By Paul Everest/London Community News/Twitter: @PaulEverest1
With images of male models showing off chiseled abs and bulging biceps behind him, University of Toronto researcher Michael Atkinson kicked off a discussion about how adolescent boys are struggling with body image issues and avoiding physical education with a dire comment.
“Boys are in trouble,” he said. “We don’t talk about it a lot.”
Atkinson, from the university’s faculty of kinesiology and physical education, shared the stage at London’s Palasad entertainment complex on Wednesday (June 13) with Western University’s Michael Kehler, from the school’s faculty of education, to host a community discussion on how some boys are practising unhealthy behaviours and avoiding exercise or physical education classes because of how they see their bodies.
Atkinson and Kehler spent more than two years researching this issue by speaking with adolescent boys across the country and collaborating with researchers in Canada and overseas.
They found many boys, like girls, struggle with body image issues and are anxious or fearful to participate in physical education activities in high school where they may be mocked by boys with more muscular bodies or who are more athletic, or even by their teachers.
Some will even avoid taking part in physical education classes or entering locker rooms and these types of behaviours are related to other problems for boys.
For example, Atkinson said boys are becoming more inclined to drop out or are falling behind girls when it comes to success in school.
He added boys are more prone to depression, suicidal thoughts and drug and alcohol abuse and have lower self-esteem than girls.
Many of the roughly 30 people in attendance for the discussion, including a number of educators, shared stories about their own experiences in high school and suggested possible solutions to help get adolescents more involved with healthy activities and behaviours at the high school level.
One man said most boys and girls enjoy physical education in grade school when classes are designed around having fun and participating as compared to the competitive nature of high school physical education classes.
Kehler agreed, saying many of the boys interviewed for his research liked physical education in the lower grades when the focus was “playing,” but they grew to loathe such education in high school where it is structured to face students off “against each other.”
Atkinson added a big problem with high school-level physical education is that it focuses on sports, which have “little to do with health.”
Other people in attendance spoke about how they shied away from sports in high school because they feared being perceived as weaker if they did not perform well.
One man said he recalled a teacher taunting the boys who did not perform well in some sports, adding many physical education programs are “negatively driven” in this way instead of creating a supportive atmosphere for students.
Kehler said many boys he interviewed said they were interested in physical activity and its health benefits but weren’t necessarily interested in sports or sculpting their bodies.
He said without the support of teachers and a more positive climate in locker rooms and classrooms, boys begin to develop “avoidance techniques.”
They show up late to a class so they don’t have to change in front of other boys or even change elsewhere.
“But they can’t avoid the gaze of their peers,” Kehler said, adding boys who practise these avoidance techniques will get called out by their peers for not being in the locker room.
Atkinson said many boys will even go home to shower and pointed out that, unlike the stalled showers present in many girls’ locker rooms, boys are often expected to shower in large open spaces.
“The only other place we do this is prison,” he said.
Another man in the crowd said the real issue that needs tackling when it comes to body images is the media.
He said most adult men are not having any “crisis” about their bodies at a time when celebrities such as Brad Pitt or George Clooney are often portrayed as ideal males.
But, the man added, maybe younger boys don’t have the “tools” necessary to feel comfortable about themselves when images of sculpted bodies are present everywhere they look.
Kehler agreed, saying there is a need to start a dialogue about why boys are lacking these tools.
Atkinson brought up a conversation he had three weeks ago with a boy in Montreal who said he was confused by what women find desirable when it comes to men portrayed in the media.
For example, Atkinson said, some women want Edward from the Twilight movies, a leaner boy with a lighter complexion, while others want Pauly D from the Jersey Shore television series who is more muscular and deeply tanned.
In this way, he said, the media “pushes and pulls” boys when it comes to finding an identity and often times boys become confused on how to discover their own masculinity.
Kehler said many of these problems stem from trends where boys are made to feel guilty about showing or talking about their bodies.
What’s even more dangerous, Atkinson said, is when boys stop caring about their bodies altogether, especially at a time when only a small fraction of children and young people in the province are meeting the bare minimum physical activity levels.
One woman suggested that some of these problems could come from assigning grades for physical education, which leads to a higher degree of competition.
Kehler responded by saying some of the boys he spoke to said they find it ironic that they are graded on participation, but never get passed the ball by their more athletic peers and so they become marginalized by their instructors.
Atkinson said part of the solution might be creating “different streams” of activities in high school physical education programs, where some students could take part in sports while others take part in other activities focused on fitness, participation and having fun.
They could then be graded accordingly.
Kelher said he hopes conversations about these issues continue as they are important, but he hopes that in the future, adolescent boys will join the discussion, since none were present Wednesday night.