Boys and Body Image – Yes, It’s a Thing.

I saw a Huffington Post blog today entitled, “How to Talk to Your Daughter About Her Body.” While I am sick to death of the barrage of articles, blog posts, and discussions about how women and girls are so fucked up about their bodies, I appreciated her point that we, as mothers, should not be talking negatively about our own bodies, or other women’s bodies, or our daughter’s bodies. I loved her message of encouraging our daughters to do things because they are strong and independent and they can. To try things that are hard and scary. To run not to get thin, but because it feels good. To move their own furniture. I get it. I agree.

But I have one question:

WHAT ABOUT OUR SONS?

As a mother of sons I often read these posts and wonder if I am not allowed to join the conversation because I don’t have daughters, and therefore I can’t understand. Am I not invited to the table because boys don’t have these problems? And if my sons do have these problems is it fundamentally weird, or wrong?

Guess what? Our sons can be fucked up about their bodies too.

Just as not all girls have a negative body image, not all boys have a positive body image. Case in point; my nine-year-old son, who seems to be obsessed with lifting up his shirt and looking at his stomach while stroking it with his palm to make sure it has not grown an inch.

I kid you not.

The boy is very tall for his age. He is long and lean, what my grandmother might have called a string bean. He is a rock climber, and a piano player, and an adventurer. He also plays video games, watches TV, and likes to spend the weekend in his pajamas. He eats everything from salad to pizza to blueberries to ice cream and we don’t ever talk about dieting in our house. But this boy, who has not an ounce of fat on his muscular body, worries about getting fat.

We catch him checking out his reflection in windows, always focused on his belly. He tells me he doesn’t want to get fat because then it would be hard for him to adventure. He tells me he feels like his body is getting bigger all over, and it looks bigger to him. I tell him he is growing, as a healthy boy should, and that his body will get bigger as he grows, but that it is not the same thing as getting fat. When I volunteered on a field trip with his class this week, one of his classmates, a girl, told me my son is crazy, that he is always lifting up his shirt, and asked me why he does this. I had no idea he was doing it at school, but he is, and kids notice. I didn’t know what to tell her without talking to this young girl about body image (because, you know, we shouldn’t talk about bodies and body image with young girls).

But what about young boys? Do the same rules apply?

I looked through that blog post and asked myself if I had done any of these things the author warns against. We don’t speak much about our bodies in our house. I recognize my sons’ abilities in their chosen sports. I tell them they are healthy and strong. But maybe we weren’t always as careful about body talk as we may have been had our sons been born girls. Maybe they heard me lament my less than perfect body at times, when I thought they were out of earshot. These days, the perils of body image destroyers that face our daughters at every turn are beaten into our heads. Stick-thin actresses and pop stars, magazine ads with impossible standards of beauty, and mean girls who will ridicule them if they aren’t perfect. But I have not once heard this same message addressed to parents of young boys.

I know from experience, regardless of whether you have sons or daughters, kids, somehow, some way, pick up insecurities about their bodies. I don’t believe it is all our faults. I don’t know for sure if I ever said or did anything that triggered my son’s anxiety about his body. Should I blame myself because I run on a treadmill at home?  I admit I don’t have a perfect body image, nor am I in love with every aspect of my body, and I don’t know where my insecurities came from. But we live in a society that values beauty and perfection, whether it be in people, things, places, or our work. The perfect car. The perfect house. The perfect haircut. The perfect job. The perfect body. While I agree that we should never speak negatively to our children about their bodies, I don’t believe that what we do at home will completely insulate them from this madness of impossible standards. And I don’t believe that if my child asks me, “Mom, am I fat,’” that I shouldn’t respond with a resounding, “NO! You have a beautiful body.”

Because it’s true. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with telling our kids their bodies are beautiful, and amazing.

8 replies
  1. Z's Mom
    Z's Mom says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve been struggling with this lately and wondering how the word “chubby” got into my son’s vocabulary, let alone his worries.

    Reply
    • Jess Kapp
      Jess Kapp says:

      I know…I was shocked the first time my son asked me if he was fat. I think when we have boys we assume (at least, I did) that we won’t have to deal with these issues of body image. Just because they are boys doesn’t mean they cannot have insecurities about their bodies, their looks, etc. I don’t remember ever hearing anything negative about my body as a kid, nor do I remember my mother ever speaking negatively about her own body, but somehow I have insecurities. It is almost universal. And when you have a healthy, active son it breaks your heart to hear him voice his insecurities. Whenever my parents told me I was beautiful I always thought well, yeah, you have to say that, you are my parents. But now that I am a parent I want my boys to REALLY believe it when I tell them they are perfect as they are, but my words don’t cancel out all the messages they receive at large. It is so difficult. I think we are all just doing the best we can. Our sweet boys – they need the same consideration as out daughters! Thanks for the comment!

      Reply
  2. carrie
    carrie says:

    Jess, you know I don’t have sons or daughters but like you am an educator am around young people all the time. Not 9, but most of these kinds of habits or self images form quite young.

    Listen to the way young boys and men talk to one another. They ridicule and mock directly as a form of joking and playfulness and often to hurt. In my opinion, boys and men tedn to communicate more directly with one another on these kinds of matters and girls/women tend to communicate in a more underground way.

    For example, yesterday as I was leaving college campus, some guys were kicking the soccer ball around and it shot away from the group. One guy went to get it, the other jeered and harassed him because he was not running, lazy, just walking. he quipped back that they all just want to see what a fit body looks like in action, implying that they are not fit. which was also not the truth.

    Boys are hard on one another and speak directly and openly, jokingly about untruths and jokingly about truths…how are young boys supposed to know the difference?

    tough.

    Reply
  3. Jess Kapp
    Jess Kapp says:

    Yeah, I have noticed that too! Also, I think girls can be so much harder on other girls. Women too. For some reason, women tend to be competitive with each other sometimes…maybe this leads to being harder on other women. I don’t know. But yes, I have noticed young boys poking fun at each other in a playful way, saying things that are not true. The boys don’t seem to mind it, but maybe it has more of an effect than we think? My son is also so smart and he often makes comments about being dumb. Just yesterday he told me, “I think I have a good shot of making it into fourth grade.” I could not believe he would ever worry about this! He is an excellent student, but he doubts his abilities. Why? No idea. We tell him all the time that he has done good work on his homework or at school. His report cards are great. We don’t PUSH him to study or work too hard, but he is naturally curious and smart. Yet, he actually considered the possibility of failing third grade. It is baffling! Maybe the boys at school call each other dumb. I have heard them do that here, on play dates. Hmmmm. All food for thought.

    Reply
  4. ethel Lee-Miller
    ethel Lee-Miller says:

    Yes! This has been a poisonous pedagogy passed on to the next generation of parents and children. It’s up to writers, parents, grandparents, all those around our precious children to send out shining messages. You are ok just the way you are.

    Reply
  5. Jess Kapp
    Jess Kapp says:

    Absolutely! I agree. Boys or girls, it is important to send these shining messages. Boys can be just as hard on themselves. Maybe they don’t voice it as much as girls, but they need our positive reassurance too!

    Reply
  6. abbybyrd
    abbybyrd says:

    Great post, Jess. My husband has struggled with body image his entire life and still does. He’s a very muscular, fit man who thinks he is “fat.” I try to be aware of what we say when we’re around our 3-year-old son because I won’t want him to have issues with his body image.

    Reply
    • Jess Kapp
      Jess Kapp says:

      Thanks! It is heartbreaking, actually, to watch my son (who is so thin) check out his belly in the mirror, windows, etc. He is just obsessed with it, and I don’t know why? We try so hard to never speak about body stuff (except positively) around our kids but somehow he picked up this fear. His father and I are both fit and pretty slim, so he doesn’t even really know what to be afraid of! Anyway, thanks for your comment! Here’s to healthy, happy men!

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *