Media campaigns - such as Dove's #realbeauty, Lane Bryant's "ImNoAngel", or even Always #likeagirl campaign which are all about empowering young ladies to associate positive attributes, and rightly so, to the phrase "like a girl" - are refreshing to see. The media is long over due in being transparent with their marketing. In our house we have used these commericals and viral media hashtags as foundations for discussion with our boys.
From practically day one with our boys, we have stressed a very simplified form of "gender neutral". Huh, you might say? Let me explain it this way, our boys have always been encouraged to play with dolls, dress up in whatever they want (our two oldest loved dressing in princess dresses during their preschool years), wear whatever color they want or even whatever clothes they want. Are we perfect? Obviously no, but we try. So we chose to talk with our boys about the phrase "like a girl" and how three words can completely devalue the skills and talents of someone else. We talked with them about how media images do not adequately portray what a healthy girl body should really look like. We discussed the idea of healthy and fit, rather than skinny. (Note: I am not saying that someone who is skinny is not fit)
Great discussions, but yet we still failed. How? We never talked about healthy body image for boys. We never discussed the pressures on boys to be strong, fast, muscular, etc. We didn't address how "like a boy" can be just as negative depending on the context as "like a girl". How, many times when a boy is crying or upset you hear "man up", "you're ok", "don't be a wimp" and so on. Or even think about when you encounter young children and your first awkward attempt to get them to like you. I work with children for a living and I hear the classic lines, "You're dress/shoes/hair is so pretty" when first meeting a girl and "You are fast/strong" when first meeting a boy.
All of this has been weighing on my mind for sometime now. I've always tried to be aware of it, but a recent event made me realize how we as parents have been doing a disservice to our boys. Recently, our oldest was able to go on a school trip to a water park. In triple digit Northern California Weather, water parks are popular. He was excited for sure, but the night before was an emotional roller coaster. Together we put together what we thought he would need: towel, swimsuit, sunscreen, change of clothes, slippers, hand sanitizer and money. I talked to him about sun safety and staying hydrated. I would not be there so I wanted to make sure he spent adequate time in shade, drinking enough water and reapplying sunscreen so we went over the times that he would have to do all that. Yes, a bit micromanaged but I did not want him to get heat stroke.
He was set, but then again he wasn't. After he went to bed, 15 minutes later he came into my bathroom, took out our scale and proceeded to weigh himself. I am not sure what number he was hoping to see, but it went downhill from there. Let me mention that I do not weight myself anymore. We have the scale for our youngest to keep track of his weight gain, but to be honest, post baby 1, 2, and 3 I weighed myself often. Less with each kid, but the scale came out nonetheless. Back to our oldest, I yelled to him "no, no, no, no" trying to stop him before he stepped on the scale, but I failed. I asked him Why he would do that and he just started to cry. It broke my heart. I wasn't sure why he was crying, perhaps because I had caught him, perhaps because he was upset with what he saw or perhaps because I asked him what was wrong. I am not sure, but he was upset. Later that night I learned that he was feeling scared, insecure, self conscious about his body. Worried about how he was going to look in swim trunks and no shirt.
Boys have body image insecurities and pressures too. Unlike girls, most boys with body image issues are wanting to gain muscles, they see themselves as too small, too thin, weak. Build muscle, what's wrong with that? It is not okay to do so because you feel you lack worth, lack self-esteem. That would be an unhealthy association with one's body. Yet, more and more young boys are having a negative self-image. Since the 1980s , the amount of shirtless males in advertising has increased steadily and continues. Media is all around them promoting big muscles with popularity and good health, but a lot of these images are unrealistic. They see it in the superhereos on television and in movies, in halloween costumes with padded muscles, music videos and video games. I am not in anyway blaming these examples, simply stating that they can contribute to low self-body image for young boys.
Research on body image for boys is lagging behind research for girls, but recent research states that 1 in 4 boys suffer from an eating disorder. Even more, approximately 35% of boys between ages 6-8 have a distorted image of their body. Those facts are shocking and disturbing. In society, boys are taught that being a man is being strong, feelings are not really supposed to be talked about and crying is not allowed. In a society where boys are discouraged from sharing their feelings, it can make it that much harder for parents to discover what is really going on with their sons in relation to body image. They key I think is having those conversations, which is what we are trying to be very aware of with our boys. Conversations about realistic body images for boys AND girls; conversations about being healthy, how to be healthy and not so much about what healthy looks like with the physical body; and conversations to just check in and see how they are doing personally. Being honest with our sons, being aware of social media influences and very important, being aware with how we present ourselves and how we talk about ourselves, are what we are trying to do with our boys. We do not want our children to have the insecurities that our oldest experienced a couple weeks ago, but when that does happen we want to make sure they are comfortable talking with us about those insecurities.
Emma Watson gave that glorious speech on feminism last year for the HeForShe campaign. I read and re-read it often because she spoke a truth that I often thought and even shared with friends on occasion. And although her speech was not about body image and self-esteem, I think it rings true for helping both boys and girls become comfortable for who they are, not obsessed with descriptors of what they are:
"Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, instead of two sets of opposing ideals. If we stop defining each other by what we are not, and start defining ourselves by who we are, we can all be freer."