kids

"My 8-year-old son is worried about how he looks – is this my fault?" An expert explains.

It started innocently enough when my son Toby asked if he could cut his beautiful long curly hair.

I thought I would help him decide on a new style by showing him some photos, but the more we looked, the more he began wishing for ‘cool’ hair like some of the boys online or one of his friends.

A few months ago, he requested that I buy him some ‘trendy t-shirts’ and as someone who doesn’t mind retail therapy, I was happy to oblige his newest interest. More recently and more worryingly, I noticed that he started to weigh himself on the bathroom scales and when I asked why, he said he was hoping to get ‘bigger and stronger’.

Toby is beautiful to me because I am his mother. I look at his eight-year-old face and I still see those chubby baby cheeks just underneath. Between him and his little brother Leo, their two faces are my favourites in the whole wide world and it upsets me that he wants to change anything at all.

When I was his age I realised that my thick ginger hair, freckles and big front teeth did not make me one of the ‘pretty girls’ at school. It was a lesson that took years to come to terms with, and while I never suffered anything more than teenage angst and dissatisfaction, I want to make sure that my sons, do not fair any worse.

To help me understand more about boys and the body image issues they are dealing with in 2018, I spoke to Dr Scott Griffiths, a National Health and Research Council academic based at The University of Melbourne. Scott has focussed a lot of his research on body image and specifically muscle dysmorphia in boys and men.

eating disorder young boys
"I noticed that he started to weigh himself on the bathroom scales and when I asked why, he said he was hoping to get ‘bigger and stronger’." Image supplied.

“I began my studies looking at people with vision disturbances which lead me into the world of body myth and eating disorders. While research into anorexia nervosa and women with disordered eating patterns has been around for hundreds of years, research into boys’ body image issues, and specifically muscle dysmorphia, is very new.”

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Since 2013 Scott has been working with The Butterfly Foundation, a national not-for-profit organisation supporting Australians with eating disorders. The foundation recognised the need to channel more research into boys and men with disordered eating, after noticing a huge rise in distressed male callers to the service. The evidence-based RESET Program, launched just last month, was one of the outcomes from this discovery and it aims to help educators start a conversation with boys about negative body image.

“The RESET Program was designed by boys for boys, so it is unlike anything else currently available. We want it to be used to raise awareness and reduce the stigma of the specific issues boys have around developing muscles to create a perfect ‘gym body’. We hope to be able to answer their questions and help them feel confident enough to ask for help when needed. “

While the RESET Program targets schools and educational and sporting groups, Scott describes the myriad ways that parents can help their boys and young men deal with body image issues before they require professional assistance.

“It is important for parents to reinforce a child’s self-esteem by focusing not on what their body looks like, but what it can do. Think of their attributes such as your son’s ability to play tennis well or run fast, or how they use their brain to tell funny jokes or solve maths problems.

“Help them to understand that a lot of the curated images they see of male bodies in the media are designed to be unfair in order to make you want to buy a product or a gym membership. Tell them that making comparisons to those sorts of (often photo-shopped) images are unfair to them and their real bodies.

“Remember to also set a good example by not making jokes about someone’s appearance as children will internalise it and think ‘mum and dad think fat is bad, so I cannot ever be fat.’

“Ultimately the most important thing is to listen and talk to your children to hopefully prevent them from having issues in the future, as it can be very difficult to get a young person with an eating disorder to seek professional help.”

Toby is still so young and as worrying as it is, his feelings about his appearance are a standard part of realising where he fits in at school and in the world around him. Talking to Scott made me realise that there is so much my husband Jules and I can do to set a good example, but first things first, those bathroom scales are going straight in the bin.

Are you concerned your son, brother or friend might have a serious eating disorder? Dr Scott Griffith’s says to look out for these red flags before helping them seek professional help:

  • Excessive shame and hatred of their body and physical appearance
  • Inability to relax an exercise routine or eating plan for special occasions without severe stress or anger
  • Use of anabolic steroids
  • Excessive use of social media that includes following and liking ‘fitspo’ and ‘thinspo’ accounts and content
  • Inability to rest and recover after an injury (such as a sprained wrist) if it means missing time at the gym
  • Symptoms of generalised depression and anxiety.

For further information or to seek help for yourself or someone you care about:

The Butterfly Foundation National Helpline: 1800 33 46 73

Lifeline Australia Helpline (24-hour support): 13 11 14

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