Disordered eating and body image struggles can affect anyone, regardless of gender. I recently sat down with Dr. Charlotte Markey — a psychology professor and body image expert — to talk about her new book “Being You: The Body Image Book for Boys” which comes out this week.
Kris: The minute someone starts talking about body image and disordered eating, most people immediately associate that with girls. But you point to research that suggests that 75% of boys want to change the appearance of their bodies. What are we — as parents and educators — missing about boys and body image? And why should we be having this conversation?
Markey: I think there are two things going on. One of them is that boys are not as communicative about these issues because we feminize [the topic]. So, why would they admit that they want to lose weight or they want to change their bodies when doing so would make them seem less masculine? During adolescence, many boys are already concerned about how others are perceiving them, and they want to become more masculine. So, that’s one side of it.
The other piece of it is that even we, as researchers, initially didn’t address these issues very well among boys because we were looking for the signs and symptoms that we had come to appreciate among girls. If you want to see if a girl is concerned about her body, you ask, “What would happen if you gained two pounds?” If she says, “I would be stressed out,” then you think, “Okay, well that’s not good.”
But you ask a boy that same question and they may say, “Nothing.” For years, we were like, “Oh, this just isn’t a problem for boys. They seem fine.” Because we weren’t asking the right questions. There are different questions we need to ask boys. A lot of them have to do not with losing weight, but perhaps with gaining weight and height and muscularity. When we ask those questions, then we see where the concerns are. We haven’t been looking for the right things, and boys were not talking about them.
Kris: What should we be looking for? I’m thinking about coaches, teachers, and parents. What are the signs that a boy might need more support or even potential intervention?
Markey: What can make it super tricky — and even medical providers miss it — is that it may look like boys doing things that are healthy. They’ll start exercising or lifting a lot. They get really rigid about their food intake. Oftentimes, they don’t necessarily stop eating and they’re not necessarily trying to lose weight, but they cut out all sugars. They cut out all carbs. They cut out whatever, and it gets really rigid.
So, on the surface, if your kid is being physically active or is really athletic, that’s fabulous. But if your kid’s really rigid and can’t miss a day of exercise or won’t socialize with friends because they’re concerned about eating wings at the party . . . And where it starts to become more obvious — but also at this point can be already dire — is oftentimes when they start not just using protein powder, but using more supplements and even using steroids.
Kris: With girls, we often point a finger at social media and say, “They see impossible images held up as normal and desirable.” Is that a big factor for boys, too? What are some of the other factors that are contributing to the fact that so many of them want to alter their bodies?
Markey: Social media is definitely not helping. But I always like to temper any social media discussion — because it’s not going anywhere. We have to be careful and work with it more, I think. There are positive forces on social media, too. Having said that, when kids see celebrities like Chris Pratt losing 60 pounds in six months and lifting every single day so that he can look amazing for “Guardians of the Galaxy,” they might think, “Oh, if I’m just really committed, I can do that, too. I can look like that.”
Certainly, those messages are not helping matters, but I am also increasingly convinced that the general cultural messages about masculinity are a big part of the problem. If we keep talking to boys about “toughening up” and “manning up” and “don’t be a wimp,” then of course they’re going to think it’s important that they have muscles. That’s not good for their mental health.
The longer I study these issues, the more I see body image as just being related to almost all aspects of mental and physical health. How do you feel about yourself — and not just your appearance? Are you comfortable in your own skin? And if you’re not, then it doesn’t really matter your age or your gender.
Kris: This book is written for tweens and teens, but what should we be thinking about with our younger boys?
Markey: Pay attention to how you talk about masculinity and challenge the appearance culture more generally. We all get a ton of messaging that how we look is the most important thing — that there are so many ways to fix your appearance and once you fix your appearance, everything else falls into place. But that’s really a myth! It simply does not work that way in the real world. I think we need to work on raising our kids to appreciate that a lot of the cultural messaging is oversimplified or inaccurate. Media literacy is so important now, too, because kids spend so much time on different forms of media.
Kris: While not all boys play sports, many do. It seems like coaches could play a key role in supporting positive body image.
Markey: Yes, coaches can really play that role. Your kids won’t always want to talk to you about stuff — because you are their parent. This is where these support figures can be super valuable.
At one level, if coaches could not do the wrong things, that would be great. In some sports, there is a lot of weighing — it’s not just wrestling, either. There’s weighing and talking about food and nutrition in a way that spreads misinformation.
My son’s been lucky to have a really great running coach. He’s just a really supportive, friendly guy, who sends these messages that end, “Coach V., always on your side. Always have been and always will be.” I bring that up because I think that’s part of why my kid keeps running — because he likes his coach. And that’s good, because we want our kids to be active. We want to have other supportive adults in our kids’ orbits. But don’t tell your athletes to lose weight. Don’t weigh them. Don’t tell them they need protein powder. They don’t. Just be there and be supportive.
Kris: This book is helpful to parents and educators — but it’s written directly to boys themselves. Why?
Markey: Once body dissatisfaction and eating patterns are in place, they are really hard to dislodge. I believe in recovery for everyone. But when I started working on books for kids, I thought, We need prevention. We need more resources for younger kids that are accessible. In some ways this book models the puberty books — but puberty is just one chapter, not the whole story. Body image is how you feel in your own skin. Everything else flows from that.