A Body Of Evidence

31st October 2014

Spending hours alone in their bedrooms, staring in the mirror… heading to the gym every day… replacing meals with ‘nutritional drinks’… obsessing over the style, looks and body of celebrity icons…

It’s not just teenage girls who do this.

Boys are increasingly worried about their image, too, as Heather Harris discovers.

Traditionally ‘does my bum look big in this?’ was a question posed by females (and didn’t usually require a truthful answer). But recently such queries regarding body image have been asked increasingly by males. And it’s not just the Gok Wan fans with a back catalogue of GQ Magazines and a season ticket to London Fashion Week that want to know: your everyday schoolboy is worrying too.

According to a recent survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, ‘Boys are under almost as much pressure as girls to have the ‘perfect’ body and appearance’.’ Of the 700 UK education professionals questioned, two thirds thought that there was a pressure on young boys to have or maintain a certain body image. Worryingly, nearly the same number felt that there is now more pressure on youngsters to look a certain way than there was ten years ago and just over half said that this had increased in comparison to just five years ago.

As a mother of teenage boys, aged 14 and 17, I can confirm that their respective bedrooms are a small scale illustration of these findings. Both nests are equally hazardous to enter but whilst the latter has the odd electric razor and deodorant discarded amongst the mountain of assorted clothes from a range of outlets, the habitat of the former contains the all-important hair gel (historically the proviso of mature men with a combover to secure), body wash, moisturiser (he calls it ‘spot cream’, for fear of sibling ridicule) and a pile of TopMan’s finest apparel (lack of disposable income denying him any of the more upmarket labels that he openly covets).

Arguably this greater concern with image could simply be in his genes (skinny with button fly, of course) were it not for the fact that my boys’ respective friends tend to share their concern or lack of it.

A fellow parent agrees. “My older son barely ever showered, let alone knew the name of a body wash, but I notice my younger son’s friends arrive for a sleepover armed with a wash bag filled with their favourite branded products!”

Boots were unable to give sales figures for this younger male market, but were happy to acknowledge that it is no longer unacceptable for a schoolboy to be seen perusing their shelves – presumably for fear of being left on one himself. And the clear-skinned boffins at market research company Mintel recently announced that ‘new statistics reveal that beauty and personal care launches specifically targeted at men have increased globally by 70% over the past six years.’

This sweet smell of economic success does however have its less attractive side. Wanting to look good is a trait to be encouraged in all young people, but there is a growing danger that it can go beyond the acceptable and into the obsessional.

The unhealthy desire to adhere to a certain body image is a much discussed subject amongst medical, teaching and parent groups but until recently the emphasis has been very much on young girls. However, a 2011 study by the NHS found that hospital admissions for male patients with eating disorders have risen by two thirds since 2001.

A mother of three boys ranging in age from 14 to 19 recently told me of her concern for her middle son. “He stopped eating overnight when his school friends called him ‘chubby’. He simply had a round face but image is hugely important to boys and the whole thing can be very destructive. It’s not out in the open so much, so they suffer silently.”

Julia Taylor, a school counsellor and author of Perfectly You, echoes this. At a school Body Awareness Event she noticed that boys didn’t want to even go near her table – but when she left for a few moments, “They would come back, fold up a pamphlet and quickly put it in their pocket.”

Julia feels strongly that the treatment for eating disorders should differ between the sexes as are there are often distinct differences in motive. When questioned, both male and female sufferers pointed to pressure to adhere to celebrity images. However, whereas girls aimed at size zero, it is the figure six that is increasingly preoccupying the boys.

“There are concerns that boys – some as young as 10 – are becoming obsessed with building a muscular physique – a six pack,” the NHS report revealed, adding that this is thought to be related to changes in how muscular male sex symbols have become over recent years.

James Sexton, Manager at the Sportspace leisure centre in Hemel Hempstead, confirms this. “In the past two years the amount of young boys using our Junior Gym has increased hugely, with the sessions for 12-15 year olds fully booked.”

The mere thought of entering a gym never entered mine or my friends’ heads when we were teenagers – we were far too busy hanging around street corners and falling out of trees. And there was certainly never the need to build a separate gym specifically for youngsters.

“This facility is supervised at all times with cardio machine and light weights specifically designed for the younger age group, for example,” says James. “They are not ‘bench pressing’ heavy weights as this can do more harm than good. From about the age of 13 we notice they really want to get the muscular look.”

What James does find frustrating is that the teenagers who come to the gym are already fit and doing sport. “What we want to do is to encourage those teenagers who never do any exercise to join us. This is the real challenge”.

Similarly, the gym at the Berkhamsted Fitness Room is popular with schoolchildren from Year Nine upwards and they too report an increase in the number of 14 year olds wanting to develop their physique. Again, the boys are given a set workout programme and usage is strictly monitored. They are also given advice on nutrition as – unlike the majority of girls – most boys are just as worried about being too thin as too fat.

“Over 30% of teachers have seen boys who are prone to excessive exercise regimes and 22% said they knew pupils who used protein shakes and supplements to improve their physique,” reported the Association of Teachers study.

Certainly my younger son and his friends have all gone through a phase of experimenting with protein shakes – until told not to by their school sports teacher. And another friend told me, “My 15 year-old son was spending all his lunch money on protein shakes, thinking they were a health drink and more likely to give him a six pack quickly than eating real food. He was addicted.”

And he is not alone. The problem has reached such a level that the British Dietetic Association has also declared its concern. Its spokesperson, Aisling Pigott, says, “The sale of sports supplements, particularly recovery and protein shakes, is a rapidly growing industry with questionable ethics.”

There has been an upward trend of sports supplements designed for elite athletes being marketed towards recreational exercisers, she explains. Marketing techniques, advertising campaigns and sponsored athletes often target young adults and teenagers, preying on insecurities and the idolisation. “As a general rule,” she continues, “sports supplements are not recommended for under 18s and in most cases are an unnecessary and costly product inferior to a healthy balanced diet.”

She also points out that supermarkets are now moving protein shakes away from their sports drinks section and into their main chiller cabinet alongside milk shakes and smoothies. This further encourages their incorrect image as a healthy alternative for a growing boy or girl.

In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Nutrition reported that children who take energy drinks can pile on the pounds because they are not actually active enough to burn off the extra calories. Youngsters should quench their thirst with water, ‘and drink the recommended daily amount of fruit juice and low-fat milk with meals’.

They also warned of another hidden problem with energy drinks: caffeine, which can be pressent in toxic levels, and has been linked to seizures, diabetes, heart problems and behavioural disorders.

Clearly, unless female celebrities are suddenly celebrated for their intellect and their curves, and males for their slightly flabby tummies and slender arms and legs, this problem of the unattainable body image is not going to disappear.

As Julia Taylor says, “Parents, teachers and counsellors need to be more aware of the prevalence of body image issues among boys – as well as girls – and not wait for them to openly seek help. Boys need educational materials delivered in a way that they can access privately away from the eyes of their peers.”
A teacher in a secondary academy in Wandsworth, London recently told BBC News, “I find that boys who are shorter than their peers are extremely sensitive and this manifests itself in disruptive behaviour or they are very withdrawn.”

In March last year, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image did take action. It recommended that all children took part in compulsory body image and self esteem classes as part of their regular PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) lessons.

Also the Central YMCA Qualification has announced plans for a UK qualification in body image. The award – which is currently being approved by the exam regulator, Ofqual – will be rolled out in secondary schools and cover topics include the media, self-esteem, diet and exercise.

Let’s just hope that those in charge have the muscle to really push these plans through and not shrink away from this issue faster than the waistlines of many of our teenagers for generations to come.

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