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Boys and their toys. Could childhood heroes put our kids at risk of eating and dysmorphic disorders?

This post was written and first posted in 2016. Enjoy. Rachel

We all have heard of the suggested connection between Barbie dolls and poor body image in little girls, potentially leading to poor body image in adolescence and adulthood.

Although I am sure not all little girls are heavily influenced by this doll (which if real would be physically incapable of walking due to her oversized head and be so thin she would not menstruate) there is no doubt that our children learn through play. That the toys they are brought up with are learning tools that teach them about the world and their place in it.

So, after taking a few days off work in the lead up to Christmas and spending time watching Disney films and playing superheroes with my own son; and knowing from my line of work that the amount of males asking for support for eating and body dysmorphic disorders is increasing at a rapid rate, it did make me think about the messages his toys are sending him.

Research suggests the reason for increased disordered eating in males is that our society places an increased level of scrutiny on the male body and objectifies the “ideal body” in the media. This leaves those with low self-esteem comparing their own bodies with the airbrushed models in adverts, leading them to have amplified levels of body dissatisfaction. The increase in diagnosis may also be a result of more awareness of the disorders as this “ideal body” that we see when we are reading magazines and newspapers is forced upon our children long before they can even read.

Now, we don’t have any Barbie dolls at home (his choice), but we do have Spiderman, the incredible hulk, a large collection of power rangers, superman and iron man figurines. These are his heroes, he wants to be just like them when he grows up. What do they all have in common? Huge quads, ripped abdominals and the pertest of pecs. Are these superheroes suggesting to my son that to be a “goodie” in this world you have to have a physique that would only be seen on the front cover of fitness magazines?

Likewise with the Disney classics we watched (which bought back a few childhood memories), the male heroes Hercules, Prince Philip, John Smith, Tarzan all have the body of athletes, whereas the villains are quite the opposite, think Horace and Jasper from 101 Dalmatians.

My son is six, he is far more concerned that the puppies don’t get turned into a fur coat than that fact that Horace’s health would benefit from losing a few pounds; however I question what subconscious effect these childhood characters will have on his own body image and self-esteem as he gets older. If he doesn’t have a six pack and bulging biceps does that make him a “baddie” in this life? If his body fat percentage goes above 15% will he think he will never meet his princess?

Now in no way at all would I dream of stopping him playing with his heroes or watching Disney movies, they are fantasies after all, but I will continue to fill up his bucket of self esteem and encourage him to play more real world games. To support him to appreciate that it is the doctors, nurses, parents, soldiers, firefighters, builders and teachers (amongst many more) that are the real heroes of this world regardless of their body shape.

What are eating and body dysmorphic disorders?

Eating and body dysmoprhic disorders are psychological disorders which can be hugely disruptive to a sufferers’ health and lifestyle. They often require a multidisciplinary treatment approach including psychotherapy, dietary support and sometimes pharmaceutical management, exercise therapy is also beneficial for some individuals. An increased public awareness of the disorders may help early diagnosis and a more positive outcome.

These disorders include;

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)

This is an anxiety disorder that causes a person to have a distorted view of how they look and to spend a lot of time worrying about their appearance.

Anorexia nervosa

This is an eating disorder in which people keep their body weight as low as possible.

Bulimia nervosa

This is an eating disorder in which people severely restrict the amount of food they eat then binge eat followed by purging.

Orthorexia nervosa

This is an eating disorder in which people are excessively preoccupied with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy.

For more information on disordered eating or to discuss treatment options please seek advice from a medical professional or contact me

Live life fully.

Rachel x