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I vividly remember once overhearing my then-six-year-old son’s friend asking how he could get six-pack abs. I was shocked that these young boys were so concerned with their appearance and so aware of what the media was pushing as the ideal male body.  Of even more concern, a strong desire to look good leads boys to act on their ideas about how bodies should appear.

A recent study in Pediatrics found that more than 40 percent of boys in middle school and high school regularly exercise to increase muscle mass.  Thirty-five percent said they used protein supplements, and six percent had experimented with steroids.  This is definitely cause for concern: protein supplements, steroids, and excessive exercise are unhealthy and can have dangerous effects on growing bodies.

The study found that boys who are overweight or obese are more likely to use protein powders and steroids than boys of average body mass index (BMI).  Today, about 25 percent of individuals suffering from eating disorders are males.  People with a long-lasting negative body image are more likely to have problems such as anorexia, bulimia, over-exercising, or overeating.

Our society is very preoccupied with physical appearance, and while we’ve long known that girls are targeted by advertising and media at very young ages, increasingly boys are, too.  The study found that boys’ dissatisfaction with their bodies has increased over time.  If we take a look at male role models — athletes, superheroes, actors — you’d be hard pressed to find any who aren’t muscular and attractive.  A quick trip to Toys “R” Us will show you aisles filled with action figures that are more muscular than ever before.  Our sons notice it, and feel pressured at much younger ages to live up to this image.

As parents, we should be careful not to focus on weight or food, or criticize our kids’ appearance.  Certainly, it’s great to keep healthy, nutritious foods at home and encourage your kids to participate in sports and other activities that interest them.  Overweight and obesity are real challenges to young people’s health.  But we do want to be careful to make sure that our kids do not develop negative body image.  We can’t stop the images our kids are exposed to, but we can arm them to view media critically — ask them what messages they think movies, TV shows, commercials, or ads are trying to convey and why, and how it influences us.  Try to watch TV with your kids so you can talk about what’s going on and what’s realistic.

You can also nurture a positive body image by emphasizing that how they look does not determine their self-worth.  Planned Parenthood offers more information about body image on its website.

It’s vitally important to help kids develop a positive body image.  Let’s teach them that it’s more important that they’re healthy than thin or muscular.


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