“Males should be tall…have broad shoulders, toned arms, ‘six-pack’ abs, and a small waist.” This, according to The Center on Media and Child Health, characterizes the “ideal male body” being aggressively marketed to boys and young men.
Body image and self-esteem
Of course, promotion of the he-man physique is nothing new. For decades, starting in the 1940s, the once bullied Angelo Siciliano, better known as ‘Charles Atlas,’ marketed his transformation from “scrawny weakling” to “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man,” in order to sell his bodybuilding program. Atlas’s message was overt: If I could turn my string-bean body into pure muscle and no longer be the target of bullies, so can you.
Today, “muscular messaging” is overt and insidious. Via the Internet, television, film, magazines, and countless products, impressionable teens can be targeted pretty much 24/7.
And it’s not just about boys.
“Strong is the new skinny”
Fitspo, characterized in the media as “the new thinspo,” refers to online content girls seeking “fitspiration” can easily create and access via Facebook, Pinterest, and Tumblr. While the objective of these online postings is purported to inspire a fit, active way of life, many fitspo images feature worrisomely thin or overly sexualized bodies most girls could never achieve.
“Strong is the new skinny” is fitspo’s tagline.
Recent research confirms “strong and muscular” trends.
Adolescent muscularity–a new study
The authors of “Muscle-enhancing Behaviors Among Adolescent Girls and Boys,” a study published in Pediatrics in November, found that muscle-enhancing behaviors were common among both boys and girls, and that muscularity is an important component of body satisfaction for both genders. To pluck out a few of the many fascinating (and in these instances, alarming) findings: About 8% of girls and 10% of boys report using protein supplements, and just over 2% of girls and 4% of boys report using steroids.
What can grownups do?
Discouraging boys and girls from embracing unobtainable standards as yardsticks by which they measure their body image is a daunting task, but concerned adults can begin by paying attention, asking questions, talking about body image, and providing wise counsel. Parents might also consider how their own issues with body image might be impacting their kids.
The authors of the muscle-enhancing study in Pediatrics make some specific recommendations, among them:
- Broaden existing body-image programs to address muscularity, as well as thinness
- Explicitly ask adolescents about muscle-enhancing behaviors
- Initiate conversations when conducting sports physicals
- Emphasize moderation in behaviors
- Focus on skill development, fitness, and general health
- Craft messages to ensure they are culturally relevant
Charles Atlas Cartoon, public domain
Strong Is the New Skinny, Tumblr
Bench Press: U.S. Army, public domain