Teenagers and body image: now the boys are not okay.

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Body image is usually considered an issue for teenage girls, yet the pressure for boys to conform to particular body types is an increasing problem. While girls are more likely to become anxious and stressed about needing to be thin, boys are more likely to fixate on gaining weight in the form of toned and defined muscles.

This is known as the Adonis complex. (Adonis was the half man and half god in Greek mythology who was considered the ultimate in masculine beauty to the point that he won the love of Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty.)

The extent of the problem for young men is largely unknown, though a 2014 study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that almost 1 in 5 of the 5500 study participants (aged 12–18) were very concerned about their weight and physique.

These concerns mainly centred on being too skinny and lacking muscle tone. A small but significant number (2.5 per cent) were using supplements. Even more worrying, 1 in 3 reported infrequent binge eating, purging or uncontrolled eating. Those who were most concerned about muscularity and thinness were more likely to use drugs, and those who used supplements were more likely to frequently binge drink and use drugs.

Previous statistics estimated that the prevalence of eating disorders for males compared to females is as low as 1:10. More recent studies, however, suggest that this ratio is more likely to be 1:4.

Listen: Dr Michael Carr-Gregg joined the This Glorious Mess podcast to talk about raising teen boys.

Media Matters

As with young women, media portrayal has a large role in helping to create obsession with body shape in boys. Advertising in magazines and actors in movies and television increasingly show men with chiselled abs and bulging biceps. For young women, the marketing is about subtracting; for young men, it’s about adding. Rather than this being a strange form of gender equality, you can’t help feeling that everyone loses.

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The proportion of ‘undressed’ males in advertising has increased since the 1980s, and stories are starting to appear about the size and type of male celebrity bodies; for example, photos of a ‘bloated’ Leonardo DiCaprio appeared online in 2014 under the heading ‘The Great Fatsby’. On Tumblr, there is a page dedicated to ‘Fat Male Celebrities’, with the catchphrase ‘stars packing on the pounds’.

The growing availability of media means that both young men and women are exposed to unrealistic and negative perceptions of undesirable body types 24/7. While the overly muscled bodies of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the like in the 80s stood out for their uniqueness, now images of lean, fit stars like Chris Hemsworth and Justin Bieber are constantly available for comparison. Body shaming is a new sport in the media, evidenced by the popularity of shows such as The Biggest Loser.

Online forums such as the Men’s Health website and Bodybuilding.com make it easier to seek and share information (whether accurate or not) about diet and fitness. They can be hugely popular; at the time of writing, the forum on supplements on Bodybuilding.com had over 11 million posts, and the forum on teen bodybuilding had over 9 million posts. The danger of some of these forums is that they can branch off into online ‘echo chambers’; that is, groups of people so similar that you will only find opinions that agree with yours.

teenage boy eating disorder
"Young people can easily become caught up in a world where they not only become more convinced of their own views, but start to adopt more extreme versions." (Image: Getty)

When this happens, alternative opinions or points of view are absent for users. Young people can easily become caught up in a world where they not only become more convinced of their own views, but start to adopt more extreme versions. If these sites promote risky training regimes or unattainable body dimensions, this can lead to injury or illness. The situation is not helped by the fact that protein shakes and powders are readily available and unregulated.

Further, some websites or forums may promote the use of steroids. The effects of long-term use of steroids, particularly on adolescent boys who are going through a major period of growth and development, are largely unknown. The availability of online pornography also helps to promote the idea that virile males all have six-packs and chiselled jaw lines.

Little boys are not immune – the body image messages start young. Measurements of male action figures exceed those of even the biggest bodybuilders. In one 2006 study, researchers compared the physical dimensions of five contemporary action figures (Batman, Superman, GI Joe, the Hulk and Spiderman) to their original counterparts twenty-five years ago.

Of seven measures (neck, chest, arm, forearm, waist, thigh and calf ), all except for the waist were significantly larger in comparison. The researchers concluded that the increase in action figure dimensions may contribute to an idealised body type that is lean and muscular. Since mainly pre-adolescent boys play with these toys, it’s a powerful message to send at a vulnerable developmental age.

'A recent study found 1 in 5 boys aged 12-18 are very concerned about their weight and physique.' (Image: Getty)

Encouraging a healthy body image

The idea here is for parents to help their sons achieve a realistic, healthy body size and shape – not one derived from Hollywood.

  • DO model healthy eating and exercise – lots of fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, wholegrain foods, animal protein (eggs, dairy and meat) and regular but not obsessive exer
  • DON’T talk negatively about different body shapes and sizes – aka fat shaming or skinny shaming.
  • DO point out that elite athletes, sportspeople and actors have teams of health professionals (including dietitians, trainers, physiotherapists and psychologists) to help them attain their body size and shape.
  • DON’T have weight scales in the (If you need them to manage your weight for medical reasons, keep them in your room.)
  • DO discuss what your son is seeing and reading online if he shows an interest in weight management or bodybuilding. Discuss how forums may only provide a certain viewpoint and how health is a broader concept.
  • DO sit down and talk to your son about what’s in a protein shake and give him some natural optio Nutritionist Catherine Saxelby has some good advice on her website about natural sources of protein, how much we actually need and what’s really in protein powder. The additives in some brands makes for sobering reading – and while there is more protein in many powders than natural sources such as eggs or milk, they are considerably more expensive and have many more kilojoules.

This is a book extract from The Prince Boofhead Syndrome by Michael Carr-Gregg and Elly Robinson (Penguin), $22.99. You can purchase the book here.

(Image: Supplied)

Listen to the full episode of This Glorious Mess here:

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