Boys and Body Image

As adolescent boys reach puberty and experience the rage of hormones, they can sometimes be as susceptible to judgment about their bodies as much as girls can be through puberty. Just as in studying male body image, researchers are torn on the issue of the media’s effects on the way boys view their bodies. The following discussions are only examples of some research that support each side of the argument.

CLAIM: Media Affects Boys

CLAIM: Media Does Not Affect Boys

  • Lini Kadaba (2009) says subliminal media messages do influence boys, especially in the available choices in popular Halloween costumes.                                                                                           
  • Bodily development during puberty into the larger, more muscular male keeps boys from being too concerned with media messages (Pope, Phillips, & Olivardia 2000).
  • “Supersized” costume choices with padded abdominal, chest, and arm muscles are increasingly popular in a world of muscular superheroes and action figures.
  • High metabolism (low fat gain), natural muscle development, growth spurts, and broadening of chest, shoulders, and jaw are all ideal features of adolescent males that match society’s male body ideal.
  • Influence of a body ideal begins early, with padded costumes available for toddlers and infants, as well.
  • This is in opposition to men’s bodies that may have relaxed since puberty, and women and girls’ bodies that grow in size and shape, all of which are opposite of society’s ideals.
  • Kadaba argues this is due to the media’s pressure on males, even young boys and toddlers, to desire a sculpted body.

CLAIM: Media Affects Boys Indirectly

Some researchers, however, strike a balance between the two opinions to say that media does affect adolescent boys, but indirectly. They drew conclusions from directly interviewing adolescent boys to talk about body image and media.

Hargreaves & Tiggemann (2006)

Lyles (2014)

  • In this focus group with boys 14-16, the researchers discovered that boys sought to fit in with their peers and be ‘cool’ much more than bulk up their bodies as researchers expected. They used media only to stay informed of ways to stay ‘cool,’ not to size up to standards of body.
  • Lyles also conducted interviews with 11-14-year-old boys in attempt to show media as a minor factor behind body image, or rather, an indirect influence.
  • The boys emphasized their belief, that males are not to express feelings or care about their looks—they need to be ‘tough guys’—beliefs ingrained through media exposure about the ideal male.
  • Instead, Lyles concluded that media shapes their perceptions through the community around them, mainly the adults, or their peers, who are in turn influenced by parents, sports coaches, and healthcare providers, who are then in turn influenced by adult peers and media.
  • Though reluctant to reveal insecurities, the study participants did express their main concerns to be hair, fashion, weight, height, pimples, and not getting teased. Essentially, they just wanted to fit in. They didn’t seem very concerned about bulking up due to media standards. Most were content to stay as they were.
  • It seems the media may not reach boys as directly as girls when pressuring about body ideals.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Additional research is still needed to clarify the influences over adolescent boys’ body image and how to adjust those influences to help boys achieve and retain positive, healthy body images.

Boys and Weight—

Despite puberty assisting them in fitting media’s ‘ideal body’ (see discussion of Pope et al. 2000, above) adolescent boys may struggle with their weight in a contemporary culture filled with unhealthy food and behaviors. Some boys wrestle with weight gain more than others. Under perfect conditions, this would be easily manageable, but Lyles (2014) lists a dozen factors prohibiting adolescent boys from maintaining a healthy weight.

Some factors can be controlled by the individual:

  • Self-Control
  • Motivation

Many, however, Lyles recognizes as being outside an adolescence’s influence:

  • Home environment
  • Lack of familial support to be healthy
  • Lack of education about healthy living
  • Lack of resources to provide or limited access to healthy food options and an active lifestyle
  • Deficient school or local programs not providing education about and access to healthy eating and activity

Out of all these factors, proper education about healthy eating and exercise habits seems to affect boys’ attitudes about their weight the most. Lyles writes:

[H]ealthy weight and underweight adolescents may overestimate their weight and in turn adopt unhealthy weight control behaviors and eating disorders . . . . Even though [some boys in the study] were categorized as about-right weight, they still had concerns about their bodies, body parts, and weight . . . . / Furthermore, those boys who were categorized as overweight, obese, or high BMI or underweight but indicated that they wanted to stay the same might also not recognize the need to make changes to their bodies. (561-62)

Without access to information about a healthy lifestyle to control excessive overweight, adolescent boys may not realize potential risks they incur, psychologically and physically.

It is just as prudent for us to be aware of body expectations for boys and the roles into which we groom them. Society is becoming more sensitive toward young girls’ body struggles—Now we need to set equal attention on adolescent boys. For more information about boys dealing with body image issues, check out the NEDA website and make sure to check this page for updated studies on boys and body image as they are released.

Ask Yourself:

  • Do you think adolescent boys are affected by media’s ideal bodies as much as girls? Grown men? Women? What makes boys different?
  • Were you taught healthy habits as an adolescent? Where or by whom?
  • One boy in Hargreaves and Tiggemann’s focus group said, “I don’t really care if I get fat or anything . . . I eat what I want.” How do you respond? Of what do you think a belief such as this is a result?
  • How often do you unconsciously judge a boy for exposing his real feelings and emotions as a result of internalized prejudices from society?
  • Have you witnessed boys struggling with body image or with discussing it? Have you experienced it? What were the causal factors?