Boys and body image

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Associate Professor Michael Kohn
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Rachel Friend talks with paediatrician Associate Professor Michael Kohn about body image issues now affecting boys.

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Views expressed in interviews may not be the views of the NSW Department of Education and Communities.

Transcript

At a glance

  • Body image issues means someone worries excessively and unnecessarily about their weight.

  • Boys and girls can be affected.

  • Usually these concerns start around puberty

  • Signs include changes in eating habits, sleeping problems and moodiness.

  • If worried ask your child about their concerns, and listen without judgement.
Rachel Friend    
Hello, I'm Rachel Friend and welcome to School A to Z. Associate Professor Michael Kohn is a paediatrician with over 20 years experience. He has a special interest in nutrition and the management of eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and obesity and Professor Kohn has kindly given up some of his time to talk to us about the issue of body image and how it impacts on young men in particular.
Professor Kohn, how relevant would you say the issue is of body image to our boys?

Michael Kohn
Rachel, thank you for the opportunity. I think this is an area of growing importance in modern society. I think it's affecting more and more boys and I think it's important because it's affecting them at increasingly young ages.

Rachel
So what specifically are they worried about?
    
Michael
The worry is generated around appearance, about how you should look, and it relates to the role models and also the health messages that young people are given at primary school as well as later in life as young people in high school.

Rachel
So where is the pressure coming from? I know you suggested role models but is it from the media, from movies, from pop stars?

Michael
Yeah, I think all of the above. Yeah, I think as we look over time at the profile of people who are the pop stars one will see that their BMI, their body mass index, is getting thinner and thinner; that the features with which they're drawn or depicted are getting more cut and that a lean, muscular look is seen to be more the ideal than it has in the past.
 
Rachel
So at what age do you find boys start to worry about their appearance?

Michael
The worry that occurs in boys occurs quite similarly for girls as well and starts in the pre-teen years and in primary school.

Rachel
And what are the dangers if you leave your child to deal with the concern and the worry on their own without getting help?

Michael
For the vast majority of young people who are exposed to these stressors the dangers pass as they continue to grow and develop their young lives but there is a significant minority for whom the impact of the social stressors has a major impact on their health and to mitigate that, for parents to be able to assist the young people to manage it, maintaining open communication, a non-judgemental approach, being able to listen to what is actually happening in their lives and supporting the development of ways that the young person can cope remain the keys.

Rachel
Can you explain how a parent would sort of come to realise that their child is in trouble?

Michael
A child will be more irritable, they'll be more withdrawn, they won't be as communicative. So those changes will happen quite quickly and with that there may be changes in just the fundamental ways that life happens, just the eating, the sleeping, as well as the friendships and communication.

Rachel
Do you think their eating habits often do change?

Michael
Very much so. I think it's very normal for boys to change their eating habits in many different ways as they go through growing up. I remember in my own household my wife was quite aghast that our son has these terrible patterns of eating that developed with not using knife and fork at times and hands, or just indiscriminately raiding the fridge or being asleep and missing meals for long periods of time. There were definitely ways where there were disturbed patterns in eating that occurred with the boys, but what's more worrying is that there is distress in conjunction with the change of behaviour.

Rachel
What do the statistics tell us about the number of boys who actually need professional help?

Michael
We don't have good statistics here. There is a little bit of epidemiological population based information and most of that comes from a study here that was conducted at the Children's Hospital by Dr Sloane Madden that just asked paediatricians who were seeing young people for concerns about eating and weight to report about their concerns and, in fact, what was found from Dr Madden's study was that in the pre-teenage years boys have just as much difficulty as girls about what's happening with body image, with body shape and with eating. We see that risk of developing eating disorders that comes from that concern being quite different as puberty occurs. So the boys tend to be able to mitigate that risk, whereas girls in greater numbers progress to develop eating disorders.

Rachel
I spoke to a number of Year 6 boys who admitted that they had been teased about their weight. What kind of impact can that sort of teasing have on a child's self-esteem?

Michael
It can have a very significant impact. For the vast majority of boys it doesn't, which is the good news. So just because teasing is occurring does not automatically mean there's trauma or there's going to be an impact. Certainly if the child is vulnerable in terms of struggling to cope emotionally in a range of contexts, any form of bullying, and particularly around weight and body image because of the other stressors that occur with it, can have a very significant impact in a small group of vulnerable boys.

Rachel
Or parents who are really worried about their boys, where can they go to get some good, constructive help?

Michael
I think the first thing to do is to start with the people who are around you in the family, start with your son and in a calm, quiet -- a good opportunity for just striking up conversation, say for instance when you're driving him in the car somewhere, yeah, just to sort of introduce a chat. I think if you're having ongoing concerns just to extend out into speaking directly with his teacher at school or someone representing the form, the year at school for the boys in high school so that you're starting to look in greater networks. I think it is really important though not to invade the privacy of the young person, so that a number of families that I will see further distress has occurred because mum's gone round and looked in Facebook with one of the friends or someone's looked, hacked into, taken the opportunity of looking into some of the electronic media ways in which the young person's recording their life. I think better it is to respect that and to look for ways of working with them and the people that are around them to better understand these issues.

Rachel
Professor Michael Kohn, thank you so much for your advice today.

Michael
Thank you very much.

For more information about  your child's healthy weight visit Good For Kids

 

 

Associate Professor Michael Kohn

Associate Professor Michael Kohn is a specialist in adolescent medicine at the Children's Hospital at Westmead.  He is also a clinical associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Sydney University.


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