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Boys and Body Image

Scales and measuring tape
Boys and Body Image
Social media, celebrities and health food crazes – we are constantly bombarded by images of the ideal body and being told what we should or shouldn’t eat. Do you know the truth about body image in 2016?

This is the digital age and we are the selfie generation. But this selfie-obsession leads to million of us unthinkingly taking hundreds of photos purely to find that one perfect photo to publicise online. Some people have claimed that we are becoming the PR team of our personal lives, only publicising the best of the best and creating a false image of ourselves, defining ourselves in hashtags and filters.


On top of this we are surrounded by polarized information of what we should and shouldn’t eat and the impact on our bodies. We are constantly reminded that obesity is drastically increasing and that indulging too often could leave you with life-threatening illnesses. While on the flipside, everywhere you look you see adverts for ‘superfoods’, diet foods, what to eat for a healthy gut, what to drink for baby-like skin – it’s like all the world’s ills can be solved by restricting your diet and only eating a certain type of food, and that food will no doubt be replaced by another miracle food next week.


With all this in mind, it should be no surprise that young people in the UK are plagued by body image worries. Body image concerns have traditionally been seen as a predominantly teenage girl problem, but new research is showing that all these influencing factors are having just as much of an impact on our boys as our girls.


Problems for UK secondary school boys and girls equally

The BBC recently reported that ‘eating disorders, dieting and extreme exercising are as much of a problem for UK secondary school boys as for girls’ according to a survey by Credos.


56% of the boys polled saw eating disorders as an issue for both boys and girls and 55% felt dieting and extreme exercising (48%) were gender neutral issues. This shows us that we can no longer think of this as a female issue, it is a far wider reaching concern that we need to address.


But despite this pressure, the boys polled found it hard to discuss their concerns:

  • 56% struggled to talk to teachers
  • 29% struggled to talk to parents.


Credos director, Karen Fraser, said that "The relatively low awareness of boys' body image issues amongst parents and teachers, coupled with a culture of boys not discussing their worries, makes it a tough environment for boys to seek support".


According to the survey, the biggest influences on boys to look good come from:

  • friends (68%)
  • social media (57%)
  • advertising (53%)
  • celebrities (49%)


This would suggest that actually boys find most pressure comes from their own peer group, rather than the ‘perfect image’ of celebrities and advertising that we usually blame these issues on.


Speaking the truth

To try and understand the issues facing young men, the Guardian conducted some interviews to get the truth behind how they are feeling. The results were saddening:


“I want to be more muscular, which requires eating more, but I’m also petrified of getting fat. Every bite becomes an existential matter, and I worry about being tipped over the edge into obesity. ” - James, 19, Cornwall


“Although I am now (nominally) a normal weight for my height, I still feel fat and unattractive. I hate the way I look, whether I’m clothed or naked.” - William, 20, Essex


“Young men don’t talk about their own bodies in a negative way because they could get bullied, and younger men, especially, see their issues as weaknesses for others to exploit.” - Craig, 17, Leicester


“I have always thought I was scrawny, that my shoulders are not broad enough and my upper arms not muscly enough. I could never go swimming or topless on a beach because I just don’t look good. I also worry that I’m not tall enough and that my skin is too pale.” - Mike, 19, Nottingham


“My scrawny physique has led to me being called anorexic, while others compare me to a heroin addict. […] men often seem to size you up and then treat you accordingly. At times I feel like a non-entity. […] It is always about banter and bravado. If one of us were to spontaneously open up there would be a tsunami of criticism and jokes.” - Tony, 18, Leicester


What these interviews reveal is that this is a very serious issue that is becoming more an more pervasive.


Happiness reports

Body image issues are not just worsening in recent time for teenage boys either. A recent study suggests that girls in Britain are becoming more miserable. The Children’s Society’s annual report found that among 10 to 15-year-old girls, 14% are unhappy with their lives as a whole, and 34% with their appearance. Researchers were told of girls feeling ugly or worthless.


The charity's annual Good Childhood Report draws its findings on teenagers' happiness from the Understanding Society Survey which gathers data on 40,000 households across the UK.


How can we help?

Nicky Hutchinson, a body image expert who works with schools urges parents to concentrate on girls' qualities and individuality rather than focusing on their appearance in an interview with the BBC. "I've seen girls aged eight, nine or 10 saying their thighs are too big - it's not just teenagers. Start before they are feeling the pressure of being a teenager," she said.


In the same article, Psychologist Lucy Beresford said the pressure to be perfect doesn't just come from social media. She said parents must monitor their own behaviour. "We pick up our way of operating from our family - for example, if you're always going on about your weight - be very careful," she said.


One of the most important things to remember is to make sure you get help if you need it, whether it’s for yourself, a friend or a family member. Talk to friends, family, your GP, the school, or helplines such as those run by the NSPCC and YoungMinds.


If you work with young people and body image is a concern for them, take a look at the government’s toolkit ‘Taking action on body image - an active citizenship toolkit for those working with young people’: [1.18 MB]


You can also get involved with the Be Real campaign. The campaign, in partnership with Dove, was launched in response to the Reflections on Body Image report from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Body Image chaired by MP Caroline Nokes and co-ordinated by YMCA.


The report found that:

  • one in four of us are depressed about our bodies;
  • globally we spend £6.5bn on diet pills;
  • the average age for girls to begin dieting is eight!


And as we have previously seen, it’s not just girls:

  • the number of men taking steroids had doubled over the past 10 years
  • after reading men’s magazines, half of young men feel bad about their bodies
  • one in five have taken protein supplements to ‘bulk up’


It is clear from these reports, studies and interviews that we have a serious issue on our hands. We need to take affirmative action to help our young people be confident and happy, whether that is through education, campaigns or support groups.


Know about an organisation doing good work with young people on body image issues? Let us know @EurodeskUK