Why Raising Boys To Be Body Positive Is More Important Than You Think
On the day my son was born, by c-section, my wife leaned over and whispered his name into my ear. We had picked out gendered baby names (mostly because we couldn’t agree on any gender neutral names), but for us, that was about where the gendered differences in parenting ended. We’re committed to raising our child to be a person first, and resisting the pressure to treat girl children one way and boy children another way. Raising a body positive son is more important than you think, and for us, it's one of the most valuable things we'll do as parents. And that includes raising him with a body positive attitude, and teaching him the importance of body positivity. Many people have the mistaken idea that positive body image, though important for little girls (lest they grow to hate themselves and develop an eating disorder due to the enormous amount of pressure on women and girls to conform to narrow beauty standards), is less of an issue for boys. However, I believe that our sons deserve to love their own bodies, and need to respect the bodies of others, just as much as our daughters.
I have three simple beliefs, which I try to keep in mind and communicate to my son whenever possible. They are:
- All bodies are good bodies (whether they’re thin or fat, able or disabled, tall or short).
- Your body belongs to you (and therefore you can assert boundaries regarding your body whenever you need or want to).
- Other people’s bodies belong to them (and you have to respect that, and you never get to assert ownership over someone else’s body).
I want my son to be armed with this knowledge because the world, unfortunately, will do everything it can to take it from him. I want him to know his body is his, and there's nothing anyone can say or do to take that from him, and I want him to have that same respect for other people's bodies.
I don’t want him to think that I’m any less of a person because my body looks a certain way, and I definitely don’t want him to think that I believe I’m less because of that.
And while my son is still very young, these things actually do affect my parenting right now, today, and not just in the far-flung future (and how far-flug is the future ever when it comes to kids, anyway?). His other mom and I use the proper words for his anatomy. We refrain from acting like bodies are shameful or gross around him. I make it a point not to talk badly about my own body around him (which honestly is a good exercise anyways).
He might think that it’s OK to treat people differently based on their bodies. He might get the idea, for example, that there was nothing wrong with mocking another kid for being fat. He might believe that women should alter their bodies to please men. He might not be as kind to his friends, and one day coworkers, and romantic partners, as I would like him to be. And I’m not OK with that.
Although I'm using “son” as a kind of shorthand here, as my child is still under 1 year old, I don’t actually know how he identifies, gender-wise. We don't yet know our infant’s gender because he can’t tell us. The odds might be incredibly high that my child will feel comfortable identifying as a boy, but odds are no guarantee. And I want my son to know that whoever he is is fine with his mom and me. I want him to have a strong base of self love and self respect. I want him to know that even if he needs and wants to make changes to his body when he’s older, his body is not gross or wrong, it’s just a part of him and that’s OK.
Even if my child does turn out to be a cisgender boy who grows up to be a cisgender man, he’ll still benefit massively from having a body positive framework to start with. Look, it’s true that women often bear the brunt of fatphobia and general body shame in our society, but that doesn’t mean that men are immune. While I don’t want to to downplay the role that sexism plays in telling us to hate our bodies — because it's huge — I’ve also watched so many men and bodies suffer through horrible body shame, succumb to eating disorders, and live in a constant state of self doubt because they had been convinced their bodies were not good enough. And that's the last thing I want for my son.
We live in a culture that holds all bodies to truly impossible ideals of beauty and perfection, and because of that we all have to be ready to combat body shame. I want my child to grow up feeling good about himself, and I want him to one day be able to feel good about himself as an adult. It’s my job to give him the tools to do that, and body positivity is a tool I can give him. But even if his male privilege has managed to completely insulate him from the pressures of a fatphobic, diet obsessed, body-shaming culture, I'd still want to raise him with body positivity. Why? To put it simply, it's because he’s not the only person in the world.
I want him to grow up knowing that my body is just fine the way that it is, that it’s OK for me to love my body, and that it is required that other people step back and respect that.
Throughout his life, he’s going to have to interact with many people, and those people are going to have all different kinds of bodies. If he grows up absorbing all of the crap our culture teaches him about bodies, and I don’t work to contextualize that for him, he might think that it’s OK to treat people differently based on their bodies. He might get the idea, for example, that there was nothing wrong with mocking another kid for being fat. He might believe that women should alter their bodies to please men. He might not be as kind to his friends, and one day coworkers, and romantic partners, as I would like him to be. And I’m not OK with that. I want to raise my child to be a compassionate and decent human being. At a certain point, the ball will be in his court on that, but for now it's my job to set him up to be a good person.
I have strong feelings about this as a fat person. I’m his mother, and I’m fat, and if that’s not a reason that our whole family needs to practice body positivity right now, I don’t know what is. I want him to grow up knowing that my body is just fine the way that it is, that it’s OK for me to love my body, and that it is required that other people step back and respect that. In a world where even many children’s books that I love mock and belittle fat people, I think the counter message needs to come early. I don’t want him to think that I’m any less of a person because my body looks a certain way, and I definitely don’t want him to think that I believe I’m less because of that.
My son needs body positivity just as much as anybody else does, and so my partner and I are working hard to give him exactly that, however difficult it might be.