The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Charlie Roden

Promoting positive body image in boys

Charlie Roden looks at how negative body image is becoming increasingly common in boys and young men, and what schools can do to help.

Poor body image isn't just a 'girl thing'

The pressure for girls to look a certain way has always been well known, particuarly in recent years with the rise of social media apps such as Instagram.  Although much more still needs to be done, campaigns urging women to embrace their bodies shows that efforts are being made to combat unrealistic body expectations for girls.

In the same way, pressures for boys to look a certain way have been accelerated by exposure to muscley, athletic men on social media, adverts and TV. 

However, since body image is still viewed as a female issue, mixed with boys being reluctant to discuss their concerns, the impact of negative male body image is not being taken seriously, driving extremely dangerous behaviours in boys and young men.

What else contributes to negative male body image?

  • Idealised male bodies in pornography. 
  • Idealised images of women – a 2009 study found that young men were more self-conscious about their bodies after seeing sexualised photos of women as to be romantically successful with these women, they need to look a certain way (Aubrey, J. S, Taylor L.D.). 
  • Pressure on teenage boys to be 'masculine' i.e. physically strong, aggressive etc. 

Eating disorders and body dysmorphia

Although more common in young women, body dysmorphia and eating disorders such as anorexiabulimia, and binge eating also affect boys. Some reports estimate that up to 25% of eating disorder sufferers are male, but many men may go undiagnosed because of the stigma attached.

Signs of an eating disorder may include:

  • avoiding eating around others
  • difficulty concentrating
  • frequent trips to the toilet
  • changes to weight
  • compulsive exercise.

Bigorexia

A relatively underresearched body dysmorphia that is becoming increasingly common amongst boys and young men is 'muscle dysmorphia' or 'bigorexia'. Affecting around 10% of men training in gyms, bigorexia is an anxiety disorder whereby a person obsesses over wanting to build muscle or 'bulk up'. 

Reality shows such as Love Island have led to body-consciousness rising amongst boys and young men

In a similar way to anorexia where a person strives to be skinnier, bigorexia sufferers see themselves as not 'big enough', regardless of their actual size. Such extreme concerns about appearance can lead to poor self-esteem, anxiety, depression and even suicide, whilst excessive training can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Rise in steroid use

In the past few years, reality shows popular with students such as Love Island  have led to body-consciousness rising amongst boys, contributing to an increase in steroid use. According to the Office for National Statistics, steroid use in men aged aged 16 to 24 has risen from 0.1% between 2015-2016 to 0.4% between 2016-2017.

Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in addiction at the University of York blames the increase in steroid use to a 'changing concept of masculinity':

'In some ways young men have been catching up with young women over the last few years, they are more sensitive and vigilant about how they should look and this is becoming more acute... I think it is to do with appearance and masculinity, and the messages we absorb through social media.'

Symptoms of bigorexia may include:

  • excessive exercise
  • rapid muscle or weight gain
  • missing out on social acitivites in favour of exercising
  • following 'bulking up' diets 
  • use of steroids, protein shakes or dietary supplements
  • training whilst injured
  • acne, facial hair growth and enlarged breasts (in men) due to steroid abuse
  • aggression or mood swings.

How can schools counter negative body image in boys?

1) Teach material specifically designed for boys

Promoting positive body image should already be part of the PSHE curriculum, however the material used is largely targeted at girls. Download MediaSmart's lesson plans that focus on how the male body is represented in the media to help students of both genders understand how poor body confidence can affect anyone. 

When teaching lessons on airbrushing or understanding digitally altered images in IT, be sure to use male examples as well as female ones  – many boys are aware of airbrushing but only associate it with something used on girls.

2) Avoid gender stereotypes 

Be careful about the words you use to describe a certain gender. How often do we hear teachers say things like 'I need two strong boys to move this table'? 

3) Model behaviours that you want to see

Be wary about how you speak about yourself in front of students. Be aware of the language you use to talk about body size and appearance. 

4) Use diverse images

Make sure that pictures, posters and books around school show a diverse range of body types. 

Although there are plenty of body image positive books for girls, it's harder to find ones aimed at boys. Check out Brightly's books to help kids build a positive body image for some suggestions to help boys dealing with negative body image.

5) Talk about the real benefits of exercise and healthy eating

Every body is different, so rather than focusing on what a healthy body looks like, talk to students about the real benefits of exercise and healthy eating, including positive wellbeing, sleep quality and reducing the risks of chronic diseases.

Talk to your students about what consists of a healthy amount of exercise for their age, and how to tell if you are exercising too much.

Further reading and useful resources

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