Dissatisfaction with body image is one of the top three adolescent concerns, along with a lack of employment opportunities and a failure to succeed in the education system, according to a survey of UK adolescents aged 16-25 carried out by the YMCA.
We generally assume girls worry most about their body image. Although that’s still true, the most recent findings by the Children’s Society recorded a ‘significant decline’ in boys’ body confidence, finding that one in 12 aged 10-15 are unhappy with their appearance. When Credos, the UK advertising think tank, asked 1,000 boys aged 8-18 about their body image, 23 per cent said they believed there was a ‘perfect’ male body shape, 55 per cent said they would consider changing their diet to look better, and around half saw extreme exercising and eating disorders as gender-neutral issues.
Should parents be concerned? Definitely. Persistent criticism about one’s appearance is linked to a number of psychological problems, such as increased anxiety, low mood, eating disorders, self-harm and low self-esteem. Furthermore, if their goal is a rigid body type, adolescents may adopt rigid thinking generally and become less tolerant of others as well as themselves.
Worries about body shape may also lead to risky behaviours. Steroid use is one.
What, then, can you do if you suspect your son is becoming overly critical of his appearance?
Know the warning signs: if he works out a great deal but never seems to enjoy it; if he eats and/or exercises only to please others or attain rigid, unrealistic body image goals; and if he is never proud of his efforts, a problem is developing.
Encourage him to talk about his goals: If he’s unwilling to talk to you, help find someone he feels he can trust, perhaps an experienced coach or sports nutritionist.
Ask your school to hold discussions about body images in advertising and on social media. The Credos study found that although most boys realised images of females online are often doctored, they didn’t think the same happened to photographs of males.
Be a good role model: Avoid criticising your own body shape. Avoid extreme diets and punishing fitness routines.
Praise whatever you can genuinely praise about your son’s appearance – often.
Avoid rigid standards when talking about appearance. Emphasise the importance of inner qualities such as kindness, thoughtfulness and tolerance.