Promoting a Healthy Body Image

By Andrew Trozzi, Middle School Faculty
Any boy who has played with a Batman or Spiderman action figure has been exposed to a toy of a male hero who possesses a hyper-muscular physique. In fact, if these toy’s dimensions were to scale, Batman’s biceps would be the same size as his waist. It is this type of unrealistic notion of the male body that garners admiration and respect from others, argues Dr. Roberto Olivardia, and has led many boys to develop an unhealthy obsession with the muscularity of their body and, ultimately, a harmful body image.
So, what is body image? Dr. Olivardia explained in his February 2024 IBSC webinar entitled, Body Image in Boys: What You Need to Know, that body image differs from appearance. Appearance refers to concrete objectives about your body, i.e. you have brown hair or are 6 feet tall. Body image deals specifically with your perception of your body, how you feel towards it and how you think others feel towards your appearance.

Historically, the male body was valued for what it could do with regard to physical work. But starting around the 1980s, movies, toys, and advertisements began to place high importance on the muscular male physique and appearance. With the rise of shirtless heroes such as Rambo and Conan the Barbarian, advertisers and the media were quick to capitalize on boys, which led to dissatisfaction with their appearance. Today, fitness influencers and social media only add to boys' pressure to look muscular and, thus, manly. A recent study found that the overwhelming majority of men surveyed said that if they had 25 lbs more muscle, women would view them as more desirable. This points to a strong connection society has made between muscularity, desirability,  and sexual virility and, in turn, the confidence that these traits can inspire. 

As educators, we can provide helpful guidance to the boys in our care by reminding them that there is nothing wrong in wanting to look good, as long as that doesn’t become the main focus of their identity. We can encourage them to see exercise as a way to increase their fitness and overall health rather than a means to an unrealistic body image. We must be attentive to the boys’ perception of their bodies, observing whether or not they obsess about their bodies or use negative self-talk, which can reveal serious self-esteem issues. 
Finally, Dr. Olivardia suggested we can help boys develop a healthy view of their body by promoting exercise as a way to feel good and to exercise because you love your body, not because you hate it.