Tweens, Teens and Body Image—It’s a Boy Thing

Boys are freaking out about their bodies. As a parent or caregiver, you may be aware of how conscious girls are about their weight and appearance, but how about the boys? A recent article in the New York Times about boys and grooming describes the increasing number of products sold to boys. What’s remarkable is how many of these boys cite “confidence” as a reason to douse themselves in cheap cologne. The wonderfully quirky ABC show “Modern Family” has an 11-year-old character who frequently bolsters his ego through liberal application of aftershave.

I’m not so worried about this, and I’d rather that the junior high school halls smell like the fragrance aisle at CVS than a locker room. This is a current fad, driven, as usual, by aggressive marketing that plays on the insecurities of this target audience.

What I am concerned about are the drugs, supplements and drastic diets that many of these boys are putting themselves through to achieve results that may not be possible. I have spoken with a 7-year-old who was distraught because he didn’t have a 6-pack. He doesn’t know that he hasn’t matured enough to have one yet. All he sees are images and feels the frustration that he can’t be like the images he’s bombarded with on TV.

Over the past several years as I’ve interviewed kids and coaches, I’ve also found that boys are much more likely to be secretive about what they’re doing. Girls are, too, particularly in the early stages of anorexia when they are starting to binge and purge. Boys, however, are very likely to hide things like steroid use, which has grown every year among high school students according to The Association Against Steroid Abuse.

The risks are huge in any of these extreme measures. Perhaps, though, the most important one for parents to understand is that their sons and the boys in their lives feel pressured to achieve results that are not physically possible at their ages. You can’t look like a 25-year-old bodybuilder at 15, no matter how many drugs or supplements you take.

Parents and caregivers can’t do anything about the societal pressure facing boys. In a world where a good physique seems a ticket to fame as with “The Situation” on “Jersey Shore,” it’s natural that insecure kids will want to achieve that—and that they won’t tell you.

So, what to do? Here are several tips from doctors, trainers and coaches:

  • Diet. Every doctor I’ve spoken to says that at the end of the day, the way to achieve an athletic, healthy body, is to have the calories expended be equal or greater to calories taken in. Educate yourself and your kids about diet and how it affects the body. Number one doctor recommendation: eliminate all soda.
  • Learn. One thing common to personal trainers and athletes is an intimate knowledge of how the body works and what’s best for it. This will help avoid injuries and build a lifetime base of health.
  • Emphasize Process. Even “The Situation” didn’t build his abs/identity in 20 minutes three times a week. Fitness is a lifelong, daily commitment, but doctors and trainers consistently say “health first.”
  • Get Real. Some male cover models will go without water for two days before a photo shoot to look more sculpted. Not a good idea, say coaches. Plus, it sets up an unrealistic expectation. No two bodies will ever react the same way to an exercise of diet regimen. We’re all prisoners of our genetics, but that doesn’t mean you can’t strive to be your personal best.
  • Wait. Girls are getting cosmetic surgery for their “Sweet 16” presents. Not a lot as a percentage of the population but enough to trigger the “eeewwwwww” response. Teen boys are also asking for liposuction. “Don’t,” say doctors. No one should undergo procedures until their bodies are mature. Tell your kids that Heidi Montag is creepy. Discuss.
  • Indulge. If you’re following these tips and, most importantly, are watching and talking with your kids, there’s no harm done in the liberal application of body spray. It will wear off by the time they get home from school. Try to remember whatever it was that was fashionable for us when we were in school that made our own parents shudder.

Health and well-being come first; that’s your job. You can marvel at the marketing savvy of the people at Old Spice who made your grandfather’s boring aftershave hip for today’s kids later.

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