Are superheroes and video games affecting boys' body image?

By Naomi Perks on June 17, 2013
Two months before I became pregnant with my son, I defended a Master’s thesis on the representation of masculinity in the media. I had spent the past five years researching how the male body is depicted in the media – everything from magazines to toys – and I discovered some interesting tidbits. Turns out Barbie isn’t the only doll with unnatural dimensions. Did you know that if G.I. Joe were real, his biceps would be 27 inches, a size that is apparently impossible to achieve naturally? Not to mention a washboard stomach that would make even Ryan Gosling envious. Suffice to say that when I discovered I was carrying a baby boy, my search for ‘healthy’ body image toys for boys became a big focus for me.

I remain disheartened by the ubiquity of über male bodies in toys for boys. G.I. Joe, Batman, Superman, Power Rangers and even Rescue Heroes are created with dysmorphic body types. At a recent preschooler Halloween party, I noted not one girl was wearing pink, and only one was dressed as a “princess” sporting the traditional blue Cinderella dress. For the boys, however, superhero was the dominating theme. Towel capes and T-shirts emblazoned with “S” would not suffice. Instead, their costumes were replete with fake six-pack abs, biceps and pecs. Would we let our daughters strut around with fake bums and breasts? Of course not! So I ask you, why is it OK for our boys to strut around in fake muscles?

Much has been written and said about the unhealthy way that girls internalize unrealistic body images, but neither are boys immune to the images they see and the body types they normalize. A 2008 McCreary Centre Society study found that only 19 percent of boys in Grades 7 to 12 reported being satisfied with their body image, while 31 percent of healthy weight boys were trying to gain weight.

These figures suggest that boys want to look like the images they see in their toys and on TV. According to Paul Gallant, an eating disorders researcher in Vancouver, factors contributing to boys with eating disorders include “pressures to fit in at school and an unhappiness with their own bodies” when compared with friends who had the “perfect body.” Sound familiar?

You may be asking yourself, is it really that bad if my son wants to exercise and be healthy? No, but the problem arises when unattainable images, low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction combine to develop into something bigger. It’s when boys start to feel as though they are not good just as they are, or when, as Dr. Takashi Hirata, a primary care physician in the U.S., writes, “when the focus is on conforming to an ideal – not about having a healthy body.”

Eating disorders in boys

What were once thought of as ‘girls’ problems, anorexia and other eating and body image disorders are becoming a growing concern for boys. According to Paul Gallant, one in four people in Canada with eating disorders are male. That doesn’t include those with body image disorders such as “bigorexia”, which primarily affects males. As the name suggests, the sufferer strives to gain more and more muscle rather than to lose weight.

When it comes to eating disorders, boys are subject to several disadvantages compared to girls. According to Hugo Schwyzer, a professor of history and gender studies at Pasadena City College and a former columnist at The Good Men Project Magazine, “boys are not taught to articulate feelings and emotions the way girls are, because to do so would be seen as feminine.”

Further, eating disorders have traditionally been associated with girls, making it more diffi cult for young boys to seek help without fear of being perceived as too feminine. There is also a lack of understanding in the medical profession of identifying and treating males with eating disorders. Paul’s research reveals that some men have been turned away from treatment, told by a doctor that anorexia is a women’s disorder and it’s not the problem.

Though Paul says that in the last five years he has seen increased awareness that males can suffer from eating disorders, he says we are still a long way from being able to adequately assist boys who suffer from these disorders, and there are still health professionals who are not aware that males can be afflicted.

Perhaps most damning is what Hugo calls the “lack of diversity when it comes to desirable male body types found in mainstream media of men.” While in the last few years there has been a growing trend of diversifying the body shapes and sizes of female models (from Spain’s ban on ultra-thin models of the catwalk to Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty”), Hugo notes “there is no such thing as a plus-size male model – all the guys have six-pack abs.”

So, what can we do about it? As with girls, we need to start the dialogue with boys early. Let them know that Batman is a character. Hugo recommends fi nding local heroes that your child can associate with and see that their body is ‘normal’.

It is impossible to shield your little boy from all those body images that are unattainable and unhealthy. Your son will come into contact with all sorts of media images you may not approve of. When my son was three I didn’t think super heroes were appropriate, but that didn’t stop him from playing “Spider-Man” and “Iron Man”. He picked it up from kids at the daycare, the playground and friends’ houses. Hugo suggests that rather than trying to play gatekeeper, parents need to be allies. “Don’t forbid; engage,” he says. Talk to your kids. Find out what they like about a certain action hero.

“When there is a gatekeeper, a child will look for ways to get around it, and they will still be bombarded with it. Then when they do encounter the destructive messages in the media, they encounter it secretively, and without a safe adult to talk to about it.” If you are an ally, on the other hand, your child will turn to you to discuss what they are seeing.

When it comes to talking to your son about what a normal and healthy body type is, Kym Stewart, a PhD candidate in the Simon Fraser University Faculty of Education in Vancouver says, “the more diversity they see the more children won’t take one ‘way’ as natural.” A diet of only superheroes and princesses is sure to give your child a warped sense of what they should aspire to. Visit the library or talk to your school or daycare to see what other age appropriate books or TV your child may enjoy.

Encourage media literacy

It is important to remain engaged with your child when he is watching TV, says Kym. She recommends sitting with your children and even “talking back” to the TV and discussing what is being viewed. And don’t forget the commercials and product placements. Comments like “remember when we tried that dish soap – it sure didn’t work like that!” help show young children the difference between the real world and the make believe world found on the TV.

Says Kym, “These little conversations help children pick apart the message and provide a role model who values talking back and critiquing what is seen on TV.” It is never too early to start discussions like this and they need not only be around the topic of body image. Teaching children to be media literate involves teaching them to think critically about everything they encounter.

The images and messages children encounter in their daily lives are not innocuous. They can have very real and dangerous repercussions if left unchecked. But banning certain toys or programs may not be the right approach. Instead, engaging with our children and teaching them not to take everything they see at face value can help mitigate any potentially damaging effects. Open and frank discussions with your child can help teach them healthy habits. It may just be what saves them from comparing themselves to the unattainable images they view daily.

I still don’t like the idea of my son dressing up as a six-pack adorned Batman, however I do understand the importance of respecting his likes and fi nding a happy medium – respecting him enough to talk about the toys and superheroes he likes and fi nding ways to remind him that muscles don’t make the hero, but kind and brave actions do.

Is your son at risk of an eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating?

Watch for:
  • Negative comments about his own body or comparing his body to someone else’s
  • Sudden changes in appetite, such as eating less
  • Fluctuations in his weight
  • Frequently weighs himself
  • Over-exercises or is obsessed with building muscle
  • Anxiety, depression or mood swings
  • Social withdrawal

Signs of "bigorexia":
  • Distorted self image
  • Misses social events, skips school or work and cancels plans with family/friends to workout
  • Never satisfied with the muscular mass of his body
  • Maintains a strict, high-protein and low-fat diet
  • Uses excessive amounts of food supplements
  • Frequently looks at himself in the mirror
  • Steroid abuse
  • Avoids situations where his body might be exposed
  • Works out, despite an injury
  • Maintains extreme workout methods

Naomi Perks is a writer based in New Westminster, B.C. She is doing her best to keep her six- and four-year-old out of the clutches of Batman and Barbie (to name a few).

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, July 2013.

By Naomi Perks| June 17, 2013

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