It's almost a given that, at some point, little girls will develop self-confidence issues when it comes to their bodies. This could express itself in the form of being quick to point out their little, minuscule flaws, or even to the point of hating their bodies. Thanks to the "perfect" female bodies we see in the media on the regular, little girls are conditioned from the start to strive for an unrealistic definition of perfection. But little boys are taught to hate their bodies too, even if we aren't seeing it in our faces on a daily basis. It's more of a quiet epidemic, but one that is a part of an idea that is ingrained in little boys from the start.
Maybe we don't pay as much attention to body image in men because the messages to attain bodily perfection for boys don't also come with heaping sides of sexism, rape culture, and systemic, historical marginalization like they do with girls. Like, men generally have a pretty easy go of things compared to women when it comes to the way they exist in society. They're broadly allowed to exist as full humans who aren't solely defined by their bodies and subsequent value as sex objects, for one thing. So yes, there is pressure on men to achieve a fixed concept of physical perfection, but we don't talk about it as much because for them, it's merely insulting, whereas for women, it's insult on top of already substantially sexist injury.
But nonetheless, kids of all genders are slammed from an early age with images and ideas about what "good bodies" look like, with specifications that are heavily gendered. Where little girls have the images of princesses with impossibly narrow waists to contend with, little boys are faced with the chiseled musculature of superheroes. Pretty much any "cool" male figure in the spotlight is incredibly ripped and aggressively applauded for being so. Which, OK, no one is really complaining about, because there's nothing wrong with that kind of body either. But there is definitely something distinctly damaging about celebrating only certain kinds of bodies – especially when little kids are paying attention.
It's only natural for little boys to be looking to the grown-ass men of the world as their role models, at least in the beginning, so that's kind of when the messages they're receiving count the most. On the road to striving for the perfection little boys see in society, they develop eating disorders and body image issues just the same as girls. In fact, one study concluded that one in four eating disorders are experienced by men, as opposed to the previously thought 1-in-10 ratio. And while girls might be victims of body dysmorphic disorder, boys are susceptible to it too. And it is as detrimental as it sounds, causing boys and even adult men to obsessively strive for the perfect muscular form, despite any built-up muscles they already have.
And to be clear, "body image problems for boys" don't begin and end with a single-minded obsession with big muscles; it can mean so many things: Wanting to be taller, or have more or less body hair, or more or less facial hair, or a deeper voice, or to weigh less, or be stronger... There are a million details that make up the socially projected image of the "perfect man" and in being subjected to relentless depictions of this mythological dude-beast (and relentless depictions of men who don't fit that mold being less successful, less well-liked, less attractive side characters), little boys are inadvertently taught to hate their bodies just as much as little girls.
Here's exactly how that goes down:
1. The Way Superheroes Look
So, superheroes are everywhere. We get it. When these are the role models for little boys, exhibiting a monotonously perfect male body and bravery to match, it is only natural for little boys to want to mimic this. Superheroes, at their core premise, are meant to be beacons of superiority in all ways. So how can we separate our messages of "these are the best guys on the planet" from the fact that those guys all have very similar body types? We can't. It's great to tell kids to be brave and loyal and want to save humanity, but it can often get to the point of an unhealthy obsession with mirroring this one image.
2. They're Constantly Told They'll Grow Up To Be "Big And Strong"
How often do we tell our kids, "Do/eat [healthy thing] so you can grow up to be big and strong!"? While it is definitely up to us as parents to squash all of those totally sexist stereotypes about men being big and strong and taking care of women, little boys still somehow pick up on that stereotype and they run with it. It becomes necessary to them for them to be able to be bigger than the women around them so that they can take care of them, and if they aren't, then they're somehow failing. Seriously, guys, these are the implications of what we're teaching them.
3. They're Shown The Perfect "V-Shape" Male Image
The male "V-shaped body" is the image of a man with broad, muscular shoulders, arms to match, and a small waistline, giving way of course to muscular thighs and glutes. Much like girls are subjected to the "thigh gap" or the "bikini bridge," little boys are taught that this v-shaped man is the perfect man, being that he is the image most seen in movies and TV shows who both "gets the girl" and saves the day.
4. They're Told That Only Girls Have Body Image Issues
Talk about piling it on: Not only are little boys given a terribly long list of physical standards to measure up to along with the implication that doing so (or not) is inexorably tied to how much of a man they are (or are not), but then they're also told that, among all the things they can do that would make them "less manly" or "girly," obsessing about how they look or exhibiting any signs of bodily insecurity is definitely one. That super sucks. I mean, at least society is so aggressively aware of how much it body shames young women that being pathologically insecure about your body is almost considered a ~classic feminine trait~ at this point (gross, I know.)
It is so much more common and, unfortunately, popular, for young girls to develop these eating disorders and body image issues that it's almost taboo for little boys to identify with any of them. So they work to convince themselves that their disorders are nothing more than reminders to themselves to keep striving for the perfect male body, as they feel it is their duty to have.
5. They're Taught That Being Small Or Skinny Equals Weak And Nerdy
OK, so boys are taught that they need to be "big and strong" in order to be "real men," but they're also still living in a relentlessly fat-shaming culture. Whereas women are taught to place a premium on taking up as little space as possible, men are taught that they should fill spaces; be dominant and big and strong and able to protect and chop down trees and slay dragons and spray your unwaning virility all over Creation! But...make sure you fill space with muscles and never with fat. Because otherwise you aren't "big and strong and verile and attractive," you are "disgusting and lazy and a waste of space and unf*ckable."
I know I said that there are almost too many perfect superheroes in today's pop culture world, but there are still those smaller, more svelte guys. The problem is that these guys are perceived as nerdy or inept and totally incapable of saving the day. Take Spider-Man and Peter Parker, for example: Parker couldn't even get past his skinny, nerdy guy persona without the help of becoming someone totally different.
It might not seem like little boys are taught to hate their bodies, but that's just because no one talks about it as much. Everyone is so consumed with the worry over girls developing these body image issues (which, fair, don't get me wrong) that little boys are too often looked over. After all, they're supposed to be the strong and tough ones, right?