Boys and Body Image

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.

Huge outbursts of laughter. From the boys, that is. The girls range from straight-faced to nauseous.

"Girls," I say, "That image is not real. You know this, right?" And their heads nod furiously. I go on. "The skin is not real, neither its complexion nor its color. Maybe she has a spray-on tan, but her flaws—and she has some—were definitely Photoshopped out. And her shape isn't real either—her waist, her breasts, her legs have all been modified."

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The girls know this and I can see it in their eyes that they know this, but they are relieved to be told that it is so. Especially in the context of a health class, which is all about validating true messages related to the body. Everywhere they turn, girls see warped ideas of how their body can and should look, so it always helps for them to hear this message again.

"Boys," I continue. "Your girlfriends will never look like this." The laughter stops. They are actually kind of shocked, as if they have never considered such a thing. Our boys have never been taught about the beauty myth.

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Today's mothers are a part of Generation X, a generation that was fiercely educated to recognize the difference between how women really look and how they are portrayed. We are fairly good at passing this knowledge on to our daughters because when we see images that are patently fake or degrading, we point them out with ease. But when it comes to our sons, we forget to have the conversations. We don't acknowledge the falsehood of enhanced images of women to our boys mostly because we don't think to.

More than that, we don't even notice that the myth applies just as much to men. All around us are images of bare-chested males with six-pack abs; their scalps adorned with full heads of hair or shaven bald but nothing in between; and never a blemish or strand on their trunk, shoulders or back. It is easy to forget that our sons think this is how they will—or should—look when they grow up. It's the beauty myth all over again, just masculinized.

In my class, we move from the bikini model to the athlete-turned-pinup rather quickly. Again, it's always the same. After the girls see what the boys have chosen to hold up, they immediately find the male counterpart images, mostly as an act of retribution. And this opens the conversation not just about the pressure to look a certain way but also the products that are peddled to kids promising to make them so. From muscle milks and sports drinks to weight loss and body building supplements, we talk about the lies in advertising and the outright dangers of many of these products.

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I am always amazed at the predictability of the dialogue, but I shouldn't be. Teaching kids about body development almost inevitably skews towards the girls. Their bodies are transforming before everyone's eyes, and they certainly want to talk about it more than the guys. At home, most of the time moms pick up the slack with their daughters, but there is a nearly universal you-should-have-the-talk-with-him debate among parents when it comes to their sons. And there is a fallacy—really more a fantasy—that it is one talk, when really the teaching only happens through many talks over many years. So the boys historically get left out of the conversation.

The next time you are checking out at the grocery store, pick up a magazine and flip through it. You'll see what I mean. And then start talking to your boys. Take the conversation beyond the simple one about how exercise and healthy eating build strong muscles and bones. Talk about the beauty myth to build strong self-esteem.

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