Do 13 year olds really think about six-pack abs?
By Mom and RD, Elyse Falk
Boys and body image! Wow…what a perfect topic for me to be blogging about right now. The scenario goes something like this: My almost 13-year-old son comes home after a Bar Mitzvah party for one of his friends. It’s 12:00 am. I drag my butt out of bed to make sure he’s OK and to ask him how his evening was. As I walk sleepily down the hallway, I unintentionally catch a glimpse of his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He’s standing there, shirtless, flexing his muscles in the mirror and pulling in his abdominals. “Really?”…I think to myself. Not knowing quite what to say at that exact moment, I utter something innocuous: “OK. You can look at yourself tomorrow. It’s past midnight. Get into bed.” He quickly pulls on his shirt, and I, in turn, make a mental note about it.
As the days followed, I became aware of a noticeable decrease in his food intake…especially one night while we were eating dinner together. So I asked him: “Aren’t you hungry?” He answered: “Well, I’ve just been watching how much I eat and my stomach looks smaller when I eat less.” Because I’m a registered dietitian who specializes in counseling clients with eating disorders, I almost had a heart attack when I heard his response! “Listen to me, dude!” I said. “Your body is strong from karate and the recreational sports you participate in during the year. Your body is healthy from all the different foods you eat. You’re getting bigger and taller because you’re a teenager. Your body is changing so much right now! You’re starting to become a man! Your belly has gone through many changes throughout the last two years. It’s gotten bigger and then, when you grew taller, your belly became smaller again because that’s precisely what happens when you go through puberty!” He seemed to listen to what I was telling him, looked at me briefly, and simply said “Hmm….” He came into the kitchen a little bit later and, without any hesitation, ate some cookies. I didn’t say a word. The conversation hasn’t come up again since!Photo Credit: Aka Hige via Compfight cc
Here’s what I’ve learned: The knowledge that boys (as well as girls) can and do fall prey to those troubling messages in the media about body image and dieting. In addition, puberty is often a very difficult life passage for any tween. When our bodies undergo various changes during puberty, our psyches do too. Many suffer with dismal thoughts and awkward feelings; throwing in the need to “fit in” by “looking a certain way” during this adolescent stage directs even more attention to their bodies. Please understand that it’s natural for your tween to be curious about his/her body’s new changes and how food affects those changes. And it’s most important for you to know that this is a crucial time for us, as parents, to watch our words and to keep our eyes pried wide open for the little (sometimes almost microscopic) clues our kids may be displaying. A particularly vital task at hand is helping our boys understand how food helps their bodies and that the changes to their tummies, their voices, and their broadness are all normal and need to be balanced with the consumption of healthy foods and fun physical activities…but most definitely not controlled!
Elyse Falk is a registered dietitian who specializes with clients who have disordered eating/eating disorders and practices in Northern Westchester and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.