Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Let’s Teach Boys About Airbrushing

Parenting, Mental Health, MediaAndrew Smiler

Imagine a group of 13 year old girls intensely discussing a picture of a fashion model from Seventeen or Vogue. It’s not hard to imagine the girls ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the model’s beauty and talking about how they hope to Look. Just. Like. That when they get older.

If you live in the West, you can probably spin this scene on its head by adding a teacher (or some other adult) who helps the girls understand all the ways in which this image is manufactured. Maybe the teacher even shows this Dove video of a model being prepared for a photo-shoot. Despite being pretty—she’s an employed model—and being made up, the producers digitally alter her appearance by lengthening her neck and changing the line of her shoulders.

In this classroom setting, the girls are supposed to learn that beauty isn’t everything, and that all those amazing female faces and bodies they see in advertisements and on others screens aren’t natural. Implicitly, they learn that even model-pretty isn’t necessarily pretty enough. Other activities that are part of these programs may give girls an even more thorough understanding of the artificiality of what they see on screen, may help girls find their own strengths (beyond appearance), and may help boost their self-esteem.

But one thing you’re very unlikely to find in this setting is boys.

There’s no doubt that personal appearance is a less prominent issue for boys than girls. Boys and men suffer from eating disorders at notably lower rates than their female peers, even when guys suffering from “Bigorexia” (officially, a specific type of Body Dysmorphic Disorder) are included. Data from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System indicate that about 3.7% of 12th grade American boys had used steroids illicitly at least once among those surveyed in 2011, down from a high of 6.4% in 2003. The only reason to use those steroids is to get bigger.

Men’s bodily concerns aren’t limited to bulking up. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported that men accounted for about 9% of all elective cosmetic surgeries in 2012, totaling about 1.3 million procedures. Approximately 1 million were minimally-invasive procedures that could be performed in the doctor’s office, with Botox injections, laser hair removal, and microdermabrasion leading the way.

If we’re genuinely worried about boys—and the perpetual crisis around boys makes me think we probably are—then you’d think there would be programs out there to help boys. Good luck finding one. My Google search to “develop positive body image for boys” didn’t lead to any male-specific programs. There’s such a dearth of male-oriented programs that the first page of results includes a program specifically for girls and three of the four images visible include only girls.

There’s no reason to think that what’s happened to girls won’t happen to guys. The statistics say it’s already happening. Girls are clear that they’re concerned with their appearance because being that thin gives them status among other girls and (they think) will make them attractive to boys; it’s part of the reason that about 80% of 10 year olds have been on a diet. Boys are trying to bulk up for exactly the same reasons: to earn status from other guys and be attractive to girls.

In addition to teaching girls how unattainable that female body is, we need to start teaching boys how difficult those male bodies are to achieve. We should teach boys what’s involved in creating an image for mass consumption, a component of media literacy, so they gain a better understanding of exactly what they’re seeing. I can’t figure out why we haven’t started yet. I understand that this is a less frequently occurring problem for boys than for girls, but “less of a problem” isn’t the same thing as “not a problem.”

I understand that this is a less frequently occurring problem for boys than for girls, but “less of a problem” isn’t the same thing as “not a problem.”

There’s no reason to stop there. If we’re going to spend all this time helping boys understand and deconstruct images of the ideal male body, then we should also train them to use those same skills examining issues of the ideal female body. Doing so could take some of the pressure off girls to achieve that thin ideal. Of course, that means we should also teach girls how to deconstruct the idealized male.

Recent outrage over the “thin ideal” female body was especially prominent when Disney redrew Brave’s Merida to look more “princess-like,” because apparently princesses only look one way. Other folks pointed out that even the females at Monster University shared that particular body; the males were widely varied. And then there’s the “soft porn” of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and its related products. Here in 2013, we’re still more likely to see a model on the cover of SI than a female athlete, and the models get exactly one cover per year.

That said, I can imagine the challenges of showing a picture of a female model to a group of middle (or high) school boys and opening the floor for comments. Some of those concerns rely on a stereotypical view of male sexuality that’s largely incorrect, although boys often feel compelled to conform to the image. But if the teacher knows what he or she is doing, and the kids understand this is about education and not just time to goof off, they’ll get to work.

If we really want our sons (and our daughters) to understand and thrive in the culture they’re being raised in, then we need to make sure they have the right tools and know how to use them.

–photo by CDS Nutrition/flickr [Author’s note: This picture is of 39 year oldShawn Phillips. That’s his real body, with no airbrushing or digital manipulation.]