We’ve all heard how the media affects girls negatively, but what about boys? It’s pretty common knowledge that violent shows and movies are more likely to incite aggressive behavior in boys.
But what about the other lesser acknowledged negative effects of media, like the push to be athletic or to overeat?
It turns out our sons are being affected by more than you might think, especially when they don’t meet these often unrealistic expectations.
But don’t fear! Here are some ways to help your son navigate media’s messaging about what he needs to be like in order to be a man.
Although it has gotten better with the introduction of TV shows like Glee, for the most part boys are still taught through the media that to be an athlete or another “tough” profession is the greatest possible triumph. Take the show Friday Night Lights, for example. These boys are strong, tough, popular and get all the girls to notice them. And for boys who lack athletic ability or physical prowess, this can be extremely discouraging, making them feel weak or outcast.
What you can do
- Point out non-athletic characters in TV and books. Although athleticism seems to dominate in pop culture, there are plenty of examples of boys and men who have other abilities and are still successful—such as Greg Heffley in the extremely popular book series Diary of a Wimpy Kid, about a boy who prefers video games to sports and gets himself into funny situations. There’s even Harry Potter—yes, he plays a mean game of Quidditch, but he’s also a potions master, best friends with a girl, and wears nerdy glasses. Above all, it’s important to remind our sons that athleticism is not the only option for boys. Encourage the development of your son’s talents, whatever those may be.
- On the other hand… While it’s important not to exude athleticism above all else, it’s also imperative that the boys who are athletic be praised for their abilities. But it’s also necessary that these boys know that being an athlete does not mean they are more deserving than their peers who lack these abilities. Also let them know that sports aren’t the only thing they can do and introduce them to other types of activities.
Food Choices and Overeating vs. Body Image
While girls are often encouraged to eat less, boys are encouraged to eat more and to choose “manly” foods like steak and potatoes over “girly” foods like fish and salad. This encouragement of excessive food consumption can be seen in shows like Man Vs. Food or read about the popular hotdog eating contests that are geared toward boys and men. Not only does this promote the increasing rates of obesity in our country among boys ages 6-19, but it reinforces the macho stereotype through the use of food. To be tough, eat this and not that.
At the same time, boys and young men are receiving conflicting messages regarding body image. To be a cool dude, you must eat and eat and eat, but you must also be super muscular. There is even evidence that has been studied over the last ten years that suggests that muscular action heroes are negatively affecting boys’ body images. Transformers, GI Joe, and other action heroes have become the male version of Barbie, setting unrealistic body image expectations for young males. To see this in action, one only has to look at the avatar in the popular (not to mention extremely violent) video game Grand Theft Auto—super buff and ripped, with a 29 inch waist.
How you can help
- Provide role models. Show your son examples of men who are strong and healthy and who encourage a variety of different foods, such as personal trainers or the many athletes that work with organizations to advertise healthy eating habits and body image.
- Encourage food diversity. Take your son to restaurants that you normally wouldn’t go to or to places that offer global cuisine—such as Japanese, Ethiopian or Lebanese. You will not only be introducing him to a variety of different palettes, but encouraging diversity as well.
Again, we’re back to the machismo stereotype that boys are subjected to from a young age—to be a man, you must be tough and not show your emotions—unless it’s anger. According to some psychologists, however, this limiting of boys’ emotional range is not only unhealthy but can also cause boys who become men that disconnect from their true selves and shut down emotionally.
What you can do
- Avoid succumbing to cultural stereotypes. We’re taught that it’s okay for girls to cry, but boy’s can’t. Girls can talk about how they feel but boys should keep it all inside. And on and on. Talk to your son about how these are stereotypes, and they don’t help anybody. The truth is that we are all human, and we should all being able to express the full range of our experiences, which includes showing how we feel. If we don’t, we only grow up to become emotionally repressed in our own relationships with ourselves and others.
- Encourage open-ended dialogue. The trick with boys is to let them express themselves at their own pace. If you sense that your son is feeling down one day, for example, ask him if he wants to talk about it. If he says no or seems withdrawn, let him know that he can talk about it whenever he’s ready and that you will be there for him. Sharing your feelings with him also sets a good example, one he won’t get from the media.
While it’s perfectly acceptable for girls to be “tomboys”–i.e. a girl who prefers playing sports and hanging out with boys to dolls, makeup or dress-up–it’s quite the opposite for boys. Boys are taught from a young age that they should like sports and not nail polish; that they should play with G.I. Joe (the Real American Hero!) and not Bratz dolls. But unfortunately, this restrictive attitude toward what boys can and can’t do only limits their self-expression.
What you can do
- Be supportive. Encourage your son to participate in the activities that he enjoys, regardless of whether they’re viewed as “girl” activities (dancing, ice skating, putting on makeup) or “boy” activities (football, tag, playing video games). The same goes for how he dresses–if he wants to wear a skirt, he should be able to. After all, we have a long world history of men wearing skirts that has only shifted to the pants trend in the last few hundred years. If you’d like, you could even wear a skirt along with him to show your support, like this dad.
- Communicate. Although it’s important to support your son in his preference of self-expression, it’s also important to explain that while you and your family are supportive of him, the rest of the world may not always be. He should be aware of what he’s up against in a society that frowns upon men expressing any typically feminine traits. This will help him develop self-esteem at an early age and prepare him for the real world.
These are just some ways to help your son develop his self-esteem, regardless of how much he does or doesn’t meet social norms for men.
What are some ways you support your son? Share below in the comments!
Shannon Ridgway is a Contributing Writer to Everyday Feminism from the great flyover state of South Dakota (the one with the monument of presidential heads). In her free time, Shannon enjoys reading, writing, jamming out to ’80s music and Zumba, and she will go to great lengths to find the perfect enchilada. She dreams of effecting great change in the world by working for a nonprofit agency or an organization that works toward social revolution. In the meantime, she’ll just try to make people laugh. Follow her on Twitter @sridgway1980.