‘Tough’ boys not immune to the body image battle

Border Mail Column Wednesday 18 January 2012

‘What are little boys made of? “Slugs and snails and puppy dog’s tails”, so the familiar nursery rhyme goes.

But, according to a study into boys’ attitudes to masculinity, little boys as young as five believe they also should be made of muscles of the six-pack variety and hairless chests.

There are also studies showing adolescents and men in their early twenties are putting their lives at risk to achieve the “perfect body”.

Flinders University sport, health and physical education professor Murray Drummond began his study into boys’ attitudes to masculinity four years ago when he first interviewed 34 five-year olds.

He has interviewed them each year and plans to continue the study into their adolescence.

Professor Drummond told The Australian it was “alarming how early children were thinking about their physical appearance” and that body image was an “increasingly worrying factor”.

Also of concern was that the boys believed they could beat girls; beliefs Professor Drummond believes reinforce gender stereotypes and he has called for more discussion with children at a younger age about these issues.

He identified a “ ‘subtle undercurrent’ of pressure on prepubescent boys to be toned or have bulging muscles”.

His findings in this group reinforce those from his earlier research over a ten-year period with males from adolescents to those in their 70s.

In his paper “Men’s Bodies and the Meaning of Masculinity” Drummond says words such as “muscular”, “strong”, “powerful” and “athletic” were synonymous with masculinity.

Drummond notes it is more difficult for men to achieve the “archetypal” view of the male portrayed in the media today.

“One only has to look at the original Cleo magazine centrefold to see a naked, hairy Jack Thompson which is in stark contrast to the men that adorn the magazine in the contemporary Cleo Bachelor of the Year Competition.”

But there can be devastating consequences in the pursuit of the perfect body.

US clinical psychologist, Dr Stuart Murray who recently completed his PhD into muscle dysmorphia and body image believes there is a clear link between images young men see in the media, including the Internet, and their quest to attain a body the same as those they see.

Most concerning is that some of these images are presented as cartoon caricatures with unachievable proportions of muscle mass which can contribute to a condition termed “manorexia” that when taken to the extreme can result in death.

Further evidence of the preoccupation of young people with body image is provided in the results from Mission Australia’s latest National Survey of Young Australians involving more than 50,000 young people aged 11-14.

The survey found body image was one of the top three concerns for 34 per cent of girls, 27.4 per cent of boys and should be a priority area for action.

The survey report notes that many of the respondents, especially those in the young adult group “may have missed out on strategies more recently developed and implemented in schools to help young people develop a healthy body image.

“Initiatives such as those that promote young people’s media literacy and self esteem were identified by young people as being important, with a stronger focus on young adults appearing warranted.

“Continued efforts to urge the media, fashion and advertising industries to help promote positive body messages are also recommended.”

But it is the messages that come from home that could hold the key to ensuring children, male and female, develop a healthy perspective about their bodies.

With Professor Drummond’s research finding a very early awareness of body image it’s never too soon to start that conversation.

To read Verity Edwards article in The Australian click here.

Professor Murray Drummonds paper,  Men’s Bodies and the Meaning of Masculinity’ can be found here.

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About Robyne Young

Writer, creative writing teacher, editor, columnist. Literary lover. Short story collections, The Only Constant and The Basket and the Briefcase available via website.
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