Friday, November 4, 2011

Real O'Clock: Boys and Body Image

Every now and then here at the Grey Skies World Headquarters, we like to take it down a notch, from our usual wine-guzzling, DWTS-watching, geek con-going ways and get Real. If this were a rock concert, now would be the part where I sit atop a stool, mic in hand, spotlight on, and croon "Every Rose Has A Thorn" while swaying gently, like my depth and emotion are far too sincere to be contained by sitting still.

Get out your lighters (or cell phone screens), because it's about to get Real O'Clock all up in here. I might throw some numbers or statistics at you that I pull off the internets, but that doesn't mean I don't love you.

A couple of years ago I was asked to be the "real mom" on a panel discussing a really excellent book called "Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat?" There, I had the honor of meeting one of the book's authors, the amazing Claire Mysko, who has become a friend and personal hero of mine in the past two years. 

The talk shed light on something women, especially mothers, don't discuss much: body image issues after childbirth. 

I don't want to go into an entire synopsis of the book because that would be doing it a grave injustice. Claire and her co-author, Magali, are quite articulate enough without my ruining their message with a semi-coherent summation. 

Instead, I'd like to talk about a point I was inspired to make after reading the book: a point about boys and body image.

Most of the talk about body image and healthy self-esteem centers around girls, and rightfully so: according to the National Eating Disorder Association, anorexia and bulimia affect females 10 times more than they affect men. Our entire culture is set up to make women and girls feel like they can never "win" some mythical battle with their bodies: either they are too fat or "scary skinny." The media treats female bodies like public property, there to be critiqued, criticized, and publicly consumed. 

Far better writers have discussed that problem, and at great length. I'm not inventing anything new here.

What I want to discuss right now, though, are how boys are also affected by media images of male bodies and a masculine ideal. This is also not new, but I am now the mother of two boys, and this is my blog, and I need to get this out.

There are four main reasons why I think it is necessary to include men and boys in the discussions about body image issues:

1. Societal expectations, cultural norms, and media reflections of manhood and masculinity are as much a part of feminism as those things are for women and girls. 
When my son(s) watch TV and movies and play with toys, they are absorbing what it means to be a man just as much as a little girl absorbs what it means to be a woman. And so as a parent I have a vested interest in making sure the messages surrounding my son are positive ones: that you don't need enormous muscles to be strong, being scrawny is not automatically comical, and physical prowess does not equal being a decent human being. My first son, the Juban Princeling, already seems to take after the boys on my side of the family: tall and skinny. While some of them are athletic, too, none of them have what you'd typically call rippling muscles. They are tall guys, not necessarily big guys. And I want my sons to know that that's fine. Skinny guys do not have to be relegated to the role of nerdy sidekick, or bumbling comic relief; in too many movies and TV shows, the skinny guy is the equivalent of the fat girl - a wise and/or wisecracking best friend, while the more stereotypically attractive girl or boy is the star. 

What does this have to do with feminism? 

When our men feel better about themselves, when boys are not preoccupied with outdated and false ideas of being macho, or being manly, they are more prone to treat women with respect, as equals. A man who does not feel the need to prove his masculinity is a man who does not need to put down women in order to feel better about himself. A man who has healthy self-esteem does not need to stand on top of others in order to feel big.

It's pretty simple, really.

2. Boys and men are not immune from eating disorders.
I found this out while I prepped for the panel discussion: anorexia and bulimia affect about 1 million men and boys in America, or about 10% of the eating disordered population. That's not nothing.

One million! And that's a statistic from the 1990s!

If we treat eating disorders like they are women's problems, or girl diseases, we are doing our sons a grave disservice. While I certainly hope that neither of my sons ever develops an eating disorder, I also believe it is my job as a parent to create a loving, trusting home environment where if they do think they have a problem, or if I do notice something wrong, we can talk about it together. 

Part of raising emotionally healthy boys is setting a good example. Not just their father, but me, too, which brings me to...

3. Having sons is not a free pass to fat-shame myself. 
There's been a lot of talk lately - at least, in my circles there has been - about monitoring what we say, as adults and parents, about our bodies in front of our children. Mostly this is done for the benefit of girls, so they don't grow up listening to Mom complain that she's fat. But I think our boys can benefit from this as well.

As the primary woman in my sons' lives, I have an obligation to model a type of womanhood that I want them to be comfortable with. I want my boys to grow up thinking that strong, outspoken women are what's normal. Part of being strong is being confident in myself, and that means liking and accepting my physical body for what it is. I don't ever want my sons thinking that it's normal or healthy for women to put themselves down regularly, or to diet constantly, or to hate themselves because of a number on a scale or on a clothing tag. I want them to understand that salad is not a meal and ordering dessert is not a crime. I want them to grow up surrounding themselves with women who are comfortable in their own skin, women who are not so wrapped up in losing a few pounds or counting every calorie that they forget how to enjoy life.

And that brings me to my final, and probably most important, point:

4. Teaching our children healthy lifestyles begins with we the parents.
The most important take away I want my sons to absorb from my parenting is that being healthy does not have to be a killjoy. Moderation does not equal deprivation. Enjoyment of food does not equal gluttony. Exercise can be fun. And especially, healthy does not equal skinny. 

When my son sees me do yoga, he sees his mother doing something she loves that makes her feel good. When he runs around with his father he learns that being active is super awesome fun. 

When I get dressed he does not hear me complain about my body - he hears me complain about the clothes. "This doesn't look right on me," vs "This makes me look fat."

My husband and I do not diet. That word is not part of our home. In 2007 when we wanted to lose weight - because we were both overweight and worried about health problems as we got older - we used portion control, healthy substitutions, and exercise to do it. We never once deprived ourselves of sweets, carbs, or anything else we wanted. We just got smarter about them.

And that is the message we want for our sons: that maintaining a healthy lifestyle doesn't have to be hard, and doesn't have to deprive them of happiness or joy. So that as they grow up and go out there into the world they will do so feeling good about themselves on the inside, no matter what they look like on the outside.

*All stats taken from the National Eating Disorder Association:


Elizabeth Sullivan said...

Great post- thoughtful and smart. Everyone can learn from what you are saying here!

Meredith L. said...

Thank you, Elizabeth!

Lesley said...

You are a very wise woman. Your sons are very lucky to have a mother like you. Blessings

Meredith L. said...

Thank you so much, Lesley.