A father fears he’ll pass his body image issues on to his son

I have a photo of my father in a scrapbook from my childhood. In the photo, he’s shirtless, his arms crossed below his bare chest. Veins bulge in his forearms and biceps, and his abs are a well-defined six pack. He looks how I always thought a man should look: tall, small waist, broad shoulders, handsome.

As a kid, I wanted to become a man like that. I wanted a body just like my father’s body. That desire still haunts me today, and dictates everything I do. My biggest fear now, though, is how I might pass this on to my 3-year-old son.

My father had the physique of an action movie hero, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, in an era of big muscles and big movies. Boys when I was young idolized those men, their muscles and how they beat up bad guys, saved beautiful girls.

Often, my father imitated his favorite Schwarzenegger one-liners I’ll be back, Hasta la vista, baby, flexing his biceps. He’d wink at me, then I’d flex my muscles too. My father would squint his eyes, poking his finger on my malleable muscle. He’d shake his head and say, Girlie Man.

Now 35, my fixation with building my muscles has not lessened. I think about my father’s photo — that he was my age then, with three kids, and was still buff. I don’t think I look like him yet, and I want to. I tell my wife I work out so much because I want to live forever, because the leading cause of death for men is actually heart disease. But really, she knows that I exercise obsessively because I believe there is something wrong with my body.

Boys have body image problems too

I exercise six days a week, weightlifting in the morning and doing cardio at night. I count my calories, I organize my macros. Yet, I keep my shirt on at the pool or beach. I rarely wear shorts. I hate that my stomach, no matter how many calories I don’t consume, is not in a six-pack.

Most of all, I hate thinking about what my body issues will do to my 3-year-old son’s vision of himself one day. What will he pick up from me, like I did from my dad, that will make him feel less-than somehow? How will my sweet, funny, happy child struggle?

I think back to myself as a little boy, back to when I wanted to be like my father, and I wonder what he should have told me about my body. Maybe that I’d never be as muscular as him, and that was okay. Maybe that our bodies would be different because we were different. Maybe he should have told me that yes, he was strong, but I was too. That strength wasn’t all about muscles, that there was more to me than that. That I was strong, healthy and good.

I wonder, as I struggle with my own body image, what today’s boys are thinking as they watch their dads or view the perfect bodies on social media. How do we tell them they’re just as important, that they matter, that they are beautiful too? I think we need to tell them what we’ve been trying to tell our little girls: that their worth should not be tied to their beauty, or their weight.

And yet I find myself telling my preschooler how big and strong he is, how he was more than nine pounds when he was born, how he’ll be a gifted athlete. I imagine how he will walk through the world, unlike how I did — how people will notice his brawn before his brains.

I also know this is fundamentally wrong. I know I would not want this for my 5-year-old daughter. But society has set these standards for our boys.

To my relief, male celebrities are starting to push back on body image perfection for men, like those in this BuzzFeed piece, talking about the torture of trying to get a body like my dad had. In 2018, Rob McElhenney, star of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” discussed this body unattainability in an Instagram post about his transformation from “Fat Mac” to “Ripped Mac.” The regimen celebrities endure to obtain their perfect physiques are nearly impossible for everyday people.

But it’s a social media world now, and our boys are watching. They are working out too much, not eating enough, pushing themselves like I push myself, to have a “Dorito”-shaped body.

Body dysmorphic disorders have increased since the rise of social media at a staggering rate, particularly among teens. And it’s not just girls anymore. Nearly 22 percent of young men engage in some sort of muscle-building behaviors — beyond just trying to stay in shape.

This makes sense to me, as I continue to work out daily and continue to think I don’t look “right” just yet.

Parenting is a challenge. For me, that challenge is taking the form of helping my son feel good about himself, even at such a young age. I believe my parents tried their best to teach me about myself. I believe they encouraged me to exercise because they thought it was helping my self-esteem. And yet, I continue to long for a body that I don’t see in the mirror. And I don’t want my son to ever feel this way.

My hope for my son, and for yours, is that they never believe their value is contingent on their looks. The world, real and digital, will absolutely try to persuade them otherwise, as it did me and as it does for boys today. My son is as handsome as he is intelligent and inquisitive. He is as athletic as he is artistic and playful. He is so much more than just one thing.

He says he wants to be strong like his daddy, but all I want for him is to know that he is loved unconditionally, know that I do not value him any more or any less if he’s big or small, if he’s short or tall, if he’s lean or stout — and the love from his father is truly unequivocal. Our children’s sense of self starts with us, with how we love them and with how we try to love ourselves.

Davon Loeb is the author of the memoir, “The In-Betweens, a Lyrical Memoir.” His work is published in the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Slate, the Best American Essays Anthology, and elsewhere. Davon is a husband, father, and teacher living in New Jersey.

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