Boys and Body Image

We talk to our daughters about air-brushed images, but what about our sons?

Photograph by Veer

Every year, I teach a class called Growth Ed to 5th graders. It should be called Sex Ed Without the Sex, but the course title is beside the point.

Growth Ed basically covers everything these kids need to know about their changing bodies. I teach the class once a week for a month—one day about nutrition, exercise and sleep; another day on hormones and periods; and so on—so there is a lot to cram into each hour. But I dedicate one entire session to Photoshop and the beauty myth, and I aim this talk mostly at the boys.

You see, kids know all about tweaking images. They recognize that celebrities are made up for the red carpet and they understand the mainstay that is plastic surgery. In fact, they are already experts at enhancing their own photos. But there seems to be a huge gender gap when it comes to internalizing these lessons: Girls get it, but boys don’t.

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In my class, I ask the kids to bring in whatever magazines happen to be lying around their house. Doesn’t matter to me if it is Sports Illustrated or US Weekly or even Architectural Digest. Just grab what you’ve got. When they come into the class, I give them the following instruction, “Find a picture that is real.” And that’s all I say.

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What happens from there—year in and year out it’s always the same—goes like this. The girls flip carefully through the magazines, page by page. The boys, on the other hand, race through the content almost as if they are shuffling a deck of cards. They find their images and begin to laugh, at first giggling quietly but slowly building to a loud crack-up. One boy inevitably raises his hand while the girls are still meticulously combing through pictures.

“I found one!” the bravest boy in the bunch will say. At which point he holds above his head an image that is inevitably a bikini model (or sometimes a lingerie model, but really who can tell the difference?) with perfectly tanned skin, voluptuous breasts, a teeny tiny waist and not a freckle or pimple in sight.

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