A Young Boy’s Body Image Issues

Jade Moon
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Wednesday - June 13, 2007
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My son gobbled down the teri cheeseburger and half the fries. It didn’t occur to me to be worried. After all, he’s a growing boy, almost as tall as me now. And my husband always says, “He’s growing. He can eat a lot. I ate a lot more when I was his age.”

So I try not to let it bother me. But today after lunch he said, “Oh, I ate too much. I’m fat.”

He pinched his arm and put his hand on his stomach. He looked disgusted.

“I’m too soft and jiggly. Look at my belly.”

I was aghast. He sounded just like me. And not just me - my husband, too. We talk constantly about maintaining our weight and keeping active. You might even surmise that we are a bit obsessed with it.

When it comes to food, though, we stumble. We do eat the healthy foods but we haven’t completely shaken our old, local plate lunch tastes. Our palates appreciate salad, roasted veggies and grilled fish, but also crave teri beef and two scoops rice. We enjoy fresh fruit, but we adore ice cream. We eat more chicken than beef, but we like the skin on. We use only whole wheat bread for our sandwiches and toast, but prefer a crusty baguette with our pasta at dinner. Hot dogs and Spam are not dirty words in our house.

This diet dichotomy is confusing, and it doesn’t help that the confusion extends to what our culture tells us we need. On the one hand it exhorts us to be skinny, muscular and athletic. On the other, it tempts us with images of marbled steak and sugary, deep-fried malasadas.

It doesn’t really hurt people like my husband, who exercises like a fiend and steps on the scale every single day. He eats likes two horses but works it off before it sticks.

My son, however, has the opposite temperament. He prefers books and Gameboy to physical activity. Although he doesn’t do team sports, we manage to keep him from becoming couch-bound - he runs and swims and takes tae kwon do with my husband, grudgingly. He thinks it sucks to be tired, sweaty and out of breath. Not everyone’s a natural athlete, and we can’t force him to be something he’s not.

Our challenge, then, is to instill in him a sense of satisfaction in staying fit. And the trick is to do that without making him paranoid about his body.

We as a society pay so much attention to girls and their issues with unhealthy body images that sometimes we forget the boys are listening and watching, too.

Cindy Maynard, a medical writer and registered dietician, says, “Boys don’t escape, either. They are concerned with the size and strength of their body. There has been a shift in the male body image. Boys live in a culture that showcases males as glamorous ‘macho’ figures who have to be ‘tough,‘build muscles and sculpt their bodies - if they want to fit in. They think they have to be a ‘real’man, but many admit being confused as to what that means or what’s expected of them. This confusion can make it harder than ever to feel good about themselves.”

My son has just turned 13, and I can see he’s beginning to think about such things. He compares his body to the idealized images he sees everywhere. He wants to fit in. And although he has put on some weight I didn’t think he was fat, just a little chubby. Nothing that can’t be addressed, I thought. I want him to be healthy, not obsessed with his weight.

But here’s the rub - he’s been listening to us obsess. Like all kids, he takes his cues about what he should look like from his parents, the media and his peers. And we, all of us collectively, are teaching him to want an insanely perfect body even as we tempt him with body-distorting goodies. How sick is that?

His father and I can’t control what his peers say or what the media project. All we can do as parents is exert whatever influence we can, stop obsessing, and practice what we preach. I really hope that’s enough to save him from our national love-hate relationship with our bodies and our food.

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