Boys and Body Image – Banter or a Concern for us all?
By Laura Richardson: firstname.lastname@example.org
Recently I have been working on a relationships and sex education project; during my research, I became aware of the issues surrounding negative body image. It is clear that body image is something that can have a massive impact on young people and can affect people without them realising. As a young woman in her mid-twenties I understand the pressures of body image and have sometimes fallen victim to scrutinising parts of my body and comparing myself to others. However, up until recently I have never given significant thought to how males are affected by body image.
Whilst completing research for the relationships and sex education project, this issue caught my attention. I read many articles that spoke of the overly sexualised nature of popular culture in mainstream media and young girls’ infatuation with being toned and skinny; two of the main drivers of negative body image amongst teenage girls (Taking Action on Body Image,
Government Equalities Office). However, I began to wonder whether these issues were only felt by young females or whether could they be transferred to anyone who has a negative impression of their body?
A report entitled Picture of Health was completed in 2016 by Credos, an advertising think-tank, to answer this question. Its aim was to encourage debate around the representation of male body image in the media and the effect this has on young boys. They conducted research with 1005 boys from primary and secondary school and included thoughts from parents, teachers and youth leaders.
One question the report asked was “what pressured secondary school boys to look good?” The results show how the opinions of friends cause the highest pressure, closely followed by social media and advertising.
I was interested to see what images of males were used in advertising. A quick search on the internet revealed numerous of adverts like the ones below:
The use of models with muscular physiques and phrases such as “just be a man” and “for real men” are extremely common within advertisements. With 68% of primary school boys using adverts as a source of important information and adverts being one of the pressures to look good for secondary school boys (Picture of Health, 2016, Credos), should the effect of these images be a concern? From the research completed, it would seem it should be. The message coming from these adverts is that in order to be masculine or a ‘real man’ you must have a six pack and muscles and these messages can increase boys’ desire for a particular body image. 23% of secondary school boys admitted to changing their exercise routine after seeing an advert and 22% of all boys questioned believed that bodies like the ones above are the perfect male physique. According to the report ‘Reflections on Body Image’ by the All Parliamentary Group on Body Image (2012) this has had a drastic effect on young boys with one third of them dieting in order to lose weight and achieve the ‘perfect’ body. As young boys experience puberty and transition through teenage years these ‘ideals’ of what their bodies should be can put a lot of pressure onto them and create issues with their body image, self-esteem and wellbeing.
With this in mind, I was intrigued to see what support and guidance was available for young boys to help them discuss their body image. The results astonished me, a lot of the information and guidance I found was aimed at teenage girls. Some reports and teaching resources only used pictures of females, were specifically for females or had a section at the end entitled “What about boys and men?” Whilst I understand that body image issues can be different for everyone, have different effects and require different support, I can’t help but feel that one page at the end of a resource pack could lead to some people thinking the issue of male body image is not as important. Or, even worse, stop young boys from either recognising they have negative issues with their body or leave them feeling that there is no support available. Dr Jackie Cornish, NHS England’s National Clinical Director for Children describes body image issues as one of the major factors leading to the raise in teenage self-harm rates. The number of boys admitted to hospital for cutting themselves in 2005-06 was 160, this rose to 457 in 2014-15; a rise of 186%. Similarly, the numbers of boys who hanged themselves also doubled from 47 to 95 over the same period. (The Guardian 2016)
Whilst the exact correlation between body image issues for male teens and self-harm remains unclear, I find myself pondering two questions. Could a better awareness in society of the issues faced by young boys regarding their body or more available support, help reduce these horrifying statistics? And what is the reasoning behind people being less aware of teen male body image as an issue?
One reason that has been suggested is that boys are perceived to brag more about their bodies rather than have concerns and if they do have concerns they would keep it to themselves (Picture of Health, 2016, Credos). It is views like this which are unfortunately affecting available support for young boys in places such as schools. The Be Real Campaign produced a report entitled ‘Somebody Like Me’ in January 2017; during their research, they discovered that only 57% of teachers surveyed believed that body confidence was a concern for boys compared to 77% who believed it was for girls. Could this opinion that boys are not affected by this issue mean that some teachers would find it difficult to spot if a male student was concerned with their body image?
I believe that it could be one of the reasons why 56% of boys would find it difficult to talk to a teacher about concerns with body image as it could lead to a fear that some teachers wouldn’t understand. It was also revealed that 29% feel it would be difficult to talk to parents, instead 71% would rather speak to their friends about these issues. Whilst it is good to have someone to confide in, it was from friends that teenage boys felt most pressure to look good. Whether they are aware of this pressure or not, it could mean that having support from only friends may not be suitable for everyone.
I therefore conclude that we should start to combat the stigma and taboo of male body image issues at schools and embed this learning into PSHE and relationships and sex education. As both of these are becoming statutory duties for schools in September 2019, it would mean that every student would have the opportunity to become aware of and discuss issues surrounding body image and the effects it can have on people. However there are varying opinions on how best to teach the lessons, regarding mixed or single gender classes. The PSHE Association (Teacher Guidance: key standards in teaching body image) advise that it would be effective for young people to learn and discuss body image in mixed classes as it allows them to be aware of issues that are faced by others. However, some organisations such as Dove suggest that single sex classes allow students to feel more comfortable and therefore more likely to feel confident about sharing their concerns (Tackling negative body image: working with politicians and industry) There may also be cultural factors, which make discussing such issues in mixed classes difficult for some pupils. This varying opinion could lead to confusion for teachers and schools on how best to plan lessons or even be a barrier against teaching body image.
From the research I have completed it seems that creating a student lead approach would be extremely effective and asking students how they would prefer to be taught body image could be very effective in informing the teaching style. I also believe that resources need to be more inclusive of body image issues amongst males, having resources that include information for both boys and girls can help increase the awareness of the issue and means that advice is more readily available. However, this can only be made possible by, as stated by the Government Equalities Office, a major increase in research into male body image and the effects it has on young boys and men. Whilst unfortunately the media still prefers to use images of toned and muscular bodies I believe that if efforts were made to achieve these suggestions it could at the very least lead to male body image becoming less of taboo and young boys feeling more supported and able to discuss their issues.