Boys and Body Image

This image was originally shared as a straw man argument against feminism, but if we present it differently I think it actually raises some interesting questions. What are your reactions to this image, questions it raises, and the message it sends?

Source: unknown

Source: unknown

There does seem to be more outrage over (or more coverage of the outrage over) Barbie’s body than He-Man’s, though certainly his has come into question by many people.  Some questions to consider:

~ Is the reason for this because there is far greater pressure from media towards women and their bodies vs pressure on men?
~ Are beauty standards more rigid for women than for men?
~ Is He-Man fantasy but Barbie closer to the reality of expectations and therefore more offensive? He-Man is a dream hero, Barbie is the norm?
~ Do we expect men to be “built” and therefore the He-Man body isn’t alarming?
~ Is there more awareness about body image for girls/women than there is for boys/men?

I am a feminist raising a son and I am concerned about his body image. I feel it is easy to avoid toys and media with body representations like this for him. It is not so easy with my daughter. When Benny was 3-4 years old he had an obsession with Spider Man and the accompanying gang of super heroes. He wore a Spider Man suit every day for four months straight, the kind with the built in muscles. We tried to take out some of the padding because the muscles were so ridiculous, and we discussed that action with him. The toys he plays with now really leave me with zero concern for his body image, I just don’t see Angry Birds and Legos as being a threat. For my daughter, though, it is an entirely different story.

In this photo we see the woman's body as rather realistic, but the men.... It is important for us to consider what our boys and girls are learning from these types of depictions of masculinity and the male body.

In this photo we see the woman’s body as rather realistic, but the men…. It is important for us to consider what our boys and girls are learning from these types of depictions of masculinity and the male body.

As with most things, I don’t think this is a zero-sum game. I think feminists, scholars, activists and parents can focus on body image for both boys AND girls and try to make head way. I don’t want my son or daughter expecting people to look like the images above. We can make smart decisions about the toys and media we allow in, and have thoughtful discussions with our children encouraging them to take a critical look at the messages that do sneak through. It is important for us to consider what our boys and girls are learning from depictions of masculinity and the male body.

Here are two great sources if you are interested in learning more about boys and body image:



Hat tip to Lori Day for the image.

Early Morning Moments

That space inside those early morning moments when the first child stumbles out of bed, wild haired and fuzzy eyed and makes his way to your lap. His velvety cheek snuggles against your chest as his little arm curls around your neck and he says “Good mornbing, Sweetie Geel” and you sigh as you wrap up those arms and legs that are so, so big and so little all at the same time.

And you begin to discuss that matters of the day, like do Angry Birds love their moms and super heroes needing large muscles to fight buildings that turn into monsters and wondering if the neighbor boys are awake yet. But you don’t want the world to be awake yet, because you just want your little boy to stay lap-sized and sweet for it might be a matter of months or maybe you have a year before he won’t fit in your lap anymore, or won’t want to.

You continue to discuss the careers of super heroes and begin to wonder if he is already thinking about the man he will some day be. Because you do, you think about the man he will some day become and you want him to be a good man. You want him to be intelligent, kind, strong, and fair. But for now you get to quietly smile down at the little foot in your hand and the blue polish covering his piggy toes that belies the fact your little boy still believes sparkles are magic. This morning, he is still your little boy.

He asks for juice and you blink back some tears as you answer “Sure, Buddy” and inform him that you read somewhere that Angry Birds do, as a matter of fact, love their moms. And he looks at you with a smirk, as if there was any other answer.

The only other family member who gets more snuggles from Benny than me is the brown and white puppy.

Support new documentary by Jennifer Siebel Newsom

The Mask You Live In

What about the boys? There is so much focus on how girls are treated by society and media, it is a valid question to stop and ask if we are giving the same considerations to boys and what that impact might be.

I notice it most with teens and young men, their movements are like a choreographed dance, their gait and posturing all mimicking each other. In college my girlfriends and I called it “The Man Dance”, as we sat there waiting for these boys to really figure out what it meant to be a man. But you’d look into their eyes, or have a long conversation with one of your guy friends, and realize they are just as confused, uncertain, excited, compassionate, and lonely as we were. We were allowed to show it, of course, because we were girls. The boys couldn’t because then the homophobic slurs would start, and our friend would be teased for having any human emotion beyond indifference and arrogance.

I was raised with brothers and am now raising a son. I’ve always had a close group of guy friends, even now, and I feel like I understand their insecurities and hopes and ambitions. My husband is the kind of man who says ‘I love you’ to all of us all of the time, who is affectionate and intelligent and thoughtful. He is a “man’s man”, but he is a man who respects women and is kind and gentle to children. He has emotions, we’ve seen him cry over more than just sports. Our son is allowed to dance and wear toe polish and love art with as much freedom as he is allowed to love racing down the street on his bike and mud stomping through creeks and catching bugs. He is allowed to be a human being, to laugh and cry and worry and whoop and shy away.

But not all boys have that right. Yesterday I heard a mother tell her eighteen month old son not to be “such a wuss” because he didn’t want to kill a bug. I heard a group of teen boys walking down the city street in front of my house, one boy being teased for being a “pussy”. He must have committed some indiscretion against the Man Code which immediately earned him the fate of being feminized and degraded.

And I wonder, will they be allowed the space to grow into their own manhood? What kind of men will they be? Or will they have to wear the mask?

My friend and colleague Jennifer Siebel Newsom has begun a new project looking at all of these issues facing our boys. Whether you have sons or daughters or no children, how our society treats its youngest members is impacting all of us. Jennifer and I have talked to each other about the hopes and dreams we have for our children and how the media and culture impacts our vision of the people our children can become. Jennifer is raising two daughters and a son.

Her new project, The Mask You Live In, will be a 75 minute documentary featuring powerful interviews with popular thought leaders and celebrities as well as academics and experts in neuroscience, biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, ethics, education, sports, media, and history. It will be an exploration of American masculinity, and what prices our boys pay to fill that role.

From the Kickstarter campaign page: “The Mask You Live In documentary will examine how gender stereotypes are interconnected with race, class, and circumstance, and how kids are further influenced by the education system, sports culture, and mass media- video games and pornography in particular. The film also highlights the importance of placing emphasis on the social and emotional needs of boys through healthy family communication, alternative teaching strategies, conscious media consumption, positive role modeling and innovative mentorship programs.”

I hope you join PPBB in supporting this much needed project. Jennifer has set to to continue the discussion and increase the comprehension of gender inequality in our country. Click HERE to visit the Kickstarter page to support this project, even a $25 or $50 donation will push the project forward.

Teach Boys Not to Rape

Benny (4yo) and I were just wrestling and tickling. I had him pinned and was chewing on his leg when he giggled and screamed “Stop!”. The dog jumped up and barked, so I didn’t hear him. I started to give him a zerbert on his tummy (Benny, not the dog. That’s weird.) but he grabbed my hand and said very firmly, “MOM! I said stop an bren someone tells you to stop you breespect dem!”

I apologized and said he was right, I should have stopped horse playing the first time he said stop. I told him he always has the right to be the boss of his body, and that all kids have that right.

There is a national debate right now about the idea of teaching boys not to rape as a viable why to stop rape. That should be a full stop, not sure why there debate. This all coincides with the criminal trial in Ohio of two high school students accused of the heinous rape of a drugged and unconscious girl.

We teach boys not to rape by starting in our homes and starting when they are small. Scratch that, they don’t need to be small, just start talking. I’m not going to talk to my preschool aged son about rape and Rape Culture. Instead, I’m going to teach him a foundation of respect for himself and for others so that when the day comes that we do have that talk, he understands to his very core that every person has the right to expect respect for their body, and to trespass against that is entirely wrong.


I show him that I respect his control of his body by stopping horse play when he says enough, not forcing affection and not using physical force as punishment.

I teach him how to act respectfully by never condoning, never excusing brutish or aggressive behavior because “boys will be boys”. He will own up to his actions.

His father, grandfather, and uncles will set the example on how to treat the women in your life with love, equality and respect.

When he is older, I will sit him down and talk to him about how to respect a partner during sexual situations, that he always has the right to be respected during sexual encounters and the consequences for using his body as a weapon.

I will not grow him into a large boy, I will raise him to be an honorable man.



Other posts on this topic:

Raising Boys to Men by mum2beautifulboys

On Steubenville High School and Teaching Boys Not to Rape by Avital Normal Nathman

Steubenville: We’re Sick and Tired of Rape Being Treated Like an Unavoidable Joke by Soraya Chemaly

PETITION: National Federation of High School Associations: Educate High School Coaches About Sexual Assault

Boys Can Play With Dollhouses

Lindsay Kolk, a PPBB Community member, sent these pictures in saying she had never seen a dollhouse packaged and marketed with a BOY playing with the toy. I think it is great that the company who makes this toy is able to envision a boy playing with it. His shirt is even colorful, a rare find in boys’ clothing these days. It makes perfect sense to me that a little boy would want to role play what he sees of his family life at home. For my children, that means a work-at-home mom and a very hands-on loving dad .

As I was downloading these images from Facebook to post here, the 6yo Original Pigtail Pal was sitting next to me on the couch and looked over my shoulder. What she said saddened and surprised me, but it is a good reminder that no one is safe from this gender stereotyping and the counter-message from parents is a constant multi-layered conversation:

“A boy shouldn’t be on that box!” -6yo OPP
“What! Why? It looks to me like he is having fun.” -Me
“Because boys don’t play with dollhouses. It is pink.” -OPP
“But I thought colors were for everyone. Benny plays with our dollhouses.” -Me
“Well, colors are for everyone, but not for toys. Everything that is pink and purple is for girls, and everything else is for boys.” -OPP
“Amelia, that just is not true. Most of your toys are not pink. If people played by your rules, do you think they would tell you that all of your whale and ocean toys and science stuff is not for girls? None of that stuff is pink. How would that make you feel?” -Me
“No! That would be SO  unfair!” -OPP, getting teary eyed
“You are right, it would not be fair. But you are very wrong regarding what you are saying about toys and colors. It is great for boys to play with dollhouses. Isn’t he learning how to be a good daddy and husband when he plays like that? Our daddy is good at those things.” -Me
“Welll……..” -OPP
“Amelia, I think the people who make the toys just assume girls want pink and purple and no other colors. They are not very creative to tell you the truth. They tell kids what to play with and what to like, but you know even in our family, we don’t follow those ideas. They limit kids and their imaginations. I just don’t think that is cool.” -Me
“It juss ibsn’t cool.” -4yo Benny Boy
“Well I just don’t know about that. Can boys play with princesses then, too?” -OPP
“Yes of course. All toys are for all kids. You can like and play with whatever you want.” -Me
“It doesn’t show that on the commercials.” -OPP
“Amelia, the commercials are bogus. You know you’ve been taught to think better than that.” -Me
“Nam, dee commashells are juss bullshit.” -Benny Boy

Image via Lindsay Kolk

Image via Lindsay Kolk.