Practically all mothers, if asked, would say that the child to whom they gave birth is perfect in every single way. You find each and every little dimple, freckle, and strand of untamed hair to be absolutely without flaw. That's why it can be so difficult to wrap your head around the concept that your young son may be develop body image issues. And, because it isn't always obvious, it's important to know the subtle ways you son may be insulting his appearance.
It's practically common knowledge that prepubescent girls are flooded with images of thin women on magazine covers, stars with flawless skin on the red carpet, and statuesque models on the runway. But what about the young men? Male athletes and other role models have recently acknowledged the danger of saying "Be a man" to boys and the damaging effects those three words can have.
Gender expectations are (thankfully) changing from the old-fashioned thoughts held by previous generations, yet body image challenges for parents and their children still exist today. So what are some ways you might not even realize your son is insulting his appearance? Read on to find out so you can help your son learn to love himself.
1. He's Struggling To Eat Well
Every parent knows that children go through periods of growth spurts and that young children are notoriously picky eaters. So it might not be too odd if your son seems like he's not eating as much as he normally does. Where a complete refusal of food or induced vomiting would be an obvious red flag, cutting down on portions doesn't usually raise to many eyebrows. Jennifer Hagman, a child psychologist and medical director of the eating disorders program at Children’s Hospital Colorado, told The Huffington Post that she's seen male patients as young as 5-years-old and, "They don't really know why they're refusing to eat enough to be healthy, but they have difficulty completing meals." Even at a young age, it's important to recognize signs of dangerous eating habits.
2. He's Preoccupied With Athleticism
While women are slowly but surely gaining equal footing in the world of sports, the emphasis on a muscular physique in males has been a long-held ideal. From the athletes on a box of Wheaties to buff male action stars and even kid's toys, boys are sent the message that bulked-up bodies are not only desirable, but a direct indication of strength. Dr. Raymond Lemberg, an Arizona-based clinical psychologist and an expert on male eating disorders, told The Atlantic that, "action figures have lost a tremendous proportion of fat and added a substantial proportion of muscle. Only one or two percent of males actually have that body type... that is unnatural.”
3. His Comments Center Around Appearance
At an age when most kids should be focused on play time and adventures with friends, it's important not to ignore it if your son's conversations are shifting from activity-based things and towards the external. Ana Homayoun, a noted teen and millennial expert, author, speaker and educator, told CNN that parents should watch out for fat talk like saying, "'Oh, fat people do this, or thin people do that." And whenever you have an opportunity, question those assumptions."
4. He Uses Stereotyping Language
Not all stereotyping is unhealthy. After all, for very young children, making distinctions between types of people is part of the way they learn to classify and understand the world around them. But when your son is using stereotypes as a primary way to describe things, that's when it can cross the line into the dangerous realm. Dr. Maria do Mar Pereira, deputy director of the University of Warwick’s Centre for the Study of Women and Gender, told Everyday Feminism that comments like, "'She's really strong for a girl,' or 'Dress shoes are so gay,' ... leads to a range of problems; low self-esteem, bullying, physical and verbal violence, health problems and a tragic loss of potential in our young people."
5. He Complains On Social Media
With one in three boys saying social media makes them feel more self-conscious about their appearance, Dr. Robin Silverman, a body-image expert and author, told Today that "the terms ‘fat’ and ‘thin’ are not just descriptors of weight and size, they become descriptors of character." So if your son vents about his appearance online, it could be because he feels shamed in the real world.
6. He Puts Others Down
Just like your parents probably told you, those who insult others do so because they have their own internal demons to battle. So if you hear your son ragging on his teammates, friends, or even girls, he might just be projecting his negative feelings about his own body. Dr. Peggy Drexler, a research psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology at Cornell University, wrote in an article on Psychology Today that "many boys report that the biggest pressure they feel comes from their coaches and peers ... [it] helps fuel boys' desire to compete with one another for the title of biggest, strongest, best." So watch out for "playful" bullying amongs your son and his friends.
7. His Judgments Are Exaggerated
Though it may seem harmless, if your son is using hyperbole to describe himself, it could actually be a warning sign of a serious underlying problem. I've even been guilty of making ridiculous statements in jest like, "After dessert, I feel bigger than a house!" But with younger children, those kinds of comments might not be rooted in humor. According to The U.S. National Library of Medicine, "body dysmorphic disorder affects as many men as women and consists of a preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in appearance." If your son says his nose is huge, he's a toothpick, or any other kind of exaggerated terms to describe his appearance, he might truly be struggling.