teenage body building
It’s not just girls who worry about how they look. Now teenage boys are obsessing too. Samantha Laurie examines the alarming trend
In truth, I hadn’t noticed them until shortly after my interview with body confidence guru, Natasha Devon. And then suddenly there they were – rows and rows of oversized containers, lined up in my local health shop, all depicting rippling muscles and bulging biceps.
Protein powders. Alongside them, protein shakes, snack bars, drinks. And not just in the health food shop – in the supermarket too. All promising bigger, beefier, buffer bodies.
Who on earth is buying all this? On a Western diet overstuffed with protein, who wants more? The answer, alarmingly, is gym-fixated teenage boys, says Natasha, a writer, TV pundit and founder of healthy body image campaign, Body Gossip.
And she should know. For her day job – delivering self-esteem classes to Britain’s teenagers – has brought her closer than most to what she believes is an emerging body image crisis in young boys.
“In schools I visit, it’s seen as normal – almost expected – for boys of 13 and 14 to be going to the gym several times a week and taking protein powders. Parents encourage it, as they think it’s healthy. But this is not about fitness – it’s about muscle-building. It’s a misrepresentation of what exercise is – it’s not how it makes you feel, but how you look.”
Protein shakes are not intrinsically unhealthy: most are casein or whey – literally curds and whey – which offer scarcely more benefit than a glass of milk and a chicken sandwich for the ordinary gym user. But there is deep unease about the pursuit of muscles in pubescent boys, both in terms of the safety of unregulated supplements – 1 in 10 sports supplements, usually the cheapest, contain banned substances, says drugs testing company LGC – and in terms of general body dissatisfaction.
“I have seen a dramatic change in how preoccupied young boys have become with body image,” warns Natasha. “In girls the problem shows up as eating disorders; in boys it’s an unhealthy quest for an unattainable ripped look. It’s a rerun of the pressure we put on young girls that has had such devastating effects.”
As we talk, the papers are full of those devastating effects: a report in The Times of a ‘silent epidemic’ of anorexia at high-achieving independent schools; a terrifying rise in self-harming (a 30% jump in hospital admissions of 10-14 year olds).
All this is intrinsically linked to the toxic effects of constant judgment by peers on social media, and of our obsession with body image, says Devon. A tireless campaigner for more diversity in beauty images, she argues that low self-esteem is fuelled by an inability to live up to a narrow, unrealistic idea of beauty. It is no coincidence, she says, that anorexia in boys has risen by 50% over the past five years, as the male beauty market has emerged.
Last month she visited Trinity School, Croydon, an all-boys schools that is actively promoting debate.
“Boys haven’t heard this before. With girls there’s been so much about airbrushing and body image, so what they need is clarity. They need to hear: ‘Yes, experiment with your hair, wear make-up, but do it for fun – not because you’ve been made to feel insecure.’
“But boys are new to this. They know about Creatine and steroids, but they’ve no forum for debating what is real health and what is manipulation.”
The portrayal of men as fat-free and chiseled is recent:
30 years ago, the average rock star was not exactly muscled. Today, evidence from the US points to over one third of teenage boys regularly using supplements to build bulk, with 1 in 10 trying 'muscle-enhancing substances’ and 1 in 20 taking steroids.
It’s the slide towards riskier substances that most concerns experts like Dr Graeme Close, senior lecturer in Sports and Nutrition at Liverpool John Moores University. Last year a 17-year-old Twickenham boy, a fine sportsman, died after taking DNP – a chemical used in pesticide but sold online as a quick-fix diet aid – so as to enhance his look for the beach.
“Boys need a clear message,” urges Close, “that there is nothing in a bottle that will give you a six pack that you can’t get from good diet. And there is nothing – absolutely nothing – calling itself a fat-burner that isn’t either useless or dangerous.”
Such messages need to be clear, frequent and delivered to an ever-younger age group. It is girls aged 11-14 who fall off the body confidence bus, succumbing to the aggressive traffic of negative messages, says Devon. Tell them young enough to be the best version of themselves – not some poor imitation of someone else – and you can make an impact.
Time for the boys to start hearing that too.