New Challenges for Our Boys

Matt Westbrook | Jun 23, 2005

Take a look at these images:

The one on the left is a 1960’s Superman action figure. The one on the right is the 2005 version of the comic character.

If you had to use one word or phrase to describe the difference between the two portrayals of these characters, what would it be? Let me suggest a few of my own:

  • Hyper-muscular
  • Unrealistic
  • Steroids

So what happened to Superman in 40 years? Even the cape of the 2000 version is more muscular! How did he go from looking like Clay Aiken in tights to someone that makes even the heroes of Major League Baseball stop and say “Whoa”?

That’s exactly what a team of researchers wanted to know. [[Pope, HH, Olivardia, R, Gruber, A and Borowiecki, J. 1999. Evolving ideals of male body image as seen through action toys. International Journal of Eating Disorders 26:65-72.]] They analyzed male action toys for the past 30 years to see if there had been a cultural shift in norms and attitudes for the male body. What they found - given the pictures above - was not terribly surprising: the ideals represented by these action figures have increased greatly over time with toys in the last few years surpassing even the muscularity of top body builders.

You have likely also heard of the recent steroids scandal in Major League Baseball. The scandal has tainted baseball yet again and some of the best hitters are at the center of the controversy. Some commentators point out that comparing the rookie cards of these great hitters to their present body size reveals a discrepancy that cannot be explained by a membership to 24-hour Fitness. These athletes’ bodies are regularly and openly depicted in commercials and always in a way that emphasizes sculpted physiques, extreme ability and uncommon appearances of strength.

So what happens when the heroes of a young generation of boys tend toward unrealistic and unnatural strength and muscularity? Several things (mostly negative), but one important side effect would be the increased emphasis on body image among boys.

Gentlemen, this isn’t your daddy’s era.

The Research

Researchers in the UK decided to follow the rabbit trail and held focus groups with four groups of young boys. The groups’ demographics were as follows:

1st group: 4 eight year-olds

2nd group: 4 thirteen year-olds

3rd and 4th groups: 8 sixteen year-olds broken into two groups of four each

5th group: 4 men between the ages 19 and 25

None were notably over- or underweight according to visuals by the researchers (this will be important to remember later), all were white and were from working and middle-class backgrounds.

Here’s what they found:

The boys were “fearful of becoming fat” because they would be teased (not, of course, because it is unhealthy). No shocker there. But how about this one: the boys also tended to blame the fat person for being fat, i.e.: emphasizing that fat is something that anyone could control if they had the willpower to do so. Even the boys in the group who reported having been teased for being fat (remember, the researchers reported none of them appeared to be overweight) indicated that teasing people who were not of the ideal body shape was an ok thing to do.

They also reported that they were under a great deal of pressure to conform to a muscular (but not too muscular) body form that also was “athletic.” In other words, the body needed to be able to do something considered “manly.” This type of body image reported even among the 8-year olds would be socially approved and would make them “more confident/happy.” [[Ibid.]] It would give them the social power among their peers that they all craved.

Furthermore, boys were not willing to admit that they devoted that much time, thought, or energy to make their ideal body shape (although the fear of being fat, they admitted, would keep them exercising). The researchers report that they boys viewed trying to attain an ideal body shape as a “feminine” activity, and, thus, counter-productive to building the “ideal” male self.

Other studies have uncovered similar findings. One study [[Stanford, JN & McCabe, MP. 2002. Body Image Ideal among Males and Females: Sociocultural Influences and Focus on different Body Parts. Journal of Health Psychology Vol 7(6) 675-684.]] found that males and females obsess about their bodies, albeit different parts of their bodies and in different ways. For males, getting larger in the upper chest, arms and shoulders was important. [[For females, the lower body tended to be most important.]] The study also showed that boys are just as concerned about being underweight as with being overweight, a dual concern their female counterparts seem to not share. In fact, while it was not surprising in this study that 100% of females reported a discrepancy between their ideal and actual body types, 90% of males did as well. That’s a figure that might surprise most youth workers.

So where do boys get these perceived body ideals? Perhaps the most ubiquitous among media to boys, the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), has captured a target audience that mirrors yours: 12-34 year olds (link contains one obscenity). Think about it. Where else can you see men acting stereotypically, looking like the ideal body types we have presented here, and can be found even outside of cable TV? Again, take a look at their website. If you were 12, what kind of messages would you be receiving? The WWE is made for young boys, and, as evidenced by their ratings, young boys eat it up.

Furthermore, it might help to think about this issue in terms of identity politics: you spend your time trying to direct kids to Christ, “to be found in Him” as Paul says in Philippians 3, and the WWE offers a counter-identity. It is obvious that being male in the world of Vince McMahon and the WWE is not the same as being male according to the New Creation, especially when it comes to body politics.

While there was no study directly linking body image pressures among boys to the WWE (although it would make an interesting one!), you get the point: Superman has a steroid problem and it is affecting our boys, whether they want to admit it or not. It’s no longer just a female issue.

Action Points:

  • Given the great amount of attention given to girls’ body image pressures, perhaps you are somewhat surprised by the pressures that are likewise placed on boys. Which of these research findings is the most interesting to you?
  • Have any of your boys - as far as you know - ever been seriously picked on because they lack the “ideal” body image?
  • How would you practically address pressures on your boys in this regard: one on one? in a guys small group? in the entire youth group at once? What kind of approach would you use: self-esteem building, a Bible study emphasizing that God has created us and loves us the way we are, or perhaps a multi-media presentation that reviews with your kids the media pressures they see everyday?
  • If you know of a young man in your group dealing with this issue, how might you help his parents to understand the pressures on their kid? How could you encourage them (especially the father or step-father) to send more positive messages to him?
Matt Westbrook
Matt Westbrook formerly served as Project Manager for FYI when it was first becoming the Center for Youth and Family Ministry. He holds a Master of Arts in Theology from Fuller, has a passion for college students, and is now pursuing a PhD in sociology studying youth and religious identity formation at Drew University.

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