Our resident agony aunt Rhona McAuliffe offers advice to a reader whose is concerned for her 14-year-old son who wants to 'fit in'
My son, who’s 14 years old, has recently come to me and said that he wants me to buy him a particular protein powder which he wants to take twice or three times per day to bulk up. He also wants to join a gym for the same reason. This doesn’t sit well with me at all, mainly because I feel like it’s peer pressure as a lot of the boys at school are doing it but also because I don’t know which powders are safe and which aren’t. He’s had a hard time with low level ribbing since he’s started secondary school as he’s smaller than most of the other boys. He’s also quite shy so probably doesn’t bite back. But he’s a kind, smart, quietly funny person with a solid group of close friends and I feel that as he matures his peers will start to look past his size and appreciate him for who he is.
My issue is, how far do I let him go to try to ‘fit in’? Should I feel pressurised to fork out for a gym membership when I’ve three other kids to finance? If I take his request seriously and buy into the peer pressure am I not teaching him that fitting in is more important than just being himself?
Out of my Depth, Wicklow.
Huge congratulations, firstly, on raising a kind, smart, funny human! Wherever you sit on the nature v’s nurture debate, your contribution as parents is undeniable and should be awarded with a plaque in your local town square celebrating your combined services to humanity. Until then, a self?clap on the back will have to do.
I know your work is far from done ? and will in fact never be done – but feeling like you can trust in your son’s strength of character to see him through this patch is a great starting point. The reality is, however, he needs your support and understanding more than ever right now.
He’s come to you to fund his bigger body. Although hard cash and not advice is his motivation, this is likely one of the last times that he will need to involve you in his physical development. That’s not to say that he won’t be living at home with you until he’s 30 ? or until he can afford our exorbitant rents ? but does mean that he could soon be relatively financially independent.
From the age of 15 he can legally work eight hours per week during school term and 35 hours per week during holidays. Depending on his level of ninja focus and determination, he could be solvent and horsing back protein powder by next summer. So, this is your moment to get involved and try to make a long?lasting, positive impact on how he sees himself. No pressure!
At 14, your son is at that deeply confusing stage when half of his peers are 6?foot tall almost?men, rattling around their new, furry frames; and the other half could still sing soprano for the Vienna Boys Choir. On top of that there’s acne, wet dreams,
extra breast tissue and a general sense that his body is non?compliant, or certainly that he doesn’t yet have a firm grip on the reins. It’s a lawless wasteland of angst and accidents.
On top of that, we’re dealing with the fall?out of record levels of negative body image. According to a 2017 Irish Examiner/ ReachOut Ireland teen mental health survey, 75% of Irish teens, boys and girls, worry about their body shape. We’ve long talked about the formative impact of Barbie?body ideals on our young girls, and women. We’re living with that legacy and grappling with its insidious hold every day.
In recent years, we’ve been awakened to the narrow ideal that teenage boys feel under pressure to achieve. The mindless idiots in their broader circles are passing judgment on overweight and underweight bodies, with a lean but muscular physique held up as the prize. Beyond that our teens are casualties of social media saturation and the age of impossible comparisons, a machine?gun bombardment of images of elite athletes and million?dollar celebrity torsos, where their bodies are their livelihood.
They see actors transform their physique for roles, professionals like Conor McGregor gain and lose muscle mass to fight in different weight classes and know that their ideal might just be achievable.
So, what can you do? You should take his request seriously from the off. Try to talk to him about bigger picture stuff before you share your plan. This might be challenging the very traditional notions of masculinity which heroes muscle and discourages men from speaking about their appearance. Tell him that this is his opportunity not to conform to the mob ideal, that he is so much more than a strained set of quads. Has he left the room already?
There’s a good piece on male body positivity here and an intro to some of the men who are challenging corrosive brand and media stereotyping via their own social presence. Curating his social media feed to include activists and champions of diversity is an important step in broadening his perception of ‘perfect.’
Having tried to contextualise his experience, the likelihood is he’ll still be razor focused on bigging up. Protein powders and supplements are not the answer. As the supplement industry is not regulated, sporting bodies like the IRFU have strongly advised against the consumption of performance?enhancing powders and supplements under the age of 18.
So that he won’t be tempted to procure his own stash, making an appointment with a sports nutritionist would be a great way to introduce him to the benefits of a balanced, healthy diet. You don’t want him to become obsessed with nutrition – or indeed Orthorexic – but understanding the science behind ‘natural’ muscle development is a good starting point.
There’s also a good, soccer?mom?on?turbo book here offering great dietary info and ideas to keep active, sporty teens pumped. Meanwhile, you could encourage your son to take up a new sport or martial art, shifting his focus from hard?core training to developing flexibility, learning new skills and building his mental strength.
In the end, it won’t be the gym membership that breaks you but the five protein?rich meals he’s sinking every day. Did someone say summer job?