How To Talk To Your Son About His Body

Spring 1950

Eating disorders are on the rise in teenage boys, and parents need to rethink how we talk to our boys about their bodies. Anne Theriault offers 24 helpful ideas.

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I loved this post on how to talk to your daughter about her body, and I wanted to create something similar for parents of boys. My friend Nathan and I put this list together, and would love to hear your input.

 

How to talk to your son about his body, step one: Talk to your son about his body. Give him the vocabulary that he needs to communicate how he feels about himself.

Teach him that it’s normal to think about his appearance.

Teach him that it’s fine to want to be handsome or pretty.

Teach him that being a boy doesn’t take away his right to have feelings about his body.

If your son tells you that he is unhappy because he is too fat or too skinny, don’t dismiss him. Don’t tell him that boys don’t have to worry about stuff like that. Don’t tell him that he’s lucky that he’s not a girl, because then it would really be a problem.

Listen to him – really listen – and keep your opinions about his appearance to yourself. Don’t tell him that you’ll help him lose weight. Don’t tell him that he’ll bulk up when he gets older. Just listen, and encourage him to explain how and why he feels that way.

If your son is older, talk to him about male bodies in the media. Ask him what he thinks of the storefronts for Hollister or Abercrombie and Fitch; ask him if he thinks that images represent how he thinks men should look. Talk about the fact that Photoshop is used to alter images of boys as well as those of girls.

Don’t make jokes about your son’s weight. In fact, don’t make any comments about his weight. Don’t talk about how funny it is that he was so skinny as a little kid and now he’s not. Don’t poke him in the side and tell him that his ribs stick out. Don’t sigh enviously over how thin he is.

Don’t assume that you can talk about your son’s body any differently than you talk about your daughter’s.

If you notice that your son is gaining or losing weight, remember that these can be signs of depression. Without asking leading questions or otherwise being obvious about it, try to get some insight into how your son is feeling. Be sensitive to the fact that if you’ve noticed a change in your son’s weight, chances are good that he’s very much aware of it and may feel ashamed or embarrassed.

If you notice that your son is rapidly losing weight, seems to be trying to limit what he eats, or is otherwise occupied with the idea that he is fat, remember that eating disorders are on the rise among teenage boys. If you suspect that your son might have an eating disorder, don’t try to “fix” him by telling him that his body is fine and he has nothing to worry about. Eating disorders are serious, and if you have are concerned that your son might have one, you should contact your pediatrician immediately.

Don’t comment on other men’s bodies – neither positively nor negatively. Don’t communicate an idealized version of masculine beauty, and don’t run other men down. And for the love of God don’t make jokes about hair loss, or say that you don’t find bald men attractive. Don’t make jokes about short men. Don’t make jokes about body hair. Don’t make jokes about penis size. Seriously. Those things aren’t funny.

Don’t make negative comments about your own body. Don’t let him overhear you calling yourself fat, or saying that you should go on a diet. He will learn to love and accept his body by watching how you treat yours. Always remember that he will take his cues on body acceptance from you.

Teach your son to be kind to himself.

Teach him to be kind to other people.

Teach your son that his body is good for all kinds of things – dancing, sports, digging in the dirt, yoga, gymnastics, figure skating, or even just sitting quietly and thinking.

Teach him to move his body in lots of different ways, from lifting big rocks to spinning pirouettes, because those things are fun and they feel good. Teach him to stretch and touch his toes because this will help keep his muscles flexible and elastic. Teach him to do cartwheels because there is no greater expression of joy. Teach him to lie in a patch of sunlight and dive into a good book.

Don’t teach your son about “good” foods and “bad” foods, because food shouldn’t be subject to moral judgment. Instead, teach him about foods that will fill him up and give him energy versus foods that will leave him feeling unsatisfied and cranky an hour later. Teach him that candy and desserts are great, but that they won’t give him the drive he needs to get through the day.

Teach your son to cook. Teach him to cook anything and everything – scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, tooth-achingly rich chocolate cake. Teach him how to sauté vegetables and whisk egg whites.

Prove to your son that he doesn’t need a woman to cook for him.

Prove to him that there is no such thing as a “girly” interest or hobby.

Teach your son that people come in all different shapes and sizes. Teach him that there is no one specific way that he, as a boy, should look or act – his appearance and his interests are perfect because he is perfect. But teach him, too, that there is nothing bad or shameful about feeling uncomfortable with his body. Teach him that there is nothing wrong with wanting to talk about his body, or wanting to find ways to feel happier in his body.

Teach him that you’re there to listen.

Teach him that he’s not alone.

 

Originally appeared at The Belle Jar

 

Lead photo: Flickr/ROBERT HUFFSTUTTER

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About Anne Theriault

Anne Theriault lives in Toronto with her husband and young son. She spends her days teaching yoga, reading in cafés, and trying to figure out how to negotiate in toddler-ese.

Comments

  1. THANK YOU! I have a 12 year old who went from that skinny kid to the chunky kid when he entered grade school. As someone who struggles with her own weight and body image, I struggle with how to help my son accept himself and feel empowered about his body and his life.

  2. Veronica Grace says:

    Thank you that is beautiful. There are several things I will take from that for how I talk to my sons about their bodies.

    I have to disagree on the food thing though. There are healthy foods and unhealthy foods and I don’t think it’s responsible to not talk about that explicitly. When we talk about it we make sure to talk about how it affects your body’s health and how you feel, not how you look. Of course we can’t just talk about it, our whole family eats healthy food together. Not because we need to lose weight, but because it makes us feel good and is good for the earth.

    • Making it about virtue can cause guilt and such, good and bad are such loaded words.

    • GirlGlad4TheGMP says:

      What about teaching your children about moderation in conjunction with healthy foods? Just because you say something is bad or good, it doesn’t mean they might want it any less. It also sets them up to binge later in life.

      When I was a kid, my parents sent me to school with only healthy foods, we only ate healthy foods in the house, except on a Friday night McDonald’s “splurge” where we could choose one unhealthy thing. Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate all of the healthy habits I’ve carried into adulthood, but NOT having the bad things I occasionally wanted drove me to eat them later in life when I didn’t rely on a parent to acquire them, nor to watch my intake. I should also note, even with healthy foods we never discussed portion control.
      When I got my first job, and when I moved away for university, I ate the bad foods until I was sick!!! Pudding, chocolate cake, fried foods…if I didn’t get it as a kid, you would be damn sure I’d eat them in my young adult freedom. While I was still young and was able to keep trim, it did nothing to teach me balance…I had the healthy old foods which I loved, and these yummy new “bad” foods which I was not going to let go of now that I had them. As I graduated, got a real job and transitioned into my later 20’s, I began to gain weight. More and more the pounds packed on, and I’d try every near-starvation diet to get back to slender, only to be thwarted by binges after deprivation. I lost and gained repeatedly. Finally, I realized that while what I ate wasn’t necessarily the problem (as my cupboards were always packed with ‘good’ foods and I ate sugary/fatty things only when eating out), but the varying degrees to which I ate them, so I found a way to balance it all out. Seemingly healthy foods in larger quantities are unhealthier than small quantities of foods not so nutritionally sound. I used an app that not only tracked my caloric intake versus output, but took a look at the broader macrobiotic content of the foods so I could learn to feed all parts of my body, not just my palette. I lost the weight. I still enjoy my food, I just know what my limits are. Instead of eating a whole cup of gelato, I’ll share one with a friend while we go for a walk. Instead of getting a big piece of meat with all of fixings, I’ll eat a leaner cut with a side salad. If I know I’m taking a day off from my exercise routine, I’ll eat less of my meals than I planned. Same meals, just a bit less.
      In short, had I been taught the wonders of moderation in ALL foods from the get-go, things would have been different for me. My parents had a theoretically sound approach to eating in general, they were just missing a few extra steps…which in my adulthood, we have learned together.

  3. I’m going to teach my sons (should I have a son/sons) that everybody is the most beautiful person in the world to somebody. I will teach them their nerdy slender effete dad is what I’m into, that pudgy people are what some people are into, some people like muscles, some people like beards some people like all sorts of things.

  4. oh thank you for this! thank you for leading the activity list with dancing, and for emphasizing that there are no “girly” activities. and thank you for reminding me of the pitfalls all of our children face in trying to form a healthy body image. thank you.

  5. Tell him that men bodies are beautiful, the “women bodies are works of art and men bodies are just a tool” is a myth, and yes, straight women find men bodies sexy, attractive, arousing, in all of their body type and shape.

  6. outofminutes says:

    Beautiful. My son, from an early age, has been beautiful or pretty to many. And this wasn’t wrong to me. He was a pretty baby with red hair and large blue eyes. No matter how I dressed him, people often approached us assuming he was a girl. I was not offended, he was pretty. Still is. He’s just a bit more of a boy about it now.

    As a single mom I am very conscious of what I say and what is said around him. I never talk negatively about my body (even if I am feeling that way) in front of him. It is as important to our sons as to our daughters that they see parents –both parents — as body positive about themselves and others.

    I am reminded of something I saw on Reddit (reddit/r/loseit) where a father talked about slowing down the car so his son could call out encouragement to an overweight man running. That is what society needs. That is what our children need to appreciate –people trying, people working hard, learning to support others. Because no one is born with the muscles of Dwayne Johnson. Everyone has to start from somewhere. We all forget that at some point.

    My son loves Catpain Ds (we’re in the South) and I take him there as a special treat, and I also explain how we can’t go there all the time or even every week. I love going to Captain Ds and getting fish and fries (yes, all fried and all greasy). And I still love it. But I go when I really have a craving. But you know what. I also love sauteed kale, and spinach, and eggs and raw almonds. And red wine. Oh, and mushrooms and grilled asparagus and grilled salmon.

    And my son loves blueberries, he would eat his weight in them every day if I left him. And applesauce, and “cutie” oranges, and he likes raw sugar snap peas. Sure, he likes chicken nuggets and chocolate pudding. It’s a balance and a sense of self that we need to teach.

    So, everyone can dance, and should. Everyone should eat salad. We should appreciate people for trying hard to be healthy and applaud them for that instead of finding reasons to ridicule. So today, I played the (muted) drums at school while my son and another child played something loud and banging and his teacher –well, we all – sang the Frozen song out loud and moved to the music and had fun. The music really sucked, but we had fun.

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