Apparently 2016 was the year men became obsessed with their bodies fuelled by a desire for guns of steel and abs to die for and my eldest teenager was no exception.
A keen sportsman, he has always been fit and lean. His father and I are both slight, so genetics dictate that he will not be predisposed to a large physique, so previous early teenage moanings about how skinny he is have been dismissed by us all with encouragement to accept himself as he is. However, after years of acceptance, it would seem he has decided to take the matter into his own hands.
Of course we were aware that he was keen to build his strength not only for Rugby but also ahead of the Cricket season to increase his bowling speed and that he had even gone so far as to seek advice on a strength training schedule, but we hadn’t really been paying much attention other than that.
In hindsight the warning signs were there. The frequent mentions of various people being “well ripped”, the request for more lean protein and carbs and less fat in his meals, the absence of constant snacking on biscuits and crisps and the increased consumption of bananas and post exercise smoothies. Add to this the arrival of pull up bars and dumbbells, the frequent puffing and grunting noises that tend to drift down the stairwell from his room and the constant marks on the mirrors around the house as he clearly admires the fruits of his labour.
So where is the harm in all that you may ask? Teenage boys are the masters of doing nothing so surely a young man that is actively doing something about his general fitness is a good thing right? Well yes within reason but now that he has come out as “muscle freak” so to speak, it has become all consuming and by that I mean not only of his time to the point where homework is abandoned temporarily in the mission to just do a few more push ups, but also of his conversation, as he regales us with regular updates on how much he can now bench press.
During our holiday to California, any downtime that we had in our sight-seeing schedule was used by him to seek out a local gym in a quest to maintain his physique and ensure his previous hard-work was not wasted. If a gym visit wasn’t possible he improvised and forced to share a room with him on our travels, Teenager No.2 could frequently be heard shouting “Will you please stop doing so many press-ups!” or “Will you stop flexing your biceps!”
Our bodies are our greatest anxiety and everyone’s definition of physical beauty and perfection is completely different. It is a subject which we tend to associate more with females, but there is growing evidence that body image is a big concern amongst males too.
Research from the YMCA amongst 16-25 year olds into challenges they face and the factors most affecting their ability to be happier about themselves, showed that body image issues were a third of the list of the top concerns for young people, with a third of boys admitting to trying to change their body shape.
Spurred by Teen 1’s muscle mania I decided to do a bit more digging and found that apparently it is not uncommon for teenage boys around his age to feel a need to “bulk up” and do some muscle building. The UK advertising industry think tank Credos published a report which focused on boys’ body confidence and showed that boys are plagued by the same anxieties as girls. Whilst looking good comes low on the list of things that make boys happy overall, the report showed that it is their friends that are most likely to make them feel they have to look good and this is particularly true amongst boys in upper secondary school.
In terms of the quest for the “perfect body” two thirds of those who believe there is such a thing, also think they can achieve it if they work at it. Perhaps not surprisingly the influence of social media is huge, exposing boys not only to relentless peer pressure but also giving them immediate access to tips on how to get in shape and celebrity workout regimes to achieve their goal. Chris Evans’ preparation for his role as Captain America was arduous and his workout regime for the role extensively documented making it one of the most popular downloads of the summer.
Interestingly, the Credos research also showed a shift in attitudes in what is seen as a desirable body as boys get older, with older boys tending to find a toned and muscular body more attractive. In fact, amongst the older boys there was a definite link in the research between muscles and masculinity. Surrounded by images of “buff” celebrities preparing for action roles that is probably not surprising. The report said “Almost half of secondary boys would consider exercising with the specific intention of building muscle and bulking up (48%) and a fifth have already done this (21%) suggesting a staggering 69% aspire to a muscular physique.”
So where does this leave us? Well, it would seem that Teen 1 is demonstrating the typical behaviour of an older secondary boy in striving for a more muscular physique. According to the report, however, he is in the minority (29%) in that he is open with us about wanting to “improve” himself as he sees it.
From my perspective, I am happy that he is interested in his fitness primarily for the benefit of his sport, that he has sought advice on a regime from a professional and that he is adopting a more healthy attitude to the food he eats, BUT there are boundaries as with everything. I have stressed to him the importance of keeping a balanced perspective on his quest to improve his stature and of course like all teenagers he has listened and then groaned at my maternal expressions of concern and said “Yes Mum!!”. In the meantime, I can only repeat my daily request to him to “Get your pecs out of my kitchen and go and put some clothes on!”