Researchers from ACU's Institute for Health and Ageing have found that Australian boys as young as eight are trying to lose weight and gain muscle. The year-long study found that boys feel body image pressure just as much as girls, although of a different sort.
Dr Gemma Tatangelo, who co-authored the study with Dr Catherine Connaughton and Professor Marita McCabe, said that while girls tend to focus on weight and being slim, boys' body ideals are more complex.
"Boys are generally more focused on the capabilities of their bodies rather than the appearance of it, particularly in regard to sports and physical activity," she said.
"So they're aspiring to be more athletic and more muscular. This can be healthy if pursued in moderation, but might also be a precursor to body dissatisfaction and the use of more dangerous body change methods as they get older, like food supplements, exercise dependence, and steroid use."
Dr Tatangelo said that for a long time it was assumed boys did not have body image concerns, so they were not included in body image research or prevention programs. In the few instances where boys were included in programs, they were given the content that had been designed for girls.
Dr Tatangelo and Dr Connaughton developed an evidence-based body image intervention program for preadolescent children that addressed the needs of boys and girls separately.
A total of 652 children aged between eight and 10 participated in the study, which assessed the influence of the media, parents and peers, how satisfied the children were with their bodies, diet and exercise, and whether they had tried to change their appearance.
"While the program aimed to target the same major areas across both genders, these were addressed in different ways for boys and girls," Dr Tatangelo said. "For instance, body esteem for girls was focused on acceptance of diversity in appearance, while for boys, the focus was on acceptance of diversity in physical skills, different body shapes, and challenging traditional masculine stereotypes such as the need for strength and muscularity."
A second study among the boys of the group aimed to better understand the ways in which sociocultural factors such as peers, parents and the media, contribute to boys' body image. This research found that 73 per cent of the boys frequently or always exercised more in order to increase their muscles, and 62 per cent frequently or always exercised more in order to lose weight.
The researchers also found that boys had a very high investment in masculine stereotypes, for example more than 60 per cent agreed with statements such as ‘to be popular, boys need to be good at sport' and ‘boys should be able to throw a ball farther/run faster than most girls.'
"The findings highlight the real need for early prevention programs which are developed specifically for preadolescent boys and focus on challenging unhelpful gender ideologies in relation to the body and the use of potentially harmful body change strategies."
Dr Tatangelo said parents, peers and the media were the three main sociocultural factors that contribute to children's body image development.
"Parents convey messages, often without realising, about what is important in terms of body ideals and gender ideals. These can include messages conveying the preference for a certain appearance, or the importance for boys to be big and strong. Children also pick up on and copy their parents' behaviour.
"The media are also influential as they portray females as slim and beautiful and males as physically strong, fit and active. This has probably been exacerbated in recent years by the rise in popularity of sportsmen and fitness programs."