Body Image, Part 3: Are boys the forgotten victims of body image messages?

Boys' body image, F002/5853: Ian Boddy-Science Photo LibraryWe've been writing and talking all week about body image and self-esteem. Much of the research in this area is done with girls and women, perhaps justifiably, since the rate of body dissatisfaction among females is high. However, there seems to be a growing interest among boys in bodybuilding - reliable statistics are difficult to find, but some researchers believe a substantial proportion of teenage boys are interested in increasing muscle tone and muscle size. A study published in the October 2005 issue of Psychology of Men and Masculinity by Linda Smolak and her colleagues reported that between 7 and 11% of middle school boys have used steroids at some point to increase muscle size and tone; rates of steroid abuse by teen boys vary, but they are often reported to be higher than 3%. With epidemiological studies estimating anorexia rates at below 1%, it's surprising to me that we so rarely hear about steroid use in adolescence. Exercising and strength training are not necessarily bad, but many psychologists are interpreting "muscle building" behaviour as an indicator of body dissatisfaction; in its severe form, this dissatisfaction could interfere with social or emotional functioning, and may lead to steroid use. The researchers in the 2005 study wondered what contributes to muscle building in general and to the use of steroids and food supplements in particular; they surveyed nearly 400 sixth to eighth grade boys to find out.

What they discovered was that at least one of the factors affecting girls' body image was also linked to bodybuilding in boys: images of the "media ideal," in this case, the ideal muscle size. Boys whose friends and classmates were interested in muscularity were also more likely to try muscle building. The food supplement and steroid users were similar to one another - both reported that they tended to compare their appearance to that of other boys, and that their parents also remarked on or teased them about their size or appearance. Steroid and food supplement users reported higher levels of depressive symptoms than those who didn't use.

Even though the majority of articles about body image have focused on the impact of media messages on girls, boys are also left with the belief that they don't measure up to the media ideal. What are the implications of the findings of the 2005 study? First, parents need to be aware of a link between comments and teasing about their son's physique and the risk of body dissatisfaction! Although I think most of us can joke with our teens about a variety of topics, it's important to be alert to the impact of what you say. Teens who seem to be excessively concerned about their appearance or size, or compare themselves unfavourably to their classmates, may be especially sensitive to remarks about their bodies. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services runs a website ( with some recommendations for moms to help their daughters develop a positive body image. Boys are mentioned in passing, but their suggestions for parents apply to children of either gender:

  • Make sure your child understands that weight gain is a normal part of development, especially during puberty.
  • Avoid negative statements about food, weight, and body size and shape.
  • Allow your child to make decisions about food, while making sure that plenty of healthy and nutritious meals and snacks are available.
  • Compliment your child on her or his efforts, talents, accomplishments, and personal values.
  • Restrict television viewing, and watch television with your child and discuss the media images you see.
  • Encourage your school to enact policies against size and sexual discrimination, harassment, teasing, and name-calling; support the elimination of public weigh-ins and fat measurements.
  • Keep the communication lines with your child open.

Coaches are also in an important position. They can emphasize the benefits of healthy exercise and explain to youth the risks associated with steroid use. A focus on skill development and health would hopefully balance concerns about building muscles!

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