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Teaching Boys Positive Body Image

As a society, we put so much focus on fostering a healthy and positive body image in young women that we ignore the equally fragile male body image that requires the same nurturing and empowering care. While gender dynamics are arguably becoming increasingly fluid, boys and girls are still raised in environments that polarize their gender complexes—namely, boys are expected to conform to societal standards of masculinity or manliness. Pigeonholing young men into an archetype that shuns crying or an interest in baking, concepts that are stereotypically defined as feminine, is not only an unfair position to put them in, but can also be harmful to the development of their identity and temperament.

In popular culture, boys are exposed to well-known figures such as Captain America and Superman, well-built, heroic, brave characters which exemplify ideas of the ideal. For Christmas, young boys might receive action figures of these superheroes, dinosaur figurines, toy trucks, everything that supports the notion that boys should be tough, athletic, and otherwise reject that which could make them seem “girly.” At a young age, boys develop the idea of cooties, a term for an imaginary germ or repellent quality that further exacerbates the dichotomy between males and females—boys are shunned by other boys in that if they engage or play with a girl, they are abandoning their boyhood.

These pressures can be detrimental to a young boy’s development. A young boy, just shy of entering the fourth grade, is the smallest kid in the class—he’s shorter than any other boy and some girls, and he’s the least athletic boy in his P.E. class. There’s nothing wrong with him, but he doesn’t know that. As he gets older and enters higher grades, others will begin to feed on his insecurities—in the locker room, at school dances, and this little boy who was always just a little smaller than everyone else is suddenly the object of ridicule that will damage him well into later years.

Individual struggles with body image are the result of a mass social insecurity within a culture. Whereas girls are more apt to developing an eating disorder such as anorexia and bulimia, boys experience the converse: muscle dysmorphia, a disorder characterized by a pervasive obsession with developing muscle mass. The fear of ridicule, even in the absence thereof, is enough to emotionally stunt their development.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “children consume about seven hours of media a day.” During this time, boys are subjected to messages that encourage their negative self-image. They will see men who are digitally enhanced and hand-selected as being the top one percent of most attractive men—they’ll see toned, confident men and will have think they need to emulate this in order to be accepted. The problem is paradoxical: no boy wants to be subjected to these stringent requirements, but they will all succumb to it and judge each other accordingly. The desire to build muscle stems from evolution, when civilizations were not advanced enough to shelter a less-than-in-shape man from nature’s survival of the fittest tenet, as well as a need to impress a female who sought strength as a survival trait in a man.

These notions are archaic and have no place in modern society. With the permeation of widespread acceptance of different sexual orientations and gender classifications, the Barbie/Ken doll dynamic is beginning to seep into the underbrush. It is important that boys feel accepted and that all parents foster tolerance in their children—the problem cannot be fixed unless the vast majority of children understand that gender dynamics have become far less polarizing. It is only when this happens that society will stop focusing so much on the ideal and will begin appreciating the individual for who they truly are.

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