Boys and body image

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Boys are increasingly becoming worried about body image. The 2014 Mission Australia National Youth Survey of 13,600 teenagers revealed that body image was one of the top three concerns for boys.

While both girls and boys have concerns about body image, there are differences regarding how they think they should look, according to Carrol Baker in Wellbeing Australia (No 158) and body image psychologist Dr Vivienne Lewis.

Girls want to be thinner, but boys want to look like their sporting heroes – fit and muscular, but also lean so that they have muscle definition.

Rather than binge and purge, boys are more likely to restrict food intake to specific foods, shunning whole food groups. Boys may limit social interactions so that they can go to the gym or play sport, and they may reject certain restaurants that don’t serve the food they want to consume.

Most signs of boys struggling with body image issues are similar to normal teenage hormonal-driven behaviour, so it is often difficult to notice. Additionally growth spurts may not only be rapid, but also uneven. If boys exercise too hard when their growth plates (the area of growing tissue near the ends of long bones) are not fully developed, says clinical exercise psychologist Bill Sukala, they can close the growth plate, which results in a shortened bone.

The advice of psychologists and growth experts is that, instead of the gym, or only one physical activity, boys benefit most from a variety of different sporting and physical activities that work a broad range of muscle groups. Mixing up activities and being involved in several team sports will strengthen each muscle group. For example, team games like football/soccer, cycling, swimming, skating, playing on playground equipment, judo, rowing, swinging off ropes, boxing, climbing trees etc.

Steroid use and abuse is an issue in teenage boys. Steriods can cause long-term affects, such as liver damage, high cholesterol levels, diabetes and heart problems, but there are also short-term affects. Signs of steroid use, says Sukala, could include obsession with muscle building magazines, excessive acne, more agitation than usual, and more aggression than usual.

Teenage boys need a lot of food with iron, calcium and protein to fuel growth spurts, build strong bones, and support muscle growth. Healthy ‘food-to-go’ snacks include cheese and crackers, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, yoghurt, fruit, whole grain breads and cereals, and non-sugary health bars.

Other suggestions to counter body image concerns in sons and young boys include:

  • Accentuating the importance of personality traits rather than appearances
  • Celebrating body diversity through sporting and occupational diversity
  • Avoiding preoccupation with body weight
  • Recognizing real body images rather than ‘ideal’ body images
  • Being alert to diet and behavioural changes.

Photograph: Running by Frey & Mosby (October 2016)

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