When I was on book tour for Love Your Body the most common question I was asked was, ‘when will you be writing a book for boys?’. Through conversations with parents, I discovered a common theme – parents were all very concerned about the mental health of their boys and were searching for resources to help support them. I knew I needed to create something special for boys and I also knew it would need to be different from my first book, Love Your Body, because boys and girls experience body image and mental health issues differently. A girl is told that she must be thin, have flawless skin, symmetrical features, plump lips, to take up less space, etc. This is not the same message that our boys receive. Boys are taught that they should be strong and toned, big and broad, tall, and sporty. On top of body image pressures there is also incredible pressure on boys to act tough and never show any sign of weakness. This gendered pressure results in poorer mental health outcomes for boys. Boys are operating under a series of largely unspoken ‘man box’ rules that they pick up from television, media, adult role models, and their peers. When boys grow to become men they are three times more likely to die by suicide and are far less likely to seek help for mental health conditions than their female counterparts.
Adults will often reinforce male stereotypes without even thinking, they are a part of a script that is passed down through the generations. Sayings such as ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘man up’ continue to reinforce the idea that boys and men should never be vulnerable or express their emotions. This is hugely problematic because an essential part of being a healthy human is processing and releasing emotions and asking for help. Children need these emotional intelligence skills in order to feel free to be themselves. The most common theme I’ve observed across all the workshops I’ve facilitated in schools is that boys ignore or suppress their feelings whereas girls talk about them. Talking about our feelings is an incredibly important part of wellbeing and builds emotional resilience. When we share our feelings we relieve the weight of them and if the person we shared with is a good listener we feel supported. Boys often don’t feel safe to talk about their feelings or even have the language to do so. As a result, they are emotionally disadvantaged. As an adult, you can be a powerful role model for a young person by talking about your feelings in an age-appropriate way. You are also providing boys with the language to talk about their feelings. This is incredibly important. We can’t express our feelings and ask for help without the emotional language required to do so. You should be talking about feelings every day, multiple times a day. It’s also really great to have a specific space or time of day to talk about feelings. It could be at the dinner table or just before you read a bedtime story.
If you model equality, vulnerability and respect of difference in your home you are giving your child the tools to see through the outdated stereotype and forge their own identity. Boys who are given the space to connect with their emotions, as well as the tools to develop positive coping mechanisms will grow to become happier and healthier men. Our world needs men who are kind, empathetic, and who aren’t afraid to ask for help. These men who respect and value softness will ultimately make us stronger as a community.
Jessica Sanders is a social worker and best-selling author. Her previous titles are Love Your Body and Me Time. Be Your Own Man is available in all good bookstores and Booktopia.