Body-image obsession is not solely the domain of teenage girls

For every Kerri Strug, there's a Mark McGwire.

For every Pamela Anderson, there's an Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And for every waifish female selling perfume or lingerie in a magazine, there's a hard-bodied male selling khaki shorts and boxer briefs on an Abercrombie & Fitch shopping bag.

It's a mistake to believe that only girls pick up on the message that thin is in and six-pack abs are fab, recent research shows.

The guy on the shopping bag isn't just rippedhe's cool, popular and confident. Boys want that as much as girls. And some are willing to do whatever it takes to get it. That's why health-care professionals are coming up with terms such as "Adonis Complex," "bigorexia" and "masculinity ideology" to describe the male desire to be extremely muscular and formidable-looking.

What it all boils down to is that teen-age boys, though they may act more stoic than girls, often struggle with what they perceive as problems with their appearance. They diet. They lift weights. And they pray for pecs to appear.

Unlike girlswho get stares, rude comments and attention they probably are not ready to handlepeople react positively when a boy develops early. But if he's a little behind the curvesmall, squeaky-voiced or slow to burn off his baby fatwatch out. Size is a major factor in determining a boy's place in the pecking order.

No boy ever wanted to be a 97-pound weakling, and there's no way of telling (because no one collected the data) whether body image is becoming a bigger issue for boys than it used to be.

But it appears that the advertising aimed at boys is focused more on a particular body type. And boys are responding: Interest is increasing in fat-burning and weight-gaining formulas, performance supplements and steroids, thanks to the news that McGwire and other popular professional athletes have used bulk-builders such as creatine and androstenedione.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse began targeting steroid abuse last year, after the annual "Monitoring the Future" survey found a significant increase in anabolic steroid abuse among middle-schoolers. The same survey also found the percentage of 12th-graders who believed taking steroids causes "great risk to health" had declined.

There's a tendency, even among adults, to think that if a dietary supplement is natural, it can't be dangerous, said Linda Smolak, a professor of psychology at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, who has spent years researching body image and eating problems.

"You can buy testosterone over the Web, so people say, 'How can it be harmful?'" But you have to consider how it will interact in your system and determine the appropriate amount to take, Smolak said. That's tough for teen-agers.

This is an important time, she added, because there's a chance to intervene before boys' body-image issues lead to risky behaviors.

"Boys are dissatisfied, but they're not quite as invested as girls are yet," Smolak said. While young women talk about using plastic surgery to get the body they want, boys still tend to concentrate on exercise as a means to an end.

Of course, advertising and other media aren't the only things influencing kids. A lot has to do with a child's environment, and if you go around the country, you'll see different problems in different areas, Smolak said. In South Florida, for example, teens may feel the need to always be beach buff, lean and tan. In towns where a winning football team is everything, parents and coaches will sometimes unknowingly stress the need to bulk up to competetalking about college scholarships, maybe even the pros.

"Parents should be really careful about pushing boys in sports that require or emphasize certain body types," Smolak said. An aggressive, "whatever it takes" attitude can be dangerous with children, especially when smaller boys try to find a way to catch up to their larger, more muscular peers.

"You build a dream, and it's like girls dream about being a model," she said. "It's one thing to support a child. It's another to push too hard. There's some real risk there."

Tips for parents

1. Consider your thoughts, attitudes and behaviors toward your own body and the way these beliefs have been shaped by the forces of "weightism" and sexism. Then educate your children about the genetic basis for the natural diversity of human body shapes and sizes, and the nature and ugliness of prejudice. Make an effort to maintain positive, healthy attitudes and behaviors. Children learn from the things you say and do.

2. Examine closely your dreams and goals for your children and other loved ones. Are you over-emphasizing beauty and body shape? Avoid conveying an attitude that says, "I will like you more if you lose weight, don't eat so much, look more like the slender models in ads, fit into smaller clothes, etc." Decide what you can do and what you can stop doing to reduce the teasing, criticism, blaming, staring, etc., that reinforce the idea that fatter is bad and thinner is good.

3. Learn about and discuss with your sons and daughters the dangers of trying to alter one's body shape through too-strict dieting, the value of moderate exercising toward stamina and cardiovascular fitness, and the importance of eating a variety of foods in well-balanced meals consumed at least three-times-a-day. Be a good role model in regard to sensible eating, sensible exercise and self-acceptance.

4. Make a commitment to exercise for the joy of feeling your body move and function effectively, not to purge fat from your body or compensate for calories eaten.

5. Practice taking people seriously for what they say, feel and do, not for how slender or "well put together" they appear.

6. Encourage your children to be active and to enjoy what their bodies can do and feel like. Do not limit their caloric intake unless a physician requests that you do this.

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