I’ll be honest: When the ultrasound technician said our firstborn was a boy, I felt relief wash over me. After my own struggles with body insecurity, the task of raising a girl to feel positive about herself seemed downright daunting. Although experience and education showed me many things I could do differently with a daughter of my own, I wasn’t sure I was up to the task.
From my view, raising a boy seemed much easier—at least when it came to avoiding the trappings of negative self-talk and body insecurity.
Then I began to realize all the ways it’s equally important to raise boys with good body images:
Boys aren’t immune from struggles with weight, it just often manifests in different ways such as “muscle dysmorphia.”
Boys who are accepting of their own bodies are kinder toward others. The way they learn to talk about themselves is how they’ll think about others—including future partners.
Boys who feel good about their bodies focus less on “masculinity” and more on the wonderful benefits of individuality.
Boys with higher levels of self-worth are shown to do better at school, have better relationships and experience lower rates of mental illness.
Just as with the rest of parenting, these things don’t just come into being. They are thoughtfully nurtured. Which meant I wasn’t off the hook. Gulp.
Laura Roias, LICSW, CEDS, from Walden Behavioral Care, confirms raising sons with positive body images it isn’t a simple task.
“Nowadays, boys are also subject to increasingly unrealistic and unhealthy portrays of ‘ideal’ male bodies in everything from Halloween costumes with sewn in six packs, to action figures with massive muscles,” says Roias. “It’s more important than ever before to instill and foster positive, realistic and healthy body image in boys.”
Roias suggests these ways to boost body positivity among boys:
1. Make your home a body-positive zone
All children are perceptive to the cues about bodies and acceptance they hear at home. Roias says that means catching yourself before talking about a diet or plans to lose a few pounds—as well as seemingly innocent comparisons to other people. While you’re at it, keep specific compliments about your husband’s newly bulked-up muscles or his about the weight you lost (mostly) in private. As nice as these things are to hear, it’s important our children know measurements like weight are not measurements of worth.
2. Talk about exercise as a means to feeling healthy
Studies show parents are hugely influential when it comes to setting a positive example for active lifestyles, even with young children. The key is just in treating a sweat session as a want-to-do rather than a must-do. As Roias says, “Talk about exercise as a means of feeling good and being healthy rather than a way to lose weight or burn calories.”
3. Reality check images from the media
Whereas Barbie dolls and supermodels are often cited to be questionable influences for young girls, research shows boys are also subject to negative influence from action figures and superheroes. Although it doesn’t seem like those things are changing any time soon, parents can help provide balance by having discussions about how most things we see in the media are “constructions,” as Media Smarts puts it.
4. Identify non-body role models
Roias explains it’s important to help boys identify sources of self-worth “that are unrelated to weight or shape.” Start by talking about authors or admirable public figures in the same way we do Hollywood celebrities.
5. Keep food talk neutral
With an estimated 10 million men in the United States suffering from eating disorders during their lifetimes, it definitely isn’t just a women’s issue. To counter that, Roias says talking about food as good, necessary nourishment rather than something that life should revolve around is essential. Although it’s one thing to take satisfaction in food, it’s another to become obsessed with how it can help you gain or lose weight.
Clearly, so much is this starts with mindfulness on our own parts—and perhaps some adjustments to the ways we think about our bodies. This isn’t always easy, but it does pay off for both our girls and boys.