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Boys and Body Image: Four Affirming Messages From Parents

Remember, how you talk to and respond to your son's physical appearance has a profound impact on what he thinks and feel about himself.
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Teenage boys, like teenage girls, worry about their appearance. Unfortunately, businesses with products to sell have become aware of this over the last several decades, providing a whole new set of insecurities, fears and desires that can be targeted by marketers. So, now parents face the same need to help their sons develop a healthy body image that parents of daughters have been struggling with for decades (or is that centuries). While some of the approaches to affirm boys and the adequacy of their bodies are similar to those for girls, the nature of guy culture also presents unique requirements.

How do parents inoculate boys against the insidious influence of unrealistic body images? How can parents help their sons feel comfortable in their own skin? Here are four affirming messages parents can give their boys to encourage them to have healthy and accurate expectations about their bodies.

1. You are good enough
Let's start with the most important message for a kid. They need all the encouragement they can get that how they look is good enough. This may not always be easy. The consumer culture is working against you. Then, there may be something quirky about your son's appearance. He may have some characteristic that draws comments or worse, insults from their peers. But even being physically attractive is not enough to protect him. The ability of humans to focus on some (real or imagined) imperfection is powerful. The tendency of advertising and the media to present models of physical perfection as the ideal, and the tendency of humans to be attracted to models of physical perfection are difficult to overcome.

Your son needs to know he has worth regardless of how well or poorly he meets the male physical ideal. (And, by the way, a kid who DOES meet these standards is also at risk for falling into the trap of believing attractiveness is all that matters.) Make sure your boy knows about male physical development. Educate him about the range of body types and what his particular body type will mean for his own future growth and development. He needs to know what to expect.

Complement your son on qualities that actually matter (like his character traits, skills, relationships, etc.). Make remarks that link these qualities to desirable outcomes in adulthood. "No matter what you end up doing, that kind of work ethic is really going to make you a success." Make sure your son has at least one area in which he is competent (even if it has to be video games). Use that skill as a model in talking about his developing other competencies.-- "I know you can do it. You made it to level 120 on Halo didn't you?"

How you try to guide, motivate and reassure your son has a big impact on his overall sense of adequacy. Don't use sarcasm, belittling, guilting, put downs or negative comparisons in talking about his body or physical shape. Use encouragement and positive expectations instead. Require him to join you in activities that improve health and physical fitness (rather than sending him off to do it on his own).

2. Looks aren't everything (or even enough)
Attractive people get noticed. People want to be around (and go out with) attractive people. But, attractiveness is no protection from getting dumped or divorced. And, attractiveness can even end up being a sham. Your son needs to know about the tricks advertisers use to increase the attractiveness factor of a model (i.e., photo shopping images, lighting, camera angles, makeup, etc.). It can be helpful to discuss what it takes to have one of those really hot bodies; namely, starvation and genetics (or, as is increasingly employed these days, cosmetic surgery and physique-enhancing drugs).

Finally, your son needs to know that personality matters. Is he kind? Hard-working? Compassionate? Generous? Courageous? Responsible? Honest? Honorable? Make sure you spend time emphasizing qualities of character that have an actual relationship to a happy and productive life. If they are going to change something to improve their attractiveness, they are better served by improving their sociability, their pleasantness, good humor and their general outlook on life, rather than developing their abs and building those biceps.

3. Bigger isn't better
Guy rules say that to be a real man you must be well endowed in two areas: muscles and genitals. Superhero suits, action figures with exaggerated physiques, video game characters that are elaborately muscled and sexualized and the pervasive and easy access to porn with performers who are prominently equipped; these influences and more (e.g., movie stars, underwear advertisements and clothing store clothing models) bombard your son with the message that a real man is cut, muscular and has a large penis. This is an unachievable standard for the vast majority of guys.

They need to understand that being fit is what matters. Developing and maintaining large muscles is time-consuming and most humans can't get a super hero's physique without turning to performance-enhancing -- and illegal -- substances. Getting buff requires an intense focus on sculpting the body rather than developing the mind and cultivating relationships. Guess which of these leads to success and happiness in life. (Hint: It isn't big muscles.)

Your son need to know that if he is focusing on equipment, he is missing the point of real sex: the connection made with his sexual partner achieved by whole-bodied sexual intimacy -- not mere sexual friction.

4. Being healthy matters
Emphasize physical fitness and the importance of a healthy lifestyle rather than appearance and body sculpting. Make sure you have healthy foods in your house. Focus on activity and exercise during family time. Plan family outings that include exertion (e.g., walking, riding, running, swimming, paddling, kicking, throwing, etc.). Your son needs to know that short cuts to changing his physique are always associated with unhealthy practices and high risk for bodily injury or damage.

When there's a problem. Finally, it is important to be able to recognize when your kid has a problem associated with body image. Some of the signs of trouble include:

  • Use of steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs
  • Over-emphasis on working out (i.e., more than once a day, more than 1.5 hours daily)
  • Excessive emphasis on superficial physical characteristics
  • Eating disorder (for example, vomiting after eating, restricting calorie intake at an unhealthy level, chronic dissatisfaction with appearance despite objective attractiveness, concern about "fat" when body weight is 85% or less of that expected for a boy of his height).

If you have concerns about your son's body image, consult a mental health or medical professional to assess whether your concern is warranted.

Remember, how you talk to and respond to your son's physical appearance has a profound impact on what he thinks and feel about himself. Stay focused on what matters so he is less likely to buy into this distorted view of the ideal body our culture has been clinging to for decades.

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Dr. James G. Wellborn is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Brentwood, Tennessee focusing on adolescents and families. He is the author of the book Raising Teens in the 21st Century: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting where strategies for encouraging, praising and building self-confidence in teenagers are included among the 79 chapters on typical teenage issues. You can learn more about Dr. Wellborn or sign up for his monthly newsletter on parenting teens by visiting his website at