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Boys' body fears are going strong

Male image problems, such as muscle dysmorphia, are worrying and on the increase, warns Aric Sigman

Male image problems, such as muscle dysmorphia, are worrying and on the increase, warns Aric Sigman

Although the PSHE curriculum attempts to stem the tide of body dissatisfaction and eating disorders among girls, teachers are less aware of male body dissatisfaction and how it expresses itself. While the feminine ideal is thin, the masculine ideal is muscular and "ripped". This is the world of muscle dysmorphia: it is the leading male body image disorder and is appearing at progressively younger ages.

Many adolescent boys now want to be 30-40lb (14-18kg) heavier. And a new study published in the US journal Pediatrics makes sober reading. "Boys' body dissatisfaction has increased, and research has demonstrated that exposure to images of extremely muscular models contributes to body dissatisfaction and muscle dysmorphia in young men," it states. Thirty-five per cent of adolescents surveyed for the study adopted "unhealthy muscle-enhancing strategies, including protein powders, steroids and other substances".

There is also an alarming rise in the proportion of school-aged children taking anabolic steroids. The Home Office is now so concerned it has launched a "body confidence campaign", which "aims to reduce the burdens that popular culture places on people's well-being and self-esteem".

While attention has long focused on the violent content of computer games, they influence behaviour in other important ways. A year-long study published in the journal Body Image found that boys who, at the beginning of the year, tended to read mostly gaming magazines reported more concern about their body size at the end of the year than those who read fitness and fashion magazines. Sports magazines elicited a similar, but weaker effect - perhaps because their image of masculinity is slightly more realistic.

A recent analysis of "virtual muscularity" reported that "on every dimension measured, male video game characters were systematically larger than the average American male". Most revealing was its finding that "hypermuscular male characters were more likely to be found in games rated for children than in games rated for adults".

Building confidence

The prevention of body dissatisfaction in boys has lagged badly behind that of girls. Yet important strategies are beginning to emerge.

Lessons on body image should be linked with discussions about puberty and how boys may develop at different times and rates. Boys must realise that the ability to put on extra muscle is partly genetic and also limited by age.

PSHE and PE staff should ensure that younger teenagers and preadolescents do not confuse strength training with weightlifting and bodybuilding, which can put too much strain on young muscles, tendons and areas of cartilage that have not yet turned to bone (growth plates). Explaining that doing sports they enjoy will naturally result in muscle growth helps to shift the focus away from muscle-enhancing behaviours.

Male PE teachers and coaches should be made aware of male body dissatisfaction and should be alert to the problem. Additionally, male coaches can often act as a role model and mentor, which can help to open up conversations. Schools should liaise with parents, particularly fathers, over signs of body image problems. Early intervention is hugely advantageous. The good news is that studies are finding that good communication helps with body satisfaction.

At all ages it is vital that we help students to understand the impact that the media has on their body image and the inconsistencies between what is real and what is ideal. Students' self-evaluation also has to involve more non-virtual points of comparison - that is, real people. So, while it is easier said than done, try to encourage students to spend more time offline.

One other thing is becoming clear: encouraging students to involve themselves in other areas of their lives that engage them and provide a sense of control, competence and accomplishment works strongly in favour of increased body satisfaction. This is partly a consequence of putting the eggs of one's self-esteem in a variety of baskets.

For men, size will always matter. But for boys it should matter later and less.

Dr Aric Sigman is a PSHE lecturer. His biology paper on body image was the scientific article for a June 2012 Edexcel A-level biology paper (ref: 6BI0501).


Eisenberg M.E., Wall M. and Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2012) "Muscle-enhancing Behaviors Among Adolescent Girls and Boys", Pediatrics, 1306: 1019-26.

Harrison, K. and Bond, B.J. (2007) "Gaming Magazines and the Drive for Muscularity in Preadolescent Boys: a longitudinal examination", Body Image, 43: 269-77.

Sigman A. (2010) "A Source of Thinspiration?", The Biologist, 573: 117-121.

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