Boys left out of body image conversation

Starting high school can be a rough time, never mind the difficulties some boys face in ‘fitting in physically’ with their male counterparts. The social code and attitudes of what it means to ‘be a man’ can leave some boys on the sidelines when it comes to health education.

The relationship between health, masculinity and education is central to better understanding why adolescent boys disengage from healthy life practices, says University of Western Ontario Education professor Michael Kehler.

“Competing masculinities, bodies and body images that are often marginalized and excluded by other more body privileged masculinities can contribute to long-term impacts on healthy life practices for boys and men,” he says. “Within the field of education and health, current efforts fail to acknowledge the salience of gender and specifically the link between a culture of masculinity and an increased visibility of boys and their bodies.”

Kehler is confident an international symposium he is co-organizing in Ottawa (June 6-8) will result in an overdue response to a largely under-examined area of research – namely that of body image and health in education. Fellow Western faculty member Kevin Wamsley (Health Sciences) and University of Toronto professor Michael Atkinson join Kehler in organizing the symposium.

An International Symposium Speaks the Unspoken: Masculinities, bodies and body images in health education will engage scholars from around the world to engage with the topic and develop a stronger collaborative community.

This forum pushes scholars, policy-makers and health agencies to acknowledge those who want to participate in healthy, active lives in school but who remain largely overshadowed by more dominating, physically intimidating boys.

“It’s not so much not wanting to participate in sports,” says Kehler, whose research examines the intersections of health, masculinity and physical activity in secondary schools. “The boys we have been talking to have said it’s not they don’t want to play, it’s they don’t want to be like the rest of the boys. They don’t feel compelled to have to be sexist or homophobic. They don’t feel safe enough to participate in that context because of the alienation and marginalized experience they’ve had because there are some dominant and aggressive boys who continue to control the space. They want to participate as a boy just to be healthy.”

Kehler adds the subject often gets written off as a gay issue or simply taboo. He thinks that’s a disservice this symposium, funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, will help alleviate.

Kehler admits he would like to see policy or curricular changes made within Ontario’s education system to address such concerns. He realizes, however, changes come only with awareness.

“The conversation has not been had,” Kehler says. “I think we can break the cycle, but first we need to interrupt the cycle. In this case we need to start the conversation. Boys would like to participate but they’re not interested in the posturing, aggressive behaviour and competiveness that go along with it. So you always have that roadblock. This is a health education concern, not just about sports.”

 

For more information on An International Symposium Speaks the Unspoken: Masculinities, bodies and body images in health education, visit edu.uwo.ca/speakingtheunspoken.