This past Halloween, I was really struck by the number of little boys I saw in my neighborhood sporting a super hero costume with complete muscle definition. Aside from the jarring physical image of a little boy with washboard abs, it bothered me how prevalent these costume were in just one particular season. It seemed to me that many little boys, and parents for that matter, got the notion that a super hero costume wasn’t really “super hero” unless it came complete with muscles. This presents a double standard, in that if a Wonder Woman or Batwoman costume complete with boob outlines was marketed to girls, there would be anarchy — in the parenting blogosphere and elsewhere. Yet, when boys don muscles to become super, no one bats so much as a proverbial eyelash.
Body images issues and matters of self-esteem still remain largely relegated to the girls’ corner, and rightly so given how much girls hear as opposed to what boys hear. But the muscle costumes still present a scenario in which a little boy is told that to achieve a certain level of coveted masculinity, even just for one night, he must adhere to a certain body type.
The muscle costumes represent only one instance in which harmful messages (from gender stereotyping to body image) are often being sent to boys without cause for alarm — because they’re boys. And if you’re like me, perhaps you too have witnessed how a lot of times when a problematic commercial or sexist moment in a TV show presents itself, it’s the daughter that is spoken to about why that depiction is precarious, and not the son.
My hypothesis as to why this persists in many of the most open-minded of families is that these messages reinforce a type of masculinity that, culturally, we are comfortable with. That while girls should receive extra attention when underage Miley Cyrus assumes a stripper pole, boys reacting positively to the demonstration is fine because “boys will be boys” and that kind of behavior is “hardwired” so no discussion needed. Hugo Schwyzer, a gender studies and history professor, can back me up on this mythology. He penned this gem when commenting on street harassment for Jezebel:
The problem is a tenacious and ugly myth about male sexuality, one that tells us that average men simply can’t be expected to restrain their eyes, their words, or even their actions when faced with the reality of a woman’s bare skin. Because of that belief in male weakness, we outsource their missing self-control to women.
Little boys’ insecurities may be reinforced by inhabiting an adult male’s body. But there’s also the lingering threat of how other forms of stereotyping may impact how they eventually treat and see girls, as well as other boys who might choose to opt out of Spiderman pecks.