New research conducted at La Trobe University has examined – for the first time worldwide – both muscularity and thinness in relation to perceived body ideals in boys of this age group.
Siân McLean – Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University and Research Fellow at the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University – has conducted a study in which more than 100 boys were interviewed.
“Of the boys interviewed, 32.6 per cent wanted to be more muscular and 20.8 per cent wanted to be thinner,” Dr McLean said.
“In comparison, fewer boys interviewed wanted to be less muscular (16.8 per cent) and less than ten per cent (8.9 per cent) wanted to be larger or fatter.”
The six-year-old boys were then asked a series of ‘yes-or-no’ questions in relation to muscularity and thinness, to understand which they considered most desirable.
“The boys were asked if being muscular or being thinner would make them look better, help them make more friends and have more fun,” Dr McLean said.
“Boys were more likely to expect positive rewards from muscularity than from thinness.”
47 per cent of boys thought muscles would make them look better, 35 per cent thought having muscles would help them make new friends and 55 per cent of six-year-old boys believed they would have more fun if they had a more muscular figure.
“This is significant because boys who thought that being muscular would bring rewards were also more likely to want to have a body more muscular than their actual body,” Dr McLean said.
“Their preferences seem to reflect the way that a muscular physique for men is perceived as valuable and desirable in our society.
When questioned about thinness, 29 per cent of boys said being thinner would make them look better, 31 per cent believed being thinner would help them make new friends and 43 per cent said they would have more fun if they were thinner.
“This study is really a starting point in understanding how these preferences might develop in young boys and whether this way of thinking leads to some of the unhealthy practices young men engage in to achieve an ideal muscular or thinner body,” Dr McLean said.
“We know that in adolescent boys and young men, the desire to achieve a muscular appearance ideal – which is both low in body fat and high in muscularity – can lead to extreme compulsive and excessive exercising, dieting including rigid and restrictive eating behaviours, and use of performance enhancing drugs, including anabolic steroids.”
“Our Engaging Minds in Body Image and Eating Disorders research team will continue to build on this study to determine if boys’ preferences for a muscular body increase as they move through childhood. The findings from this study will also continue to inform our school- and parent-based interventions to improve positive body image in young children.”
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