Boys Get Body-Shamed Too
By Selena Mills
Photo by @christyhermogenes via Twenty20
Apr 25, 2018
Over the weekend, my son was snuggled up on my lap — at 8 years old he can still fold himself up and into the crook of my armpit, which is something I treasure. And these days (OK, all days), there’s a discernible ache at the thought of him literally growing out of sitting on my lap. (Suffice it to say, I don’t find Munsch’s book I’ll Love You Forever so creepy anymore.)
That said, he’s also old enough to begin experiencing self-esteem issues revolving around his body and what he looks like. Nothing too intense yet, but the tween and teen years are on the horizon, so this is something I’ve been thinking about more and more, and if I’m honest with myself, I’m wading in unfamiliar territory.
I often write about girl issues, because yes, I’m raising a girl. But also because of another rather obvious factor: I’m a woman who was a girl once. There are perspectives that come from that lived experience which I cannot dig into as easily for boys, nor do I fully understand the world from a boy or man’s perspective. And while I do I think the body positivity conversation gets centered around women and girls for good reason, I’m raising a boy, too.
We need to stop teaching our boys that talking about their bodies, their fears and their confusion around image and identity is a problem.
Right now he is consumed by superheroes (and heroines), music, dance and sport. And math. And science. Basically any and all of the things. I see him struggle to understand why peers make fun of each other when it comes to appearance — he’s been the brunt of teasing over wearing a braid in his hair, choosing to have long hair and wearing glasses. These things have been minor in comparison to what will very likely be coming down the pipeline, but I want to help him wade through these challenges when they arise, just like I will help my daughter.
So, I’ve been talking with the boys and men in my life around body issues they may have had growing up. What was confirmed is that boys also compare their physical appearance to ideals that have been forced on us through music, fashion, film and TV. Not a news flash. But I've also discovered that my own husband grew up unaccustomed to talking about such experiences and stigmas. His experience was a collective denial — that body shaming for boys didn't exist, because talking about it means you’re “less manly.” That’s a direct quote.
Recommended Reading: 'Do You Think I Look Fat?' — 4 Tips for Talking to Your Kids About Body Image
Shame that Stays Into Adulthood
“There was a bit of a push to be muscular and athletic," my husband Trevor told me. "It’s really difficult for me to look at this, actually. Maybe I was blinded because I’ve never really talked about this before, or maybe it was internalized because boys/men historically don’t talk about being body shamed, it’s not viewed as being manly.”
A friend of ours, D’Ari Lisle, (artist, producer, and co-founding director of arts organization Darkspark) offered his perspective as a person of colour (POC). “I think, growing up, there was body shaming from other boys, I experienced it personally and observed at lot of it with my peers," D'Ari explained. "It was a quiet, internal thing. Certainly if there were kids that were overweight, there was a lot of very direct body shaming — dirty, aggressive, mean. There were jokes behind people’s backs that carried on into early adulthood, too. In the locker room in particular, there was lot of inappropriate talk that had the power to have people turn in on themselves and be self-conscious. Self-imposed expectations around genital size and the never-ending-quest for six-pack abs were bred from all that talk in my opinion. It feels like body shaming for boys is a not a part of the national narrative."
"There were jokes behind people’s backs that carried on into early adulthood, too."
This self-consciousness spills out of the locker room and spans years, too. “There’s a lot of pent up dysfunction and self-loathing that boys keep within, into the teen years and as men, carrying it all right to their graves," D'Ari said. "And there are distinctions that I think POC and marginalized people experience with body shaming, which stem from cultural stereotypes," he explained. “My entire perception of beauty and what it means to be black, or what nice hair is, so much has been informed by the image of the cis- white male, which has to do with growing up in a predominantly white area.“
Given what I've learned from the men in my life, I think the first step is disassociating the shame — we need to stop teaching our boys that talking about their bodies, their fears and their confusion around image and identity is a problem.
Starting the Conversation
In the same way that I’m teaching my kids to diversify their learning and news sources, I plan to specifically challenge my son to diversify his social media, music and pop culture influences growing up.
To tackle this heavy subject, I think it begins with avoiding the kind of thinking that's linked to a non-stop quest to attain a super-fit body image, lest you be a failure or lazy.
In our family, we already focus on making healthy food choices and staying active doing activities we enjoy, as opposed to what we look like or how much we weigh. We are mindful of the language we use about our own bodies, and as parents, we choose to not make judgemental comments about other people’s bodies. Above all else, I will nurture an open dialogue with my son about the fact that weight and appearance is not connected to being worthy of love, being successful or being strong.