When it comes to body image and eating disorders, much of the research and focus is centred around girls. But as National Manager of Prevention Services at The Butterfly Foundation Danni Rowlands explains, it’s an issue that’s affecting boys too – at a growing rate.
Body image and eating disorders in boys have received increasing attention through research and other studies since the 1990s. However programs and initiatives to support the development of a healthy body image in adolescent boys have been few and far between. It is widely understood that there is a higher prevalence of these issues among females, but what isn’t well known is how they are affecting and increasing in males. For males who are struggling, it is often done in silence – with stigma a barrier to seeking help.
The Butterfly Foundation is among Australia’s largest not-for-profits, supporting people experiencing eating disorders and negative body image. Our prevention services offer evidence-based, health promotion programs to professionals, parents and young people in schools and communities around Australia. Over the years, through emerging evidence and our experience in schools, it became clear that it was time to find a better way to connect and relate these topics to boys.
In 2018, Butterfly launched Australia’s first digital body image program for boys. The 30-minute video and its comprehensive facilitator guide aim to raise awareness, reduce stigma and encourage help-seeking. RESET: a conversation about boys’ body image, was developed to provide educators with a tool to safely and confidently address these topics in their classrooms.
What is body image?
Body image is the perception that someone has about their physical self and the thoughts and feelings they experience as a result of that perception. How a person feels is influenced by many individual and environmental factors. For males, family and friends, sporting coaches, celebrities and sports stars can impact how they feel about their appearance. While more research is needed on the impact of social media and males, from the boys we have spoken to, the narrow and stereotypical appearance ideals are reinforced through these platforms and affecting how they feel. When a person doesn’t measure by comparison, they can feel dissatisfied and turn to body changing behaviours for the solution.
What issues are specific to males?
Male body ideals over time have been narrow and the stereotypical ‘athletic’ muscular and lean body shape reinforces traditional masculinity norms. Body image in males is far from simple and when issues do develop, it can also be harder to detect.
With the confusing messages surrounding obesity, it is also not surprising that the ‘thin ideal’ is driving problematic eating and exercise behaviours. We also know that, compared to females, body dissatisfaction typically develops later in boys.
Exercise and physical activity is paramount to physical and mental health. We also know that for boys experiencing negative body image or more serious eating and exercise issues, problematic behaviours are often disguised under the mask of wellbeing. Rigid and intense exercise regimes, restrictive dieting practices, over-supplementation and steroid use are behaviours and practices that are often celebrated and encouraged, particularly in sporting environments.
If exercise and training becomes all consuming, it can impact on other aspects of life: friendships, sporting and academic performance, mood and if injury and illness are ‘pushed through’ it may signal more than just a strong willed and determined boy.
Weight based bullying and teasing are risk factors to the development of eating disorders and while it may be intended as a bit of fun or banter among mates there is a noticeable increased sensitivity to weight based teasing, particularly for those living in a larger body. The negative impact on self-image can be long lasting.
Males and eating disorders
While there is not a known single cause for the development of eating disorders, there are the bio-psycho-social factors that put a person at greater risk. Eating disorder research is now more inclusive of males, but they remain largely underreported. We do know that male athletes and gay men and boys are understood to be at higher risk. For further information about eating disorders, please visit the National Eating Disorders Collaboration website at www.nedc.com.au.
Support a healthy body image in boys
It is just as important to support a healthy body image in boys as it is in girls. We need to understand that these issues are being experienced by males and be mindful of language when talking about male body shapes. Appreciate body diversity by not over celebrating muscularity, particularly in sports; and celebrate technique and effort over physical form. Encourage boys to find physical non-competitive activities – focus on health gains, rather than aesthetic ones. Adopt a zero tolerance to weight and appearance based teasing and bullying.
Exercise and training is of course okay and it’s important that muscularity isn’t shamed – body shaming of any kind is not okay – but if the drive for increased muscle size and/or leanness is intensifying, it is important not to dismiss possible body image issues or an eating disorder just because they are a boy. Males should be included in positive body image programs and initiatives. It’s also important to role model positive, balanced, healthful behaviours and attitudes and challenge masculine ideals. EM