, and this is very typical to be something that they’re ashamed of. Thankfully not everyone will be ashamed of their bodies but it is okay if they are. As psychologists and therapists, we cannot do anything unless a person admits they’re experiencing psychological distress and they want to change this.
Additionally, we can help these boys further to understand that body dissatisfaction is a natural reaction to have in our appearance-based culture that really does bombard us all with messages about the importance of how we look, not who we are. For example, I’m not I can actually say name of the social media site by a very famous picture-based social media site that I use loves to show my pictures of muscular men for literally no reason. I don’t actually want to see these pictures but it is an example of how these pictures of “ideal” beauty and attraction are bombarded on us.
Also, we have to admit that there is a lot, a lot of money for people to make if they increase the insecurities we have about our appearance. Since these pictures could make people buy make-up, steroids, gym memberships and so many more tools we could use to achieve this ridiculously unhealthy version of “ideal” beauty. And another point to raise is why would any industry, let alone the wellness and beauty industry, stop at catering for women and girls when they could double their profits by targeting young boys and men?
It's a numbers game for sure.
Clinical Psychology Conclusion
To wrap up this podcast episode, I don’t want to focus on the content this time, instead I want to focus on the message of you really are perfect the way you are. In society, we don’t need to be beautiful, perfect or some messed up version of Adonis (the Greek God of beauty) and if you meet people who think that that is the only way to be then leave them. They are not going to be a healthy influence in your life, and it seriously is about time that for the sake of our mental health, the wellbeing of our young people and society as a whole that we start moving about from the appearance-based focus of our society.
We need to start understanding that everyone is perfect in their own way and that we don’t all need to look like models and muscle gods or whatever the kids are called it these days. I seriously don’t know what they are.
Because I can promise you this, if you don’t accept yourself and if you allow body image issues to eat away inside of you then you really are playing a dangerous game. After this episode I now know I was lucky I was a few years ago but a lot of other people aren’t so lucky.
So please be careful, accept yourself and have the body that you want. Not what something else wants you to have.
I really hope you enjoyed today’s clinical psychology podcast episode.
If you want to learn more, please check out:
Abnormal Psychology: The Causes and Treatments For Depression, Anxiety and More. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
Have a great day.
Clinical Psychology References
Glazer, K. B., Ziobrowski, H. N., Horton, N. J., Calzo, J. P., & Field, A. E. (2021). The course of weight/shape concerns and disordered eating symptoms among adolescent and young adult males. Journal of Adolescent Health, 69(4), 615-621.
Lynch, L., Long, M., & Moorhead, A. (2018). Young Men, Help-Seeking, and Mental Health Services: Exploring Barriers and Solutions. American journal of men's health, 12(1), 138–149. https://doi.org/10.1177/1557988315619469
Markey, C., Hart, D., & Zacher, D. (2022). Being You: The Body Image Book for Boys. Cambridge University Press.
McLean, S. A., Wertheim, E. H., & Paxton, S. J. (2018). Preferences for being muscular and thin in 6-year-old boys. Body image, 26, 98-102.
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