The Beauty Myth for Boys

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As long as I have been a pediatrician, boys have told me — usually in not so many words — that they feel the exact same body pressures girls do, just in different directions. This body-sense emerges earlier than we might expect thanks to the younger onset of puberty, which has moved squarely into the elementary school years, yes for both boys and girls. The difference is that female body changes tend to be obvious from the start; not so for the male ones.

Naomi Wolf’s 1991 book “The Beauty Myth” claims that efforts to be thin and pretty undermine women. But one of the biggest myths about the beauty myth is that it’s female. Boys suffer from unrealistic beauty standards, too, and the problem starts early.

In the tween years, as puberty begins and testosterone starts to surge, boys generally don’t notice much of anything happening to their bodies. At least nothing outwardly visible. Fair enough, because it will take years for this hormone to transform them into men. What they do notice is the endless parade of perfect male imagery in front of them, across screens and billboards and magazine pages, too: broad shoulders beneath chiseled jawlines; six-pack abs above bulging genitals hiding beneath tight shorts or underpants. And those who have viewed porn (that would be half of all boys finishing middle school, maybe more, depending upon the study you read) see extra large examples of manliness.

Despite the omnipresence of these images, multiplied by professional athletes, superheroes and gaming avatars, it’s a lot to ask a tween or teen boy to share feelings around body goals. That’s because when guys enter puberty, they also tend to get quiet. The connection between surging testosterone and shrinking sentence length among boys has never been studied — at least as far as I can tell, and I have scoured the literature — but it’s a phenomenon almost every parent of a boy comments upon at some point.

When I say they get quiet, I don’t mean that you’ll never see a group of rowdy, noisy teenage boys. And I don’t mean that boys don’t confide in friends or parents or other trusted sources. What I mean is that the volume of their communication — especially their emotional communication — tends to be relatively muted. Particularly when it comes to their parents.

When girls grow up, they often find their voices, these days generally with the whole world cheering them on. Certainly not all girls grab this microphone to engage in chattiness, and even the ones who do in some arenas may not in others. Case in point: all the research documenting lack of female participation in the classroom — even as girls tend to shine academically. But in almost every other corner of life, you’ll hear today’s young girls talking about everything from body shifts to relationships in ways you never would have heard a generation or more ago.

When boys grow up, the pattern looks different. It’s not that boys’ brains aren’t packed with deep thoughts or that their emotions don’t ride similar roller coasters to girls’. They are and they do. But one of the earliest features of boys’ puberty is a swing toward silence, retreating from conversation, many literally shutting the door.

A boy’s voice quiets right around the same time that he is cluelessly steeped in his own body odor, his face may be speckled with pimples or he could be sprouting hair from his upper lip to his lower legs. If the adults around him anticipate silence as part of the puberty rite of passage, they may be setting a pattern in place without realizing it.

When we consistently respect our sons’ closed doors in order to give them space and privacy, we also deny them conversation. Over the long haul, this teaches them to manage life with silence rather than talk. Eventually, parents can find it impossible to crack the door open, at least figuratively.

I have come to believe that while girl puberty has evolved into a celebration of body changes and periods and tackling notions of physical perfection, boy puberty has been left in the dust. I am happy for the girls who get to go through their puberty openly and authentically, or at the very least with words to articulate their experiences. That wasn’t what it was like when I was growing up. But the male experience hasn’t kept pace, partly because our culture has defined many puberty-adjacent “issues” — especially body image issues — as female. It doesn’t help that guys naturally turn toward monosyllables.

Many thoughtful researchers have offered up data about male body dysmorphia, showing that body image concerns and eating disorders alike are basically gender neutral. We need to call out the disconnect between ideal health and ideal physique for boys, something we have done for females for many years now. We should be talking openly about boys’ bodies, about their emotions and about male stereotypes, ideally before they begin to transform but continuing afterward — because it’s never too late to empower our children with language.

And boys must be part of this conversation. How? One of the easiest ways to start is by asking them questions: about their experiences as emerging men in a culture often saturated with toxic masculinity; about their knowledge of what’s actually happening to their changing bodies; about the pressures associated with body goals; about a scene they just saw in a show or an article they just read about a favorite athlete. Start asking about qualities in men that point to character over physique.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter all that much how we do the asking, so long as we balance offering them privacy with putting some kind of wedge in the closing door. The key to raising boys begins with dialogue.

Cara Natterson is a pediatrician and author, most recently, of the forthcoming book “Decoding Boys: New Science Behind the Subtle Art of Raising Sons.”