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How to Help Your Son Have a Positive Body Image

Dr. Charlotte Markey is a world-leading expert in body image research, having studied all things body image, eating behavior, and weight management for her entire adult life. She is passionate about understanding what makes us feel good about our bodies and helping people to develop a healthy body image. Charlotte loves to share her body image wisdom with others and is an experienced book author, blogger, and professor at Rutgers University, Camden. 

In our interview today, I talk with Dr. Markey about her book, “Being You: The Body Image Book for Boys.” We discuss the pressure boys feel to be athletic and muscular and the physical and mental impact this has on our boys. What can we do about it to raise our boys with a healthy self-image?  

Let’s dive in!

Scroll down to read the fully transcribed episode.

What You Will Learn: 

  • The different concerns boys have than girls regarding their bodies. 
  • Some of the common struggles and challenges boys have with their body image.  
  • What pressures are boys under right now concerning their weight?
  • Myths about boys’ development.
  • What does body image really mean? And why is it important to talk about it with our boys?
  • What are some of the messages boys internalize that they aren’t necessarily talking about regarding their bodies?
  • What is the cause for the rise in body dissatisfaction in boys, from eating disorders to bulking up? 
  • The rise in eating disorders in boys since the pandemic. 
  • Learn how to talk to your sons about their body image and self-acceptance. 
  • Can moms talk to their sons about body image and puberty like fathers?

Where To Find Dr. Markey: 

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And here is the episode typed out!

Welcome to the Moms of Tweens and Teens Podcast. If some days you doubt yourself and you don’t know what you’re doing, if you’ve ugly cried alone in your bedroom because you felt like you were failing. Well, I just want to let you know you are not alone and you have come to the right place.

Raising tweens and teens in today’s world is not easy. And I’m on a mission to equip you to love well and to raise emotionally healthy, happy tweens and teens that thrive.

I believe that moms are heroes, and we have the power to transform our families and impact future generations. If you are looking for answers, encouragement, and becoming more of the mom and woman you want to be, welcome. I am Sheryl Gould. And I am so glad that you’re here.

SHERYL:  Welcome back, Dr. Markey. I’m so excited to have you here again on our show.

CHARLOTTE:  Thanks so much for having me.

SHERYL:  I have to thank you for writing your latest book about body image and boys because I cannot express to you how often moms reach out to me and they’re like, “Please, I need help talking to my son, about his weight, about body image issues about exercise. I mean, just everything that you cover in this book is so necessary and so needed. What led you to write this book?

CHARLOTTE: It’s interesting because I think people are often surprised by the book about body image or focus on body image for boys. But when I proposed the girl’s book, which I published a couple of years earlier and was working on that with my editor, she told me right from the beginning; she said, “I understand why you want to look at just girls and then boys, because part of body image development in the tween and teen years is puberty, too.”

So she was very clear that we can’t put this easily all in one book. And she said, “I want a book for boys too.” And so, really, from the get-go, we had a plan. I was really lucky and pleased that people received the girl’s book as well as they have. When I did circle back and say, “Okay, I’m ready to start the next one.” It was a go. So it’s been, it’s been great.

SHERYL:  I love how you co-authored this book with two men. Co-authored, is that how you would say it?

CHARLOTTE:  I definitely wanted to bring some men on board. I feel like our own lived experiences are relevant in discussing some of these issues. I have one of my co-authors, Dan Hart, who is an expert in adolescent development, especially among boys and men. And then the third author, Doug, is younger. I guess he’s about 30. But, really interested in mental health issues and helped us sort of stay grounded.

SHERYL:  What I love is he interviewed a lot of boys for this book.

CHARLOTTE:  Yeah, we both did a lot of the interviews. We wanted to make sure that if boys wanted to talk to a man, we had that option. And if they didn’t care, then I talked to them, usually. But Doug definitely did do some of them.

SHERYL:  So you interviewed them, too? So did you find that they that it was equal? Or were they like, “No, I want to talk to a man.”

CHARLOTTE:  It was pretty equal. Actually, a lot of them said they didn’t really care. And maybe that was because they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. I don’t know. I think sometimes. I’m probably a more maternal figure. I have my own teenagers. Maybe that also had some appeal. Talking to a mom versus another guy about some of this might have felt easier in some cases.

SHERYL:  Yeah. Because one of the things that I love about the book is when it comes to being a mom – most of our listeners are our moms – it’s hard to know how to talk to our sons about these things. And how to get them to open up. How old is your son?

CHARLOTTE:  My son’s almost 17 now. 

SHERYL:  What did he think about you writing this book?

CHARLOTTE: It’s interesting because when I was working on the book for girls, my daughter was really involved. She’s a couple of years younger than him. But she read some of the chapters for me, and she had some ideas, and she didn’t have any issue if I wanted to talk to some of her friends.

And my son definitely wants more boundaries between my work and his life. I do respect that. But there were definitely times when we were working on the cover for the book, and I kept going to him and saying, “What do you think about this one?” And so some things he was into when we picked the illustrator, that piece he was into talking to me about it. I’ve left the book in his room. So I hope maybe you read it.

SHERYL:  He reads it when you’re not looking, and he won’t let you know, chances are.

CHARLOTTE: That’s what I’ve learned through experience as a parent is that oftentimes teenagers feel a little bit embarrassed to express interest in some of these topics. I think that’s completely normal. And one way we can respond to that, as parents, are just to make it easy for them. Leave the book in their room, just to share information, and then it’s there when they need it. These books are meant to be references that are not necessarily the sort of book you just sit down and read from cover to cover. I think you can jump in and out of them pretty easily. 

SHERYL:  I noticed as I was reading it that it is very masculine looking; I can see how that’s important. You want them to have something next to their bedside table if it looks cool and the way that you illustrate it, but I was so fascinated by the personal stories that different boys were sharing. So relevant to what they’re going through. 

I also love the myths and misbelief sections. Those were really helpful, too. I wanted to read about what the myths are and these personal stories that speak to their experiences. One I hear a lot from moms is that they’re concerned because their sons are smaller. And that was even touched on.

CHARLOTTE:  I think that so much of this is the same when we talk about boys and girls. And then there are some distinctions. One of them is that boys want to be bigger and taller and more muscular and masculine. And girls are much more concerned about losing weight or staying a certain way. And so, those are manifestations of body dissatisfaction or self-consciousness. And yet they lead to different behaviors.

SHERYL: Let’s dig into that a little bit because you have a lot of research, everything in the book you based on research of hundreds of 1000s of boys. But what are some of the common struggles and challenges you’re seeing when it comes to body image and boys?

CHARLOTTE:  For boys, there’s a lot of pressure right now. I think social media has definitely contributed to this, with boys feeling like they need to bulk up. And on social media, there are a lot of weightlifting and related eating regimens that boys are exposed to. It’s really accessible information, and it’s not evidence-based. And for the most part, it’s not necessary. 

One of the myths is that boys need more protein or that protein consumption will fuel muscularity. And that’s actually not true that boys and girls don’t really need different amounts of protein. And if you consume more protein than your body can use, you just excrete it. So you don’t store it for muscle building. I don’t even know where that comes from. 

SHERYL:  It seems like just in the last five or ten years has become a much bigger issue. And do you think that’s because of social media?

CHARLOTTE:  I think social media is a big piece of it. We don’t have great data to connect those dots. So I can only say that speculatively. And in terms of the conversations, I’ve had in the last few years with boys. But they’re not buying books and reading them. 

Like weightlifting, they’re just looking at TikTok. I do think that kids, in general, need more evidence-based information that’s really easy and accessible. That’s provided by experts, which is what we’re trying to do with these books because there’s just a lot of inaccurate information on Tik Tok and Instagram.

SHERYL:  Yeah, in so many different areas, too. So how would you define what body image really means? And why is it important to talk about it when it comes to our boys?

CHARLOTTE:  Body image is, at the most basic level, how we think and feel about our bodies. But it really is not a superficial construct. It’s not just about our appearance. It really is. How comfortable are we with ourselves? How do we feel in our own skin, and it has really important consequences for mental health in general, but also health behaviors and interpersonal relationships. It sounds a little bit dramatic, but I often say that body image is related to everything. If you don’t feel good about yourself, then that’s going to drive a whole host of behaviors, it’s going to influence your relationships, and it’s going to really affect your mental health.

SHERYL:  Yeah, how to raise boys that feel confident about who they are0/ And how important that is to our boys. We seem to miss that.

CHARLOTTE:  We want them to be confident with who they are. But not because they look like an action hero necessarily. That shouldn’t be a prerequisite for that confidence.

SHERYL:  Yeah, When you were interviewing the boys, were you surprised by what they were saying?

CHARLOTTE:  I probably shouldn’t have been because I read the literature. I’ve studied these issues for so long. But I was surprised in many ways. I think two things. One is that boys seem to not really have the language to articulate their concerns the way that girls do. So when I talk with girls, even an 11, or 12-year-old girl, once we get going, they know what I’m talking about. When I say body image, they’ll start telling these stories about experiences, and it becomes a fast-paced conversation really quickly. 

And with boys, that doesn’t happen. It starts off very slow. And if I asked them about body image, they’ll typically say, “Oh, I’m fine.” So then you have to try to unearth: how do you eat, tell me about your exercise habits. You have to almost get at it through different questions because they don’t associate that language, which they view as relatively feminine, with themselves. 

They will say, “I don’t have any body image issues,” or “I don’t have any eating issues or anything, I’m good.” And then they’ll go on to tell you about their protein smoothie regimen or their workout regimen, or how they won’t take their shirt off at the pool. And so it’s really interesting that they don’t seem to be able to easily articulate some of what young girls, for better or worse, understand and can talk about. 

Then the other thing that I find really fascinating is that once they do start talking, they start saying things like “I worry about not eating,” “I don’t want to go to the pool,” or “I never take my shirt off,” or “I hate having to change in the locker room.” 

This sounds so much like what girls have been telling me for years. It’s just a variant on the same theme of “I feel self-conscious. I’m trying to change my behavior so that I feel less self-conscious. I don’t really know what to do, and it’s not working.”

SHERYL: I’m fascinated by that, too. I have a son, and he’s in his 20s. He’s older now. But I remember when he and his friends would compare their muscles, or they would compare their six-pack, and they would banter back and forth. And they might make fun of one of the friends that didn’t have a six-pack was soft or something like that. And then they all laughed. 

And reading through the book, I’m thinking, they hide it so well. They wouldn’t show it was upsetting to them, but it’s there. I thought, “Oh, they can banter like that.” But it’s that they’re sensitive inside, and it does impact them, but they’re not going to be as likely to talk about it. 

CHARLOTTE:  I think that’s exactly right. I was really moved a number of times, and in talking with boys, in terms of how sensitive they were. I thought that teenage locker room banter about bodies was not really affecting them quite the same way it might affect girls.

What’s interesting, though, is that I think most girls now are really sensitive to not saying a lot of that. Parents have socialized our daughters better in some ways about “No, you don’t say that, or that doesn’t matter.” They have more insight. And we haven’t been as on top of our sons. I’m guilty as well. Because again, as you said, they don’t seem as affected. So it doesn’t seem like you need to have the conversation.

SHERYL:  Yeah, but it’s there. And that’s another reason that I just want to plug your book again. Because what I love about the book is I think a boy would pick it up by their bedside. And they can read it and know they are not alone. There are other cool guys that are feeling the same way that I’m feeling. 

Because when you don’t talk about it, it can feel very alone. I would love you to touch on this. Boys internalize those messages. What are a few of the messages that you think are our big ones?

CHARLOTTE:  Being strong and stoic is really important. Then we wonder why boys become obsessed with their muscles or lifting weights when they’re 15. Well, we’ve been telling them since they were six to toughen up or walk it off. They’ve been getting these messages for all of their lives practically. That is important that they be strong and tough. And they want to then embody that because cultural messages reinforce anything that we might say at home as well. 

I think that’s really important to consider and think about as we talk with and try to socialize with our boys. I know this seems like a stereotype, but they still really get messages about not talking about their feelings or not sharing their feelings. And like you were saying, I hope that the book serves a role for those boys who feel like they are feeling things that they want to talk to someone about or they want to be able to understand better. 

This is really problematic for both boys’ and men’s mental health, even beyond adolescence, because having good mental health often means thinking through, talking through, and working through problems. We all encounter challenges in life. And if we just completely ignore or suppress them, that doesn’t always go very well.

SHERYL:  And it’s hard on your relationships too.

CHARLOTTE:  Yeah, and so we want our boys to grow up feeling a little more comfortable with their feelings. It’s tough, even if we say it, if their friends aren’t like that, or if other influences in their lives are giving them the signals to stay quiet or to not be emotional. It’s tough.

SHERYL:  Yeah, it is. What are some statistics on how this is impacting our boys? What are some of the statistics that have been on the rise?

CHARLOTTE:  We know that when we look at body dissatisfaction among adolescent girls and boys, it’s almost comparable. So I think that in most studies, girls end up being a little more, but boys are really close. And we see about 60% of boys trying to change their bodies somehow using whether it be exercise or diet or supplements or something like that. 

A growing percent of boys – around 10% say that they’re taking some sort of supplement or even steroids to try to increase their muscularity. So that’s something really to be on the lookout for. Supplements in the United States are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and they often contain ingredients that are not safe for developing bodies.

So, for the most part, we really don’t want our kids to be taking any sort of supplement unless it’s prescribed by a physician for some reason. So we want to be on the lookout for that. And we also see more boys and men that are diagnosed with eating disorders. So about 1/4 to 1/3 of cases of eating disorders are among boys and men.

SHERYL:  Wow, that’s really been on the rise. I’ve heard from a lot of moms that sons have eating disorders, especially since the pandemic. What do you make of that?

CHARLOTTE:  I think there are a few things going on. And one of them may be that all across the pandemic, at various times, been home with each other more. So maybe we’re more aware of some of what’s going on. That could be part of it. 

Part of it, of course, though, is just that the pandemic has had a toll in terms of most of our mental health. It hasn’t been mental health and improving the experience for really anyone. So, the best most of us can do across a pandemic is just maintain the status quo. 

But for a lot of young people whose lives were just really disrupted at a critical juncture in terms of normal developmental tasks, being able to go to school and have more freedom, spending more time with friends or significant others to have all of that fall apart for a group of young people has had real consequences. And so, some of the disruptions are managed by changes in behaviors. 

So some boys maybe were bored or isolated and engaged in more exercise, for example, maybe to give themselves something to do, or something to let them feel more on top of their lives. So it’s not always a young person or any person saying, “I want to have an eating disorder, or I’m really upset about my appearance, and therefore, I want to manipulate it.” Sometimes the behaviors come first, and they become a compulsion, which then really can be diagnosed as an eating disorder.

SHERYL:  Yeah, just feeling out of control during the pandemic, and that’s just one way that maybe I can control something. Would you say that you think that’s true?

CHARLOTTE:  I think all of us felt a little bit lost, especially in the first year. We had no idea really what was going on, what we were in for, or how long it would go on. I think adults have a better sense of perspective. So for many of us, a month of our life, or even a year of our life, doesn’t feel quite so critical. As if you’re starting high school, let’s say, that year feels really important. And even just a few weeks can just feel like so much more important, I think to a young person in terms of disruption to their lives and routines.

SHERYL:  Such a good point. Yeah, there’s so much more at the moment, in many ways. And we have that long-term perspective where they don’t have that as much. Yeah, that’s really good. So how do we begin to open up a little bit of dialogue because that’s where it’s hard to know? How can you relieve some of that? Coach them to relieve some of that pressure.

CHARLOTTE:  I think the first thing we can do is just try to set a pretty good sample when it comes to our own body images, how we treat our own bodies and how we talk about ourselves. So we want to make sure that we’re not being disparaging of ourselves or being really rigid about our own eating behaviors because then we essentially teach our kids that those are reasonable approaches to managing these sorts of concerns, when in truth, usually those are not effective approaches. And they are negative consequences for mental health. 

We want to set a good example, work on our own body image, and work on some self-acceptance for the sake of our kids. And then we also want to ask them a lot of questions, not just Yes, or no questions, because we know how that goes. But try to ask questions about these issues to get them talking. 

And all sorts of touchy topics when it comes to adolescents. And really, any topic can be a touchy topic when you’re talking with your teenager. I think, sometimes there are sort of indirect ways in. I think if you have a kid stuck in the car with you, and you’re driving them somewhere, and there’s a recent news story, or you’ve just listened to this podcast, you can say, “I was just listening to this, and I heard about so and so. And do you know anyone with an eating disorder?” 

You can sort of start a conversation that’s not just about them, per se, that feels a little less personal. And then that’s just a way to start to develop some rapport around a certain topic. Or if you’re watching TV together, and you see some superhero type, Chris Pratt, in whatever Marvel movie he’s in now. You can say, “I read that he has to work out 10 hours a day to get that body. And that seems super unrealistic for anyone who isn’t going to be in a Marvel movie.” 

So you can make sure that they understand that some of what they’re seeing is really unrealistic. So there are some indirect routes I think can be more effective. 

SHERYL:  Yeah, that’s good. Because it’s that whole comparison thing, isn’t it? That was comparing, but then is that really realistic? Is that what we’re holding us our selves to? You can’t work out 10 hours and think that that is the be-all-end-all? How should you look if you’re really macho? 

CHARLOTTE:  I like to tell both kids and adults that so many of the people we compare ourselves to, and it is their job to look good. For most of us, our lives are just full of other things. We don’t have a whole team of people trying to make us look good. And we’re going to school or work or attending to a house and a family or whatever it may be.

We just have more on our plate that will not allow for a 10-hour-a-day gym regimen. I think that we have to keep that in perspective and appreciate that. I really like exercise, but I would not want a 10-hour-a-day gym regimen. A half-hour an hour’s good for most of us. We need that. We as adults sometimes need that perspective, but then we really need to offer it to our kids who don’t have as much life experience.

SHERYL: That’s good. As far as puberty, and talking to them about the changes they’re going through. Do you think that, as moms, that’s appropriate? Sometimes moms think they will let dad talk to him. But sometimes there’s not a dad, or he doesn’t know how to talk about it. Or Dad’s not there. What are your thoughts on that?

CHARLOTTE:  I think it’s great if there’s a dad or some other father figure in boys’ lives that’s comfortable talking about these issues. I definitely have asked my kid’s dad or their stepdad to get involved. I think that they were boys once and so they kind of seem more credible in terms of authority figures about some of these topics. 

But I also think there’s nothing wrong with moms or maternal figures getting involved in a lot of these conversations. A lot of the pubertal changes that boys and girls experience are really not that different. The end result, of course, is pretty wildly different. But there are changes in our skin for all of us going through puberty, changes in our voice, and even that happens for girls, too. It’s just not quite as pronounced. Everyone grows more hair almost everywhere.

A lot of this for moms is not quite as foreign as we might think. And so if you were to read through the puberty chapter and or if you pick up a different puberty book for boys, I think most women will say, “Okay, this looks pretty familiar in a lot of ways.” 

Kids get some of this at school, and it varies pretty considerably in terms of how much information and how evidence-based it is even coming from schools. But that can be a good entree to talking about some of this as well.

If your kids are in a health class, and they’re covering puberty, and you’re looking at their homework, I’ve definitely used that as an excuse to try to insert some more information or to ask them, “do you have any questions about that? Did you guys really cover that? Did you talk about that in school?” I think, too, that parents can find this really awkward. And so it’s fine to joke around a little bit.

SHERYL:  And then be able to just say, “Hey, do you have any questions?” 

CHARLOTTE:  If we can repeatedly say, to our kids, “I’m here for you.” Maybe not even in those exact words, but “I’m here for you. If you have questions, I probably have the answers, or I will help you figure them out.” And warn kids that the answers are not necessarily online, or what you’re going to find online is not always accurate. So, I think that’s really important because that’s a huge difference. 

When I was a kid, we couldn’t go online to look up stuff about puberty. So a lot of the information we had access to had been vetted by some responsible adults. And now, that’s just not the case anymore. And so a kid is, understandably, embarrassed. They want to just go to Google if they have access to a computer, phone, iPad, or whatever. But we want them to know that that’s not always going to be accurate. You should talk to us or a source that is an expert.

SHERYL:  I love that. I think that it’s very important for our listeners to talk with their kids about that. It was making me think about if I google some little ailment I have, and you pull it up and talk about all the different information and how scary it can be and how important it is for our kids to know that they need to go to sources that are at better evidence base that there’s research done. That’s got to drive you crazy.

CHARLOTTE:  Yeah, it’s hard work and health and wellness spaces right now. People have access to so much health information that’s inaccurate, and because people read and they think that they’re experts. You’re only as good as your information. If the information is not good, then you’re actually not an expert. 

I think, too, it’s worth making sure our kids know when they go to a pediatric well visit or if they’re seeing a doctor about anything else. A lot of times, as our kids are going through puberty, your doctor will ask the parent to step out of the room for some of the visits. I usually remind my kids, “I’m going to bring you there. I’ll probably be in the room at first, and then I’m going to leave and if you have questions, you should ask the doctor. This is what they do. There’s nothing off limits or nothing they haven’t heard before. And if they ask you questions or you have questions, you should use that time.” 

I think a lot of kids would be too nervous or self-conscious to do that. But I really hope if we say that enough as parents, then if something serious at least comes up, they feel alright to ask.

SHERYL:  And to trust the process, to step out of the room, it’s really important to know they’re more private, and it’s good to hear it from a be able to ask a doctor some of the questions they feel uncomfortable asking us.

CHARLOTTE: It’s completely developmentally appropriate for there to be some boundaries, actually, as kids are going through puberty. We have to trust our providers that they’re checking things physically, that we can’t check at a certain age, and that kids can then talk with them.

SHERYL:  Well, Dr. Markey, thank you so much, is there any parting words, anything that you want to say to our listeners, or even what your hopes are that boys and parents will get from this book?

CHARLOTTE:  I think it’s just so important that both boys and parents understand that everyone has a body image, body image is relevant to boys, and we want to talk with our boys about appropriate, moderately healthy dietary behaviors and exercise behaviors. So often, when boys have real concerns, what they say they’re doing is trying to get healthy. Or it may appear to adults in their spheres that they’re just exercising more, they’re just skipping dessert. 

It may not, on the surface level, look like a problem until it’s really serious. So we want to listen. If your kid wants to start exercising, that’s great, because exercise is really good for us physically and psychologically. 

But we want to just keep tabs on what’s going on. How compulsive is it? If they skip their best friend’s birthday party because they have to go to the gym, you have a problem then. So we want to not discourage actual behaviors that can contribute to health, but just make sure, especially when it comes to boys, that it’s not getting into extreme or compulsive territory that’s really going to detract from mental and physical health.

SHERYL:  Yeah, that’s helpful. And if a parent starts or a caregiver starts seeing some of these behaviors, what do you recommend? 

CHARLOTTE:  I would first ask questions. Try to have as much of a conversation as you can, and express concern. I think it’s usually better safe than sorry to make an appointment with a provider. And make sure, for the most part, adolescents should not be losing weight; they are growing, especially boys are growing into their 20s. 

Most growth happens before their 20s. But they should not be losing weight, especially boys. And so you want to see your provider and have a weight check, pulse, blood pressure, things like that. Because sometimes there are real physical telltale signs. And it’s just better safe than sorry.

If you have access to a provider, you have reasonable insurance, and it’s just better to check those things out. Because when kids do, or anyone starts to experience an actual eating disorder, treatment is so important in terms of preventing a really long-term chronic disorder. So you know, if you can catch it within the first few months, that just bodes so much better for kids’ long-term health.

SHERYL:  Yeah, so pay attention to those warning signs and then start with going to your primary doctor, make an appointment and have them check them out. Yes, that’s a very good starting place, but don’t just ignore it and hope it’s going to go away.

CHARLOTTE: Don’t we all, as parents, ignore all sorts of things? Nobody worked themselves out. This is a hard job as a parent, but I would definitely say this is not one of the ones to ignore.

SHERYL:  Well, thank you so much. Thank you for this book, Being You, and let our listeners know where they can find you and your book.

CHARLOTTE:  You can just go to https://www.thebodyimagebookforboys.com/. And lots of information about me and the work I do, articles I’ve written, and of course, a link to the book is there.

CHARLOTTE:  Thank you so much. 

SHERYL:  I appreciate your support. Thanks for coming on.