Although females have historically been on the receiving end of criticism and shaming in terms of their body, males are not immune to having physical insecurities or being pressured to present a certain way. My husband has even recounted to me how awkward things could be in the locker room during those formative years. Having a son of my own, I know just how important it is to have open, judgment-free talks with him. But if you're like me, sometimes you're stumped on things to say to when your son insults his body. It can be especially challenging, being a mother with no real frame of reference for the male experience.
As it turns out, just a few hours spent watching television with the intention of looking for how the male body is treated, addressed, or portrayed was surprisingly eye-opening. For instance, in one commercial a man is showering when his girlfriend tells him he's using feminine body wash. Next thing you know, he's engaging in super macho activities in an effort to, I don't know, prevent him from growing a vagina? As confusing as that ad was, one thing was clear. There is plenty of pressure to fit a certain mold aimed at young males and it's always helpful to learn what to say when your son insults his body. Here are just a few ideas of things to say next time your son says something negative about his body.
1. Focus On What Matters
When your son makes a negative comment about his physical appearance, one solution is to shift the focus away from the exterior. Dr. James G. Wellborn, a clinical psychologist, told The Huffington Post, "compliment your son on qualities that actually matter—like his character traits, skills, relationships—link these qualities to positive outcomes in adulthood." Praising your son for being kind, empathetic, or helpful will build his self-esteem and ideally teach him that the inside counts more than the outside.
2. Explain What Being Healthy Really Means
Perhaps one of the reasons boys get hung up on fitness is because they are bombarded with muscular superheroes, impossibly ripped celebrities, and even the physical education mentality in school can value athletic achievements above all else. In an interview with Parenting, Dr. Ovidio Bermudez, a pediatrician, said you should, "reaffirm to your children that weight is only one measure of health and that people come in all different shapes and sizes." So if you notice your son insulting his body in terms of muscle or weight, remind him that bulging biceps don't equate directly to being healthy.
3. Address Gender Stereotypes
My son plays soccer, but he also goes to dance class. Though he seems oblivious to gender roles now, I nervously await the day he critiques his body image or thinks he's not "masculine" enough. Dr. Peggy Drexler, a clinical psychologist, told Psychology Today that, "boys who don't feel pressured to adhere to gender roles grow up to be more independent, more open-minded, and more sexually tolerant than their peers." If and when the day comes that my son speaks negatively about himself because he likes "feminine" activities, I'll simply remind him that there's really no such thing as "boy" things or "girl" things—there's only human things.
4. Say What You See
Something my son's teacher encouraged me to do was to point out negative body image messages in the media and real life rather than try to avoid or protect him from them. Now, if we're watching TV together and an ad comes on for an unnecessarily gendered product, I openly comment on why that's ridiculous. Some times that leads to a deeper discussion, other times he just nods or laughs it off. But the point is, we're talking about it, and that's the first step.
5. Shatter Illusions
When your son insults his body in comparison to the males he sees on magazine covers, television, and online, you can pull back the curtain on the situation. Dr. Wellborn told The Huffington Post, "your son needs to know about the tricks advertisers use to increase the attractiveness of a model—photo shopping images, camera angles, [and] makeup." It's extremely helpful to remind your son about what is real and what is fantasy so he can have a healthier perspective about his own body image.
6. Set An Example
Your children learn a lot about life from watching and listening to you. So if you're bashing your own body, your son could pick up on that behavior, too. Dr. Rebecca Puhl, Director of Research and Weight Stigma Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, told Parenting, "if we can treat ourselves and other people well, it'll naturally help steer our kids in the right direction." By speaking positively about yourself and others, you're showing your son what having a healthy body image looks like.
7. Empathize Instead Of Trying To Minimize
Regardless of your gender or sex, you can still relate to your son when he insults his body. I feared that because I'm a cisgender, heterosexual female that I wouldn't be able to connect with him as well as his father could. As it turns out, I've never been more happy to be so wrong. I've learned that empathy is a human trait not governed by gender. So when my son makes a negative comment about himself, rather than trying to brush it off or tell him he's wrong, I get down on his level and tell him that sometimes I struggle with what I see in the mirror, too.