When school reopened after the covid-19 lockdown in 2022, 17-year-old Vinay Mehta, in Bengaluru, refused to attend his classes. The reason? He was small in stature while most of his friends had shot up in height during the pandemic.
“He said he looked like an 8th grader even though he was entering grade 12,” his mother Rumi Mehta says. “Boys and girls in his class called him chhotu. They teased him and asked if he shopped in the children’s section. He really could not handle it.”
Mehta and her husband sat down with Vinay to talk him through it but he was inconsolable. “He forced us to take him to the endocrinologist, who ruled out any medical problem and told him it could be genetic,” she says. “My husband and I realised that we should let him observe his own emotions and go through whatever he is going through. After a few months, he came to terms that this is how he is and on our part, we promised to support him with these emotions.”
It’s not just girls who are exposed to huge pressure about their bodies. Boys experience acute anxiety about their bodies too. According to a 2020 study, Body Image Dissatisfaction in Young Men by Geeta Soohinda and team, published in the Indian Journal of Social Psychiatry, 34.44% of the surveyed Indian men had moderate to marked body image dissatisfaction, triggered by sociocultural expectations, peer pressure, and social media. And unlike girls, boys don’t even acknowledge or talk about these challenges. Here’s what you can do to help them through it.
In 2022, health psychologist, professor, and body image scientist Dr. Charlotte H. Markey wrote a book, Being You: The Body Image Book for Boys about how boys struggle with body dissatisfaction too. Markey found that her own son refused to talk to her about his body and that he did not have the words to talk about it. In researching her book, she interviewed dozens of adolescent, teenage, and young adult boys who wanted bigger abs and muscles like the men they saw talking about their gym routines on social media. Unlike the girls, though, the boys could not articulate why they felt this way. Many feel ashamed to talk about their insecurities, which can be a double discrimination for young men.
Chennai-based parent Shashwat Srijan believes that kids don’t open up to their parents. “My 16-year-old was obsessed with getting a muscular body and started to take a lot of protein supplements,” he says. “He wanted to get very muscular but also stay lean. To me this seems like such an unachievable combination. He was miserable and was barely passing his exams.”
Finally, Srijan took his son to their family paediatrician, who had known them for decades. ”She had a good rapport with my son and he trusted her,” he says. “He told her he wanted to build more muscles and did not like his complexion. Finally, she convinced him to go off unhealthy diets, stop excessive gymming, and to focus on physical and mental health. It definitely helps to make regular visits to the family doctor or paediatrician or to get support from a counsellor.”
Magdalene Jeyathraman is a board certified psychodramatist, the first to be trained in India and is part of the board of Directors of International Association of Group Psychotherapy and Group Processes.
“I have many young men who come up with complaints that their features are not good, their nose is too big, their ears are too big, and their skin colour is too dark,” she says. "They have acne marks, they are too fat, too thin, too short, too tall. Parents need to be present for their children if they are showing any sign of obsession over their looks. The issues around body image can be extremely distressing and depressing. I know of parents who are taking their sons for surgery to "correct" whatever they are saying is wrong with them. Finding a right therapist to work out these issues and maintain positive mental health and well-being is important. Parents must discuss these issues early because very often by the time the children are teenagers, they are already closed to their parents' views.”
Jeyathraman also mentions that many boys today experiment with fairness creams, eye liners, and eyebrow pencils. “We are accepting of our sons when they do "manly" things but feel a bit shaken when they want to wear eyeliner or wax themselves,” she says. “Parents need to be very sensitive while addressing these issues because they can be misunderstood and their genuine concern can be misinterpreted as being judgmental.”
Boys and girls who have been shamed for their looks can grow up with anxiety and low self-esteem. We need to get both our boys and girls to talk more about their bodies and question unrealistic beauty standards so that they can embrace body positivity and start living their best lives.
Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.