When your son asks, "Am I fat?"
Teen body image

Body image: Not just an issue for girls

When we think about eating disorders in children, we tend to focus on girls. Yet boys have body image issues too. Whether it’s an obsession with body building, losing or gaining weight, the time has come to ensure we pay attention to how boys feel about their bodies.

Teen girls are bombarded with images of the "ideal" body, but what about teen boys? What should you do when your son asks, "Am I fat?"

If you're a mom who has caught your tween or teen son pinching a bit of baby fat on his belly, asking questions about six packs or checking his chest for peach fuzz, you probably don't have anything to worry about. However, boys are definitely thinking about their bodies and may have issues with their looks, just like girls do.

If your son asks if he's fat, or makes comments about wanting to bulk up or even wax, it's time for a talk.

How to talk to your son about body image

Many moms blame the media's portrayal of "ideal" bodies for body image issues, but the media can also be a great place to start the conversation.

"Watch television ads and look at magazine ads with them," says Jackie Price, LMSW, a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders. "Ask them if they think the storefronts outside Hollister and Abercrombie at the mall are silly, or do they really think that is how they should look? Talk about how advertisers use Photoshop to alter ads — those people don't really look like that."

Be extra cautious with older boys

Younger boys may compare their bodies, but in high school, body image issues amp up.

"The obsession with looking body obsessive and feeling attractive starts in high school and carries on into college years," Price explains. "Being attractive might mean thin, six-pack abs, hairless chests, whatever hairstyle is 'in,' the right brand clothes, smelling good, a perfect complexion."

When body image issues become severe

It's human nature to compare bodies, but boys can take body image issues too far.

"Body dysmorphic disorder is a rising diagnosis in the teenage boy population," says Price. "It is an extreme preoccupation with an imagined defect or minor flaw in appearance. They become so preoccupied it can cause distress in their home lives, social relationships and school functioning. Extreme cases might lead to bulimia or exercise bulimia."

The body image crisis in teens >>

What you say about your body

Whether you intend to or not, your body image issues can have a profound effect on your son. Sure, he's a boy and you're a woman, but "fat" or "I wish I looked like so-and-so" cuts both ways.

Learn how your body image plays a big role in your kid's body language >>

Price advises moms to stay positive about not only their sons, but themselves. She says, "Healthy body image and all-around positive self-esteem start with parents who role model their own positive body image and self-worth. Calling yourself fat will trickle down to your child, causing him to feel inadequate."

Bottom line

Be sure to talk to your son about body image. It's not just an issue for girls, and needs to be discussed before it becomes dangerous.

More about body image and eating disorders

Is your son at risk for an eating disorder?
Does society's ideal body image affect the way you see yours?
Anorexia and bulimia: Illnesses or lifestyle choices?

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