As social and digital media have increasingly become part of our lives, we know that children are frequently bombarded with imagery and criticism about weight, physical appearance, and ‘ideal’ body types. When it comes to conversations about body image, much of the dialogue and public campaigning has focused on empowering our young girls to practice self-acceptance, healthy and happy living, and body positivity (think of the immensely popular Dove advertisements). And it is undoubtedly important for our daughters to hear and see empowering and celebratory messages about self-love and body diversity. At the same time, young boys are also exposed to similarly negative messages and standards about their own bodies - with much content criticizing boys for being too small or too big, as well content that fosters unhealthy and hyper-critical perspectives about the bodies of girls and women in their lives.
In the wake of many recent discussions about toxic masculinity, we cannot overlook the extent to which damaging messaging about physical bodies influences how boys and young men treat themselves and those around them. Overall, however, efforts to nurture self- acceptance and body positivity in boys have been less widespread. Too often, boys are left out of conversations about unrealistic body expectations and the value of self-care and healthy body image. Including boys in such conversations not only helps them to develop a healthy acceptance of their own body, it also cultivates a respectful and body-positive ethic in their interactions with others.
When it comes to fostering a healthy body image and a broader body-positive perspective in your sons, I encourage you to try the following tips:
Build healthy habits. First and foremost, have regular and open conversations with your children about what it means to live a healthy life. Within the conversation, focus on multi-dimensional aspects of health: physical, emotional, mental, and so on, and talk about how to practice balanced and positive self-care in each domain. Make these habits part of everyday life. As children grow and mature, revisit this conversation regularly to support a holistic and balanced lifestyle that reflects life stage.
Body education. As your kids grow, teach each about their body and the incredible things their body does for them. When it comes to eating and exercise, explain the value of fuelling their body and mind so they can live their best life. Many children are curious about biological and scientific body facts. This interest provides a wonderful opportunity to research and read together, so kids develop a sense of understanding and pride in all that their body can do.
Dispel body myths. Following from the previous strategy, teach your children that there is no such thing as a singular healthy body appearance. Rather than defining health in terms of size or weight, discuss how all of us have a responsibility to take care of our bodies through exercise, eating well, and looking after our mind and feelings. All healthy bodies are unique, and people come in different shapes, sizes, and have varying levels of physical ability. The most important thing is that we do our best to look after our body and respect that other people are doing their best to look after their body, too. Looking through images together - in books or magazines, on television, or on social media (depending on the age of your child) - is a valuable opportunity to look at body diversity and the many different and beautiful ways bodies can present.
Challenge unhealthy expectations. As your boys grow older, have honest conversations with each of them about how it is not realistic or sustainable to develop body expectations based on their favorite superheroes, actors, or social media personalities. Health is not defined by muscle mass or a six-pack, countless hours spent in a gym, or the amount of protein powder consumed; having bigger muscles does not make one worthier of love or respect. Revisit earlier conversations around holistic and balanced living, body diversity, and the importance of living a healthy, happy life.
Seek body-positive content. Become familiar with the types of content your children are viewing on social media to better understand the messages your kids are receiving about their bodies; especially tweens and teens who are active on social media platforms, such as Instagram. Work with them to seek out body- positive accounts that promote balanced perspectives about health and wellness. By ensuring that your sons are seeing a range of bodies represented in their media consumption, you are normalizing body diversity and nurturing realistic expectations of self and others.
Speak respectfully about others. When your sons talk about other people in their lives - friends, crushes, girlfriends or boyfriends - ask questions about the interests, passions, and personality. Avoid questions about appearance and encourage your sons to reflect more deeply on what they value in other people. Similarly, if you observe your son commenting negatively (or consuming media content where others comment negatively) on weight, eating habits, or appearance, have an honest conversation about how these types of commentary are not acceptable or appropriate and are disrespectful to others.
Model all of the discussed. Model to your sons the value of living healthy, balanced lives. Eat well, engage in physical activity, and find time for self-care and social interaction with others. Even though we all have rough days, try to avoid making negative comments about your appearance, weight, or size in front of your children. Showing your sons that you love and accept yourself, and those around you, is the most important place to start.
Soraya Lakhani, R. Psych., is the Clinical Director of Yellow Kite Child Psychology, yellowkite.ca, located in Calgary. Soraya is a thought leader on parenting and child psychology, and her work has frequently appeared on CBC, Global and other major media outlets.
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