Much is said about girls and their struggles with body image — how the media controls the standards they set, as well as eating disorders that are usually associated with girls. But, boys can suffer from distorted image perception, too, and this should receive the same amount of attention.
“Boys want to perceive themselves as muscular, handsome, attractive people and it can affect their confidence,” says Colleen Gutowski, wellness director at the Ridley Area YMCA in Secane, PA.
Such pressure can arise from many sources, including television and movies, classmates and friends. “Boys are comparing themselves to other boys and media images,” says Gutowski, “so it feels like they are lacking. They may have a hard time seeing that they are important.”
Another problem stems from the vast amount of information available at boys’ fingertips, such as the push of fad diets or stories that promise to help you shed weight within weeks, with no real evidence.
“Boys are inundated with a lot of information that is not true,” says Dawn Hobbs, health, wellness and community connection director at the Ridley Area YMCA. “They have to get the right knowledge to feel more comfortable with their bodies.”
Even for parents, it can be hard to recognize accurate health advice; for this reason, kids may have an even harder time sorting truth from fiction. Ubiquitous pressure from product manufacturers does not help matters.
“You can do some media literacy training with young people,” says Laurel A. Weaver, MD, PhD, co-director of the Eating Disorder Assessment and Treatment Program at Children’s Hospital of
If your child reads something, ask him to cite the evidence for the claim as well as the source of information. Encourage him to trust reliable sources only, and if he wants to make a lifestyle choice, recommend he talk it over with his doctor before altering diet or exercise routines. Providing the right knowledge to children is key; avoiding the urge to tightly control certain aspects of children’s lives is important, too.
Dr. Weaver says that parents should model healthy behavior for their children; but, sometimes that can be misconstrued and parents can start limiting what kids eat. Dr. Weaver suggests family activities such as group walks instead.
Rebecka Peebles, MD, co-director of the Eating Disorder Assessment and Treatment Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says that kids’ needs differ from their parents’ as children are constantly growing.
“Kids just need a lot of food and there should be no trying to restrict them on food or keeping them to a certain amount,” says Dr. Peebles.
The numbers of boys with eating disorders seems to be underestimated, Dr. Weaver adds.
“That is because the criteria that we use to diagnose that, in the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], were mostly formulated based on the presentation of girls,” she says.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM is the handbook used by healthcare professionals in the U.S. and much of the world as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders. (The guide is updated as new information becomes available; the DSM-5 is the current version.)
The older criteria also didn’t capture what boys would physically look like compared to girls with disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, Dr. Weaver says.
“In the DSM-IV, one of the criteria that you would have to meet for anorexia was you would stop menstruating, which of course doesn’t apply to boys,” Dr. Weaver says. “So that’s just an example of how it has been a female-centric diagnosis.”
If you are worried about your child and think he might have an eating disorder, reach out to a professional right away.
“Parents are often correct and they should trust themselves,” Dr. Peebles says. “It’s never parents’ fault when a kid gets an eating disorder, but they can be the [child’s] best asset in getting better. If they’re concerned, they should call and have him evaluated.”
Chris Linvill is a Temple University student and MetroKids intern.