Eating disorders and dieting increasing in adolescent boys, inquiry reveals

A growing dissatisfaction with their bodies is increasing in teenage males. (Getty Images)
A growing dissatisfaction with their bodies is increasing among teenage males, a parliamentary inquiry has found. (Getty Images)

A parliamentary inquiry into body image has revealed that eating disorders and dieting in teenage boys is increasing.

While girls are still more at risk of developing a negative body image in adolescence, the rate in which adolescent boys are reporting body dissatisfaction is increasing quicker than it is in teenage girls.

Senior research fellow at University College London, Dr Francesca Solmi, said that while this is most prevalent in adolescence, some cases of body dissatisfaction have been reported among children, too.

This type of behaviour has been proven to lead to a whole host of mental and physical health concerns in later life.

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Speaking at the inquiry, Dr Solmi explained: “Body dissatisfaction is increasing in boys. From our own research we do see that some disordered eating behaviours and behaviours that are aimed to change the shape of a body, like dieting, or trying to gain weight, have increased at a higher rate in boys compared to girls, but they are still higher in women and girls.”

She went on to reveal that this type of body dissatisfaction can lead to mental health risks, like depression and eating disorders as well as higher risks of taking up smoking and drinking alcohol.

While the research doesn’t conclude what impact this has on boys and men in later life, a 2019 study into mental health in adults by the Mental Health Foundation found that one in eight people aged 18 and above have felt suicidal about the way they look.

The inquiry did also note that while people in their teenage years and early adulthood were most likely to suffer from poor body image, some older women were “seeking cosmetic procedures for career reasons – to avoid discrimination in the workplace”, according to Professor Clare Chambers, council member at Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

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Dr Amy Slater, associate professor at the Centre for Appearance Research, concluded from her own research that the environment we live in can have a huge impact on poor body image in both boys and girls.

While there are a number of people at higher risk of body dissatisfaction, including; women and girls, sexual minority groups, adolescents and people of higher weight, exposure to unrealistic body standards is one of the most prevalent reasons for poor body image.

Adverts and social media play a key role in the development of a healthy body image and in many cases, heavily edited photographs can lead to people feeling that their body is not good enough.

According to the inquiry, it’s not just advertising that can play a role in bad body image, but peers, family and partners can also add to it.

Roxanne Caplan, parents helpline manager at charity YoungMinds comments: “The relatively low awareness of boys’ body image issues, coupled with a culture of boys not discussing their worries, makes it a tough environment for boys to seek support.

“It’s important for parents to help their children see that everyone has different body shapes and sizes, and are unique in their own way. Encourage them to love and accept who they are, and promote and channel their strengths.”

If you have a family member who is struggling with their body image, YoungMinds suggest you could support them in the following ways:

  • Talk to them and encourage them to focus on what they like about themselves and what they can do – not just how they look. Help them to see all their good points and the things you like about them – these can be simple things, like being a good sport, a caring friend or making people laugh.

  • If you're finding it difficult to know what to say, writing their good points as a list together can be another way to help them. They can keep the list for the days they are struggling as a reminder of all the good things they like about themselves.

  • Sit with them in front of a mirror. Together, thank your body for all the positive things it does. You both might find this strange at first, but by doing this together, you can encourage them and show them how to see positives in their body. It can help them to learn to love themselves.

  • Help them evaluate their social media feeds as they can often be exposed to glamorous lifestyles and ideal body images. It is important to make young people aware of the use of filters and editing that can be used to achieve perfect appearances and how people only post what they want others to see. Young people may want to clean their feeds and follow individuals who promote body positivity, (for more advice on how to do this, visit the YoungMinds website).

  • If you think they’re feeling overwhelmed, encourage them to see their GP for professional help. Parents who are concerned can call the YoungMinds parents helpline on 0808 802 5544.

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