What are the first images that leap to your mind when you read the words "negative body image"? My guess is that it’s probably not a skinny 14-year-old boy. Although women continue to suffer from body image issues at higher rates than men, body image issues are increasingly becoming a problem for boys as well. As I write this I’m 20 years old and happy with my body. My hope is that reading about my experience with body image issues will give you some perspective on your own issues.
I was a "late bloomer" as my mom so nicely put it, about a year behind normal development according to my pediatrician. In middle school, I felt immature and inadequate among my peers because most of the guys were bigger than me. I was by no means the thinnest or smallest among my class, but I was on the smaller end of things. Though I knew that popularity was not really important in the long run, I always felt that if I gained 20 pounds, people would like me more. The other boys at school would sometimes use me to show that they were stronger than I was, by pushing me or starting some sort of rough play. I would point out to them that it was obvious that they were stronger than me; most of them outweighed me by at least 40 pounds. I was very aware of the pressure to be bigger and stronger coming from my friends, and so I started working out.
At the gym I was embarrassed. I was a skinny kid, and I felt like someone was going to ask me what I was doing there. Despite this, I learned how to lift weights and I made sure that I ran as part of my workout so I could tell myself that I was doing this for my health, not because I felt insecure. I ended up gaining some weight, though it never made a difference at school. I didn’t enjoy working out very much, and I eventually gave it up. At some point I found other physical activities that I actually liked doing for my health, not because I wanted to be bigger.
Why do young men feel all of this pressure to be strong and big (but not too big)? Is there really anything besides playing varsity football that requires size and strength? For part of the answer I think we can look at television, movies, social media and teen magazines. Hollywood often hires older actors to portray younger men (even though the women on screen are usually nearer the age of their roles). I remember watching shows about high school and noticing that all of the guys who looked anything like me were playing nerds, geeks or just being picked on in general. We all know TV is fantasy, but it still has an impact on how we perceive our own lives.
So what’s the bottom line? Society is feeding teens unrealistic images of young men (and women too). At school, kids determine social status to some extent based on these unrealistic ideals. Teens who fall outside this arbitrary acceptable size range may feel inadequate and compelled to do something to change their status. For me, it was going to the gym. For some people it means protein shakes every morning, obsessive workouts and behaviors that are often not healthy and don’t usually change social status. From what I can tell, people will either like you or they won’t, and in the end how big you are really doesn’t matter.
My story is about how I felt too thin, but many teens and young adults have similar problems when they feel like they are too big or too fat. They feel pressure to lose weight, which may lead them to do unhealthy things. There's no easy way to address these problems, but we can all help by retraining ourselves to place less value on someone’s size and more value on who they are as a person. If you think a friend has a problem related to body image, such as an eating disorder or an obsessive exercise problem, let them know that you’re concerned. They may play it off like nothing’s wrong, and usually it takes many people saying something before someone feels willing to admit that they have a problem, but at least they know you care.
Reviewed by: Jen Hawkins, MPH
Last reviewed: December 2019