Raising Healthy Boys
My Son, Superhero In Training
At first, I saw my child’s interest in strength — in getting bigger not smaller — as further evidence of generational curses lifted when it came to food and his body.
My 7-year-old is a CrossFit devotee from afar. He freezes every time we pass the one on our block to stare at the biggest muscles engaged in the most extreme act of strength training. At home, he loves to set up his Marvel action figures on the living room floor so The Hulk, Ironman, and Black Panther can hash out plans to defeat various villains. At least once a week I find him in front of the hallway mirror watching himself kick and punch at the air.
“Want to feel my muscles?” he says, reaching for my hand.
“Wow!” I say. “You’re so strong!”
Well, that’s what I used to say.
My personal history with disordered eating has made me vigilant about not passing down my former obsession with thinness. As a teenager, I struggled with anorexia, convinced all my insecurities would be solved by shrinking in size. In my early 20s, I was diagnosed with PCOS. Dietary changes related to this diagnosis made a huge, positive difference in my energy and mood, but the intense focus on nutrition was tricky orthorexia territory for someone whose comfort zone is restriction.
I worked hard throughout my 30s to address all of the above and today I feel mostly free of the psychological binds I used to be in regarding my body and food. Mostly being the operative word. I say I’m “in recovery” from an eating disorder, not recovered, to remind myself there is always work to do, likely for the rest of my life.
As a parent, I’ve been intentional about creating an environment devoid of the kind of food/body messages I received from my baby boomer parents steeped in diet culture. I have one parent who after a meal still says things like “Don’t you just hate yourself when you eat too much?” and another who is constantly rejoining Weight Watchers.
“But then a boy might go on to tell me how he is, for example, uncomfortable taking off his shirt at a pool.”
With my own kid, I’m guided by an intuitive eating approach designed to help him tune into his own body. He decides how much or little he eats at meals, for example. Dessert is never given as a reward nor taken away as punishment (or put on any kind of culinary pedestal). I don’t use phrases like “good eater.” I don’t press him to take “just one little bite” of something he says he dislikes. And, in the name of celebrating a parenting win during what has been a monumentally difficult few years, this approach is working great for us. My kid eats a wide variety of foods. He likes helping me cook. He seems to genuinely enjoy family meals in a way that feels so different from my stressful relationship to food as a kid.
At first, I saw my child’s interest in strength (in getting bigger, not smaller) as further evidence of generational curses lifted when it came to food and his body. I also assumed that I was helping when I responded to comments about his muscles by saying “Wow, you’re so strong!” I had especially leaned into this kind of validation after a doctor referred to him as “a little chubby” and I observed my kid fully clock the remark. I saw this totally unnecessary statement about his weight as the first of many that might come his way, so I focused on celebrating what he liked about his body: his strength.
I also assumed his interest in muscles was a phase, like so many intense but fleeting preoccupations before it. But as months passed, eventually it clicked that his emphasis on muscled bodies was likely a variation of the same theme as my former idealization of thinness, and that down the road there is likely for him the same invisible fork many of us face. One path is self-acceptance, whether easy or hard-won. Down the other is a potentially harrowing fixation on trying to look the way he thinks he should.
Then again, he’s only 7. Do kids this age really think in terms of body image, or was I overanalyzing him?
I asked Charlotte Markey, Ph.D., professor of psychology and author of Being You: The Body Image Book for Boys. She told me about a peer-reviewed article entitled “Preferences for being muscular and thin in 6-year-old boys” where researchers interviewed 101 6-year-old boys. Some takeaways: one-third “wanted to be more muscular than their current size,” that they experience “muscularity and thinness-oriented body dissatisfaction,” and that they perceive “greater rewards from muscularity than thinness.”
Markey says we’ve come a long way in the last 20 or so years when people incorrectly assumed body image issues were irrelevant for boys and men. Recent studies suggest that while girls and women are a little more dissatisfied, there isn’t a marked difference along gender lines in terms of these concerns. And yet in her interviews, boys themselves often dismissed “body image” as a problem faced by girls alone.
“But then a boy might go on to tell me how he is, for example, uncomfortable taking off his shirt at a pool,” Markey said. “Well, that’s body image. Talking about our bodies can make us feel insecure and vulnerable, and boys and men are not socialized to admit that they are struggling or to talk as openly about mental health.”
Dr. Erikka Dzirasa, M.D., is a double-board certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist who works with kids as young as 6 who have body image concerns. “Studies show 2-year-olds are already aware of their race,” Dzirasa told me, “so it’s no surprise they can have body image worries at a very young age.”
Like Markey, she noted we have a long way to go in terms of destigmatizing mental health for boys and men who are struggling. Dzirasa noted, too, that eating disorders impact people of all ethnicities and across the gender and sexuality spectrum. Yet representations of eating disorders still predominantly feature white women.
My child’s desire to look like a CGI-enhanced superhero evolving into an eating disorder is exactly what worries me. This is a kid who routinely asks if he can try “the most exotic thing on the menu” and who will then postmortem his meal with the enthusiasm of a mini Pete Wells. A kid who routinely does a literal chef’s kiss to my partner, the far superior cook in our household, after a particularly delicious dinner. The idea that his current, carefree joy in food might disintegrate, likely around the time he discovers social media, honestly, guts me.
I asked Lily Thrope, a licensed clinical social worker and certified intuitive eating counselor, about red flags for parents when it comes to behavioral or psychological shifts along these lines.
A teacher I think of as otherwise stellar once said she would take away his ‘dessert’ if he didn’t eat his cucumbers first.
“Boys are not identified as frequently as girls when it comes to eating disorders and body image issues because it can look very sneakily healthy,” Thrope said. “Being strong is great. So is taking care of yourself. It is the obsessive piece that complicates things. It is trying to get bigger in a way that ignores genetics and their own body cues.”
Dzirasa told me disordered eating behaviors in kids are sometimes body image-related and sometimes not. “There can be anxiety related to eating certain types of foods or specific textures or smells,” she said. “That anxiety is sometimes related to sensory issues and trauma. If there are sensory issues, that’s really helpful to observe, because then you can ask yourself if there are other sensory overload moments happening for your child outside of food.”
There can also be trauma-related behaviors. She shared an example of a child she worked with who had been forced by a foster care family to eat a certain kind of vegetable, and this resulted in a trauma response to that specific food.
Then there are body image-related red flags: a child restricting certain food groups or hiding food in their rooms; a teacher sharing that a kid is routinely skipping lunch; or a parent noticing their child immediately uses the bathroom after every meal.
“There are racial, cultural, and familial components to eating disorders,” Dzirasa said. “Gender and sexuality can come into play, too. Eating disorder behaviors can occur for kids who don’t feel good in their body and know puberty is coming. There can be anxiety around developing into that new body.”
There are also individual differences in how kids absorb the messages they receive about food. “In some schools, kids are taught about counting calories and reading labels,” Dzirasa said. “Kids can be very concrete in their thinking. For a child who is prone to perfectionism this might lead to restricting calories.”
My 6-year-old attends a wonderful, progressive public school in Brooklyn where social-emotional skills are prioritized. Yet even there I’ve found myself frustrated by what strikes me as outdated views on food. Last year a lunch attendant routinely insisted he and others eat their “healthy food” first. A teacher I think of as otherwise stellar once said she would take away his “dessert” if he didn’t eat his cucumbers first.
“Everyone thinks they know what is right when it comes to food because everyone eats,” Markey said when I shared this.
This includes well-meaning doctors practicing in accordance with their training but who can miss the mark (like our former doctor’s “a little chubby” comment). “We don’t want kids to hear from their providers about their weight,” Markey said. “As parents, it is exciting to see them grow and to have that documented and I’m not saying we shouldn’t do that. That can also be how providers catch an eating disorder so some tracking/documenting makes sense.”
However, Markey noted, for the most part no conversation about weight is required. “We don’t get specifics about our ears or eyes when they are checked, right? We’re told, essentially, ‘looks good,’ unless there is a specific issue that requires follow-up, like going to see an optician for glasses. For the most part the body message can be: You’re growing. Things look good. Any questions?”
Of course other ideas about what it means to be strong were in his brain, too. I just needed to ask the right question.
When my son was younger, I enthusiastically participated in the height/weight metrics part of our pediatrician visits. My child has one kidney and his steady growth was deeply comforting to me. I told myself that his body must be working as well as any other kid if he was above the average percentiles for height and weight.
I gave no thought to how to square this with my own refusal to be weighed at a doctor’s office except once a year during my physical. “I’m in recovery from an eating disorder,” I tell any health practitioner who presses me, refusing to indulge the twinge of default shame I sometimes feel, knowing the more we speak openly about our struggles, the more space opens up in the world for them to be heard and hopefully helped.
Dzirasa also pointed out recently released American Academy of Pediatrics guidance on early interventions for childhood obesity.
“I am so frustrated by this guidance because we know that kids are going to grow in weight before height,” she said. “OK, so then you focus on the BMI, and you tell a young kid, ‘You need to lose weight.’ That kid internalizes that they now have a problem to fix. They internalize the shame of that. The guidelines encourage certain medications and even bariatric surgery for adolescents. There is no acknowledgment of how a kid’s background impacts their food choices, or of issues like food insecurity. This document is 100 pages long with only a tiny section on eating disorders and no mention of what due diligence looks like in terms of screening and evaluating kids.”
This is not to focus blame on the healthcare practitioners who help us and our kids. Commentary about the size of our bodies starts early and often, and unhelpful messages fly our way from every conceivable direction. There is so much societal and individual-level progress still needed when it comes to valuing certain types of bodies over others.
Given my conversations with Dzirasa, Markey, and Thorpe, I knew I needed some new talking points for moments my child is mesmerized by Greek god-like physiques.
Markey says the key to conversations with younger kids is to have them early and often. No big lectures needed. Instead, think in terms of lots of little comments spread across many years of their development. “When you’re watching a superhero on TV, you might say: ‘Wow, he looks really strong, but most men don’t look like that,’” she said. “It’s important to provide that reality check from an early age.”
Thrope suggested I ask my child to name a man he knows in real life he thinks of as strong. Unsurprisingly, he immediately responded: “My dad.”
“Does your dad look like a superhero?” I probed.
“No,” he said. “But he’s still really, really strong.”
I tried out one of Dzirasa’s suggestions when my child was awed by buff triplets competing on Netflix’s The Floor Is Lava. After one of them yelled to his brother, “Use the muscles you worked so hard for!” and my child shouted “Yeah!” I paused the TV.
“I can see you’re paying a lot of attention to their muscles but muscles aren’t the only things that make people strong,” I said. “Can you think of another way someone can be strong?”
“Their stomach muscles,” he said. “Like if they have at least a two-pack.” I stifled a laugh before clarifying my question.
“Hmm, what about strength that has nothing to do with how your body looks?” I said. He didn’t hesitate.
“Protesting,” he said. “Like Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man.”
I couldn’t believe he had come up with this example after so many months focused on physical strength but of course other ideas about what it means to be strong were in his brain, too. I just needed to ask the right question.
In Dzirasa’s view, asking questions and active listening are what matter most in conversations with kids. “Listen. Don’t solve. Validate their feelings. If they are struggling, you might say: ‘Wow, that must be really hard to feel that way.’ Approach them with curiosity rather than criticism. ‘Where do you think you learned that?’ Ask questions. ‘Are there parts of you do like?’ ‘Do you ever do things to try to change how you look?’”
The goal is to get them to open up. That’s when kids will drop details that can help us learn what is going on. “We don’t have to pathologize everything they say,” Dzirasa said. “But being attentive and inquisitive will help us determine if we need more resources.”
It's not just what we say, of course, but also what we do. The more we can model body acceptance for our kids, the better, Thrope said. By not commenting on how we and they look, for example, or by talking about exercise as a way to feel good and not something we do to look a certain way.
Also, “the more we can be in our bodies without looking at our bodies, the better,” Thrope said. “We don’t need to be exposed to ourselves so much. Yes, it’s fun to take a selfie. We don’t need to take 80 of them.”
I’m going to remind myself of Thrope’s words the next time my kid is flexing in the mirror or I find myself insisting my partner lift my phone higher and higher to capture what I think is a more flattering angle. I’m not aiming for perfection when it comes to parenting my son (or anything else), but I am doing my best to cultivate joy in our world. And I truly believe the less we focus on how our bodies look, the more we are instead attuned to how they feel, the more joy there will be — for both of us.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call 988 or text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line. Another resource is the Alliance for Eating Disorders.
Rachel Friedman is the author of And Then We Grew Up: On Creativity, Potential, and the Imperfect Art of Adulthood and The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost. She lives in Brooklyn and is working on her first novel.