I always worried about my daughter. Would she grow up feeling happy in her body? I vowed that she would learn that brains were more valuable than boobs and humor is more attractive than hair. I tried to weave these sentiments into our conversations over the years, and although I’m not ready to declare victory yet (she’s only 14), I think she’s gotten the message.
But what about my son? Unexpectedly, it’s actually his body image I find myself worrying about. Is he happy in his body? Even more concerning: Would I know if he weren’t?
I am a health psychologist, professor and body image scientist. And yet, when I recently tried to engage my son in a conversation about body image, he was reluctant to talk. It was actually more than that — it was as though he didn’t have the words to talk about his body. Across 25 years of conducting research on body image, I’ve found that my personal experience is reflected by many.
I interviewed dozens of boys ages 14 to 24 for my forthcoming book “Being You: The Body Image Book for Boys,” and conversations often started slowly and awkwardly (a real contrast to my experience interviewing girls for my other books). Boys could tell me they wanted bigger abs and pecs, and thought they should eat a ton of protein, but were often at a loss to articulate why.
One boy recounted taping his chest before heading to school one day because he was tired of his friends teasing him about his “man titties.” Scotch tape was not up to the task and created an embarrassing mess for him to extract himself from when he got home that afternoon.
The more I spoke with boys, the more it became clear to me that they couldn’t win. It’s nearly impossible for them to be tall, lean and muscular like the guys they see on TikTok bragging about their gym routines. Those bodies require a certain genetic predisposition and an unhealthy attention to diet and lifting weights.
One boy told me, “Any moment where my shirt was off in public just caused me to feel embarrassed and uncomfortable.”
It was clear from their actions — whether it be weightlifting, carb-cutting, grooming or dressing ― that boys care and worry about their appearances. And yet, boys didn’t think of their appearance concerns as body image issues.
Boys (and many of us adults, too) tend to think body dissatisfaction only plagues girls. But research suggests otherwise. One recent study found that 75% of adolescent boys are dissatisfied with their bodies. Up to half of boys are using supplements such as protein powders during their teens thinking it will boost their muscularity. (It won’t.) A growing portion ― one-fourth to one-third ― of eating disorder patients are male. Clearly boys are suffering, but they seem to mostly be suffering in silence.
In addition to interviewing teen boys for “Being You,” I spoke to young men with a history of eating disorders. I heard them confirm what recent research suggests: Boys’ eating disorders are often not identified until their condition is dire. This is, in part, because boys who develop eating disorders don’t necessarily have the same symptoms as girls. Boys may “purge” with excessive exercise; they are more likely to eat but eliminate entire food groups from their diets. Their preoccupation and psychological distress is present but not discussed.
All too often, boys’ parents, peers, coaches and sometimes even medical providers believed boys were “getting healthy,” when in fact they were sinking into a serious disorder. As one boy told me, “It didn’t take long before all that exercise and my ‘healthy’ eating resulted in notable weight loss. I also found myself becoming obsessed with food. I was always thinking about what I was eating ― and not eating ― next.”
Dr. Jason Nagata, an expert in boys’ body image and eating disorders at the University of California, San Francisco, is one of a growing number of scientists and advocates helping to shed light on boys’ vulnerabilities and signs to watch for. He told me: “Boys with eating disorders may pursue a body ideal that is big and muscular. They may engage in muscle-enhancing behaviors such as excessive exercise and use of performance-enhancing substances.”
Of course, some boys want to lose weight, and many want to lose weight and bulk up, which has led to new language and techniques — bulking, cutting and shredding — flourishing online. The scientific basis for these practices is questionable at best and the possibility of them leading to disordered eating habits is likely.
What makes the situation worse is that boys are less likely than girls to seek help for mental health issues. Nagata emphasizes that the longer food and body image concerns go unaddressed, the more habitual they can become. And, the long-term consequences of an eating disorder can be extremely serious and life-threatening; physical, social and cognitive development can be affected.
When I started writing “Being You,” I wanted to develop a resource for my son and tween and teen boys everywhere, but I wasn’t convinced that boys’ experiences were as complex or serious as girls’ experiences. I’ve changed my mind.
Boys’ experiences of their bodies are different from girls’ but just as challenging. They are also bombarded with messages that they need to “fix” their bodies, but aren’t socialized to understand how to get help when they need it. They may be unlikely to find themselves squeezing into a bikini, but they still don’t want to take their shirts off at the pool. Until we normalize conversations about body image among boys, they’ll stay stuck in a parallel universe to what girls and women have known for decades.
Recently, my son went to the gym with a friend to lift weights for the first time. I asked him when he got home if he thought he’d do this regularly. He said, “Nah, I really don’t think so. Don’t worry. I’m happy with myself as I am. Body positive, Mom!” I guess maybe he’s been listening all along.
Dr. Charlotte H. Markey is the author of “Being You: The Body Image Book for Boys,” an accessible, evidence-based resource for teen and tween boys.