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Body-Shaming: It's Not Just for Girls

Captain America can be just as harmful as Barbie

I first noticed it around the holidays. I said something to my husband about the season tipping the scale in the wrong direction; I probably examined my profile in the mirror and made a face. He sighed and said something about getting back to good habits in January (famous last words). He probably patted his stomach as a promise of better behavior to come. Our son frowned at his belly. “Mom,” he asked, “am I fat?”

What? I had been so smugly sure that I didn’t have to worry about body image — I had boys. Girls were the ones you had to watch yourself around: no fat talk, no rolling of the eyes when a waistband refused to close, no pinching of inches. No deleting photos because they were unflattering. No wistful comments about the abs that once were mine. I didn’t have girls though, so I was safe. Right? Apparently not. My boys, it seemed, were watching just as closely.

Around the same time, my other son had joined an after-school running program. The coach talked a lot about good eating habits. I thought this was great — maybe he’d eat more vegetables. But what he internalized was her anti-sugar crusade. “How much sugar is in this?” he asked constantly. “How many calories? Coach says we shouldn’t eat sugar or too many calories.” He was seven.

I see now how naive it was of me to assume that boys were somehow immune from body-image anxiety — and how clueless I was to think that they didn’t register their father’s and my habits. I exercise and eat reasonably healthily, but I’m also aware of how weight clings now in ways it didn’t used to, and I probably dwell on it more than I should. My husband has an ongoing cycle of gain and loss, followed by a dive into Atkins when he’s focused on a goal (like an upcoming beach vacation).

I began to notice one son pinching his own waist and the other commenting that his pants didn’t fit because he’d gained weight. “Yes,” I told him, “but you’re growing. You’ve gotten taller and heavier. Gaining weight isn’t bad.”

He eyed me skeptically. “You and dad think it is.”

“Dad and I aren’t growing anymore," I explained. "At least, not vertically. When we gain weight, it’s not fuel. It’s just sitting there.”

I think he got that. At least, he stopped slouching around to see how far his stomach would stick out.

I always knew that if I had girls, it would be important to talk about the unrealistic representations of women on TV or in the pages of magazines. But what I realize now is that just as Barbie represents an unattainable physical ideal, so too does Captain America. How is the super-buff body of a superhero any less harmful to a child's developing sense of himself than the curvy-yet-attenuated body of the glamazon? Why wouldn’t boys be as sensitive to that message? My heart ached. I love my sons' bodies — my eldest's shoulders that are starting to broaden out, the younger one’s belly that still has the sweet childish roundness; it never occurred to me that they would not love their bodies as I do. My own mother probably thought the exact same thing.

So, what now? Well, I can set as positive an example as possible and teach them that it’s OK to indulge in moderation and with enjoyment. I can continue to run, knowing that it makes me strong in my body and my mind and show them that health is about more than the size of one's waist. I can provide counter-programming to the images that bombard us so they lose some of their power to intimidate. And I can keep telling my boys, every day — even when they pull away, roll their eyes, beg me to stop — just how beautiful they truly are.

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