Boys Obsessed with Body Image Face Substance Abuse Risks

Adolescent Boys Obsessed with Body Image Face Higher Substance Abuse Risks

man lifting a dumbbell

The image of the ideal man has changed dramatically over the past 30-40 years, from barrel chested John Wayne types to a muscular, lean man in top shape. The message is not lost on adolescent boys worried about what it means to be a man: manliness is about looking strong and muscular. A study suggests boys who worry about being thinner are also more likely to be depressed and engage in risky behaviors like alcohol and drug use.


The Harvard School of Public Health took a look at how boys’ self-perception affected them. The longitudinal study involved 5,527 adolescent boys from across the nation. Among those young men, 17.9 percent were found to be highly concerned with their weight and personal appearance, with 9.2 percent highly focused on building muscle, 2.5 percent very concerned with being thin with no bulimia and 2.4 percent that took supplements including growth hormones or steroids in order to gain muscle.

The boys who wanted a more chiseled appearance also tended to be more likely to engage in risky behavior such as drinking alcohol or drug use. According to the Harvard researchers, young men who fixate on muscularity and who use supplements to achieve that look are twice as apt to take part in risky behaviors compared to their non-body-obsessed peers.

While boys do not tend to starve themselves like their female counterparts with an eating disorder, men do make up 10 percent of those with bulimia or anorexia. The Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine reported in 2004 that 28 percent of teen boys are slightly overweight and 14 percent of boys are obese. Boys can turn to disordered eating just like girls in order to overcome a weight issue.

Adolescent males are right there with the girls in terms of listening to social cues about what is considered handsome or attractive. Boys who decide to add extra exercise sessions, take muscle-enhancing supplements and change their eating habits in order to looks like male models are demonstrating some of the same dangerous behaviors as young women with an eating disorder.

No one can say for sure how many subclinical eating disorders are occurring, but the problem among young men seems to be growing. As the Harvard study shows, a significant number of boys are dissatisfied with their appearance and are willing to go to great lengths in order to live up to the socially promoted ideal. The Harvard research revealed that 6.3 percent of the boys were highly concerned with both their weight and their physique.

Parents may not be aware that their teenage son could be struggling in this way and may not be looking for warning signs. There are things a parent can do to help their sons avoid the trap of unhealthy expectations and behaviors:

  • Be a healthy role model yourself – eat healthy, exercise regularly and with moderation
  • Talk openly with your son about appearance and self-perception
  • Be alert to weight changes or appetite changes which could be a sign of steroid use
  • Visit your family doctor regularly.

The modern male ideal looks more like a superhero than an average man. It will take some intentional input from parents, coaches and other adult role models in order to help young men develop personal goals that are healthy, realistic and wise.

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