'My biceps aren't big enough.' How to raise teen boys with body image pressures.

My 12-year-old son has always been a sporty kid, but I've noticed recently that there's been a shift in how he approaches his activities. While he plays sports mostly because he enjoys it, his motivations now include wanting to be healthy and look strong.

As parents, we have always tried to encourage a healthy lifestyle by being active ourselves. We do family bush walks, beach swims or bike rides and he and my husband play tennis. 

While we are far from perfect role models, our goal was always to encourage some healthy fun, not to make our kids worry about having defined abs or broad shoulders, which I am worried is where we are heading with our eldest.

Mum of two Tess* says that she too has noticed a change in her tween boy's attitude to sport and his appearance.

"My 13-year-old has just started to show an interest in building muscle but I'm not sure where it's come from," Tess tells Mamamia. 

"He has a thin build and has started covering up around me at the pool. While he is not obsessed with how he looks, he wants to look good or 'cool' around his peers. He loves boxing and martial arts and talks about John Cena and tells me he's the strongest man in the world. I'm not sure how concerned to be or if this is just a normal phase?"

A recent small study of 149 boys, aged 11 to 18, published in the Californian Journal of Health Promotion on body dissatisfaction and muscle dysmorphia, found that 24.1 per cent of the boys in the 'healthy BMI' category were unhappy with their body shape. 


Considering the dominant male body type that boys see as soon as they can look at a screen, these results are not surprising. As a mum of two boys, superheroes like Thor or Captain America come to mind, wrestlers like John Cena or footballers with cheese-grater abdominals, such as Cristiano Ronaldo. 

This limited representation of fit and 'healthy' male bodies is something Scott Henderson understands well. The former editor of Men's Health Australia and co-author of The Manual, a new book about masculinity, health and happiness, knows what it's like to be self-critical as a teen and as an adult.

"I often thought things like, 'My biceps aren't big enough' or, 'My abs aren't defined enough' to warrant being the editor of Men's Health, but during the pandemic, I had a bit of a realisation about what being healthy really means," he admits.

"I thought about my granddad and I can't tell you how much my granddad could bench-press but I can tell you what a great guy he was. Or someone like Albert Einstein, I don't know how big his biceps were but we know what a big impact he had on the world. 

"And while the world changed, I also changed the whole way I looked at my health and my training. I had a realisation that we work out for the mind as much as the body."

Scott believes that while teenage adoration of fit superstars is normal, there are ways we can encourage our boys to have healthier relationships with their bodies. And that includes thinking about health and fitness in a more holistic way.


Watch: Mia Freedman's 'Mother of Sons'. Post continues below. 

Video via Mamamia

He says that being active and grateful for what our bodies can do is a great first step.

"If parents are grateful for what their body can do and have a healthy relationship with their bodies, kids are sponges. If as parents you hate or hide your body, and are always trying to be 'skinnier', then your kids will absorb that and think it's normal.

"We need to show our kids that exercise and working out isn't a punishment, even though there was a period in time in the early 2000s when there was a sense that exercise had to hurt and you must crawl to the car after every session, which we know now is absolute rubbish."

Scott says that a lesson on self-kindness is something he remembers clearly from his teenage years that he believes will still resonate with teens and their parents today. 

"When I was a teenager, someone asked me if I would talk to my friend the way I spoke to myself internally. I remember thinking I wouldn't have a friend if I spoke to them the way I did to myself, because I was so cruel. I would never call my friends 'fat', because they didn't have abs, and so why would I say that to myself? It's ridiculous. It's about understanding the same standard of kindness and consideration applies to you too."


While encouraging kindness and a healthy interest in an active lifestyle, Scott also believes that allowing kids some time to just be themselves and have fun is equally important.


"There are a lot of pressures placed on kids today. As a child, I loved sports, but I also loved music and I think it's good to find what your son loves and carve out some time so they get to do it. Kids' lives are so structured and so scheduled and a lot of their downtime is spent on screens where they're just bombarded with so much information. They need time to unplug."

Scott says that he has learnt the importance of getting out in nature for his overall health and thinks kids need more time outdoors.

"At the moment I'm really into 'forest bathing' which is a Japanese tradition for soaking up the atmosphere in a forest or beautiful outdoor space - not actual bathing! In Canada, doctors can write prescriptions that include free passes to national parks for patients as remedies for mental health illnesses. It's so simple but so important."

He says that even bringing calming colours and some nature into an indoor space can help to create a happy, peaceful home environment.

"When we are trying to maximise our health or feel better, we go on holidays, to the beach or for a bush walk but research shows that we should try to replicate something of those beautiful places where we live. Not everyone can live by the sea, but by bringing plants indoors or playing with the colours we use on our walls at home, it can make us feel more relaxed. Whether it's a blue feature wall in your teenage son's bedroom or blue sheets for calming space in your bedroom, these little hacks are proven to make us happier at home."


Listen to Mamamia's podcast for parents of teens, Help I have A Teenager! Post continues below.  

In terms of social media, Scott says that it isn't all bad, but that as parents we need to consider who our kids are watching or following online.

"A lot of what men like Andrew Tate say is just to get attention and he should be held accountable for his brand of toxic masculinity that is very self-serving. His ideas are not rooted in reality or how the world works. The reality is that we know that to live a fulfilled and happy life, we have to be empathetic to other people. Showing gratitude, being kind and doing good work, actually helps your mental and physical health. Andrew Tate is not a happy person and if he was, he wouldn't be yelling into his camera every day.

"We need to help our kids find good role models online and in real life. I know for me, I respond really well to athletes like swimmer Ross Edgely who swam without stopping around the whole island of the UK. Joe Wicks is incredible too. His 'PE with Joe' workouts during the pandemic were phenomenal for families."

Scott says mostly that parents can help by just being there to listen and talk through kids' concerns. 

"Creating a safe space where boys can feel safe to talk is always great because I think that's where a lot of problems stem from as teenage boys don't think they can talk openly about their feelings. I think there has been some change in this attitude but there's still a long way to go. 


"It doesn't mean you have to be their mate, you can still be their parent by creating spaces where they feel okay to talk without fear of your judgement."

For the future, Scott hopes that men and boys can start listening more and be kinder to themselves.

"It's a traditionally masculine thing to think we have all the answers and we don't! I would love young men to feel happier in themselves and how they interact with the world. I think a more caring approach to their health, but also to listen and to be open-minded. 

"The reckonings of the last couple of years for men have really highlighted our shortcomings, but I know we can do so much better."

The Manual: A Practical Guide to Life, Health and Happiness by Scott Henderson and Dr Kieran Kennedy is out now.

Laura Jackel is Mamamia's Family Writer. For links to her articles and to see photos of her outfits and kids, follow her on Instagram and TikTok.

Feature Image: Getty.

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.

Calling all Shopaholics, Retail Therapy Enthusiast & Glamour Gurus ! Take this short survey now to go in the running to win a $50 gift voucher!