I loved this post on how to talk to your daughter about her body, and I wanted to create something similar for parents of boys. My friend Nathan and I put this list together, and would love to hear your input.
How to talk to your son about his body, step one: talk to your son about his body. Give him the vocabulary that he needs to communicate how he feels about himself.
Teach him that it’s normal to think about his appearance.
Teach him that it’s fine to want to be handsome or pretty.
Teach him that being a boy doesn’t take away his right to have feelings about his body.
If your son tells you that he is unhappy because he is too fat or too skinny, don’t dismiss him. Don’t tell him that boys don’t have to worry about stuff like that. Don’t tell him that he’s lucky that he’s not a girl, because then it would really be a problem.
Listen to him – really listen – and keep your opinions about his appearance to yourself. Don’t tell him that you’ll help him lose weight. Don’t tell him that he’ll bulk up when he gets older. Just listen, and encourage him to explain how and why he feels that way.
If your son is older, talk to him about male bodies in the media. Ask him what he thinks of the storefronts for Hollister or Abercrombie and Fitch; ask him if he thinks that images represent how he thinks men should look. Talk about the fact that Photoshop is used to alter images of boys as well as those of girls.
Don’t make jokes about your son’s weight. In fact, don’t make any comments about his weight. Don’t talk about how funny it is that he was so skinny as a little kid and now he’s not. Don’t poke him in the side and tell him that his ribs stick out. Don’t sigh enviously over how thin he is.
Don’t assume that you can talk about your son’s body any differently than you talk about your daughter’s.
If you notice that your son is gaining or losing weight, remember that these can be signs of depression. Without asking leading questions or otherwise being obvious about it, try to get some insight into how your son is feeling. Be sensitive to the fact that if you’ve noticed a change in your son’s weight, chances are good that he’s very much aware of it and may feel ashamed or embarrassed.
If you notice that your son is rapidly losing weight, seems to be trying to limit what he eats, or is otherwise occupied with the idea that he is fat, remember that eating disorders are on the rise among teenage boys. If you suspect that your son might have an eating disorder, don’t try to “fix” him by telling him that his body is fine and he has nothing to worry about. Eating disorders are serious, and if you have are concerned that your son might have one, you should contact your pediatrician immediately.
Don’t comment on other men’s bodies – neither positively nor negatively. Don’t communicate an idealized version of masculine beauty, and don’t run other men down. And for the love of God don’t make jokes about hair loss, or say that you don’t find bald men attractive. Don’t make jokes about short men. Don’t make jokes about body hair. Don’t make jokes about penis size. Seriously. Those things aren’t funny.
Don’t make negative comments about your own body. Don’t let him overhear you calling yourself fat, or saying that you should go on a diet. He will learn to love and accept his body by watching how you treat yours. Always remember that he will take his cues on body acceptance from you.
Teach your son to be kind to himself.
Teach him to be kind to other people.
Teach your son that his body is good for all kinds of things – dancing, sports, digging in the dirt, yoga, gymnastics, figure skating, or even just sitting quietly and thinking.
Teach him to move his body in lots of different ways, from lifting big rocks to spinning pirouettes, because those things are fun and they feel good. Teach him to stretch and touch his toes because this will help keep his muscles flexible and elastic. Teach him to do cartwheels because there is no greater expression of joy. Teach him to lie in a patch of sunlight and dive into a good book.
Don’t teach your son about “good” foods and “bad” foods, because food shouldn’t be subject to moral judgment. Instead, teach him about foods that will fill him up and give him energy versus foods that will leave him feeling unsatisfied and cranky an hour later. Teach him that candy and desserts are great, but that they won’t give him the drive he needs to get through the day.
Teach your son to cook. Teach him to cook anything and everything – scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, tooth-achingly rich chocolate cake. Teach him how to sauté vegetables and whisk egg whites.
Prove to your son that he doesn’t need a woman to cook for him.
Prove to him that there is no such thing as a “girly” interest or hobby.
Teach your son that people come in all different shapes and sizes. Teach him that there is no one specific way that he, as a boy, should look or act – his appearance and his interests are perfect because he is perfect. But teach him, too, that there is nothing bad or shameful about feeling uncomfortable with his body. Teach him that there is nothing wrong with wanting to talk about his body, or wanting to find ways to feel happier in his body.
Teach him that you’re there to listen.
Teach him that he’s not alone.