It’s different for boys – the importance of talking about body confidence issues with boys

This March, Childline launched a new campaign called ‘Tough to Talk’, backed by Wayne Rooney; the aim is to encourage boys to seek help for issues and problems. In 2015/16, Childline provided six times more counselling sessions about suicidal thoughts and feelings to girls than to boys. But the suicide rate for 10–19 year-old boys was 4.4 that year, almost 2.5 times that for girls.

Childline’s campaign is a welcome response to an issue that is gaining in recognition: amid growing concern over the mental health of all children and young people, boys face particular challenges that need a different approach.

EdComs works with a number of clients interested in supporting mental health. We help them to unpack the issues that are affecting young people, and use that insight to develop effective and well-targeted resources and activities. One such project last year considered the specific issue of body image from a boys’ perspective. The advertising think-tank Credos commissioned EdComs to explore the attitudes and experience of boys of all ages, as well as the views of parents, teachers and youth leaders. The report was published in August.

Our research confirmed that eating disorders, dieting and extreme exercising are a problem for boys as well as girls. But we also found that the underlying problems around body image, the way they are perceived by parents and teachers, and the way that they are addressed by boys themselves are quite different.

For boys, the ‘perfect body’ tends to be about gaining muscle rather than losing weight. Almost three quarters of the boys we surveyed said they aspired to a muscular physique, and almost two-thirds had exercised to build muscle or were prepared to consider it. Rather than dieting to lose weight, they will be following regimes designed to build muscle, which may be equally harmful.

Their aspirations are often driven by the opinions of their friends and a traditionally male sense of competitiveness. As boys get older, they become more self-conscious and place a higher priority on their friends’ opinions.

Parents and teachers can be slow to recognise that body image is a problem for boys: research we have undertaken for the national Be Real campaign suggests that only half of teachers see body confidence as an issue for boys compared with over three quarters who think it an issue for girls.

It isn’t just that they don’t expect boys to be concerned about their bodies, but that boys’ behaviour doesn’t always appear problematic. They can see that boys are increasingly concerned about their physique, but eating more healthily, playing sport and exercising are seen as healthy behaviours. Extreme behaviour can easily be overlooked.

Boys themselves are less likely than girls to acknowledge their own concerns and, if they do, they are more likely to feel they should just ‘suck it up’ and even go out of their way to appear untroubled. They worry that talking about their problems might lead to teasing or even bullying.

Boys experience bullying more than girls, but also react differently: girls will internalise their distress; boys are more likely to channel it through the negative behaviours we think of as being ‘typically male’. Boys are also more likely to laugh off hurtful comments rather than acknowledge there is an issue.

Body image isn’t the only problem. The older boys we interviewed told us that doing well at school was top of their list of worries. Our research for the BBC’s new exam stress campaign, Mindset, showed that few young people actively seek support in this area, but boys in particular either don’t want to or feel they can’t, and are less likely to know where to go for support when they do.

As the Childline campaign suggests, all of this is having serious consequences, and schools have a critical role to play in addressing it. Budget constraints and the relentless focus on standards and performance may make action on wellbeing seem a distraction; but evidence shows that it can enhance attainment, re-engage disengaged students, attract and retain staff and raise standards across the school.

We know that young people feel more confident when body image is discussed as part of the curriculum, but around 50% of schools don’t teach it. Teachers recognise its value and importance, but lack confidence and resources. That’s why EdComs has spent several years working with Dove to develop its self-esteem workshops for schools, and why we have recently helped Be Real create a Body Confidence Campaign Toolkit for schools.

EdComs continues to work with clients to develop pragmatic approaches to tackling aspects of the mental health challenge, and, in particular, approaches that recognise that “it’s different for boys”.

If you would be interested in working with us to address the issues set out above, please contact Jo Barlow.

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