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Understanding boys' bodies and masculinity in early childhood.

Children as young as five experience feelings of body image dissatisfaction. However, body image research has tended to focus on females due to myriad social and cultural issues girls/women confront in terms of their body image. Therefore, in an attempt to redress this imbalance, this paper investigates the constructions of body image and health among young boys between 5-6 years of age using qualitative research. While the paper highlights the young boys' voices, it specifically identifies how boys construct notions around their bodies and body identity. This research highlights the early age at which boys begin to reflect upon, compare, and contrast their own bodies with others and the images surrounding them.

Keywords: boys' health, body identity, body image, Symbolic Interactionism, Phenomenology


In recent years, body image researchers have been concentrating on younger and younger respondents (Smolak, 2004). However, few studies have attempted to study children's body image, especially children seven years and younger (Dohnt & Tiggemann, 2005). Smolak noted that "we know little about the development of body image, particularly during the pre-school and early elementary school years" (pp. 19-20). Further, few have examined males' body image perception in this age group. Explaining why researchers have tended to focus on females over males, Davison and Birch (2001) noted that females exhibit greater concern about body image dissatisfaction and concern about their body weight.

While increasing numbers of empirical studies are addressing the "gender-gap" in the literature on pre-pubescent children's body image concerns, few have attempted to examine the subject qualitatively (Birbeck & Drummond, 2005). This raises the possibility of an imbalance within the literature between objective measures and children's own agency and "voice" (Birbeck & Drummond; Darbyshire, MacDougall, & Schiller, 2005).

Historically, researchers' preference has been to ask adult respondents about their perceptions of children's experiences (Scott, 2000). The logic of this approach was based on the notion that adults were once children and, therefore, able to reflect on their childhood and provide insights into the life of children (Darbyshire et al., 2005). Furthermore, the assumption of the superior cognitive and communicative abilities of adults, in relation to children, in some way made up for what might be lost in the retrospective analysis of childhood (Scott). There is a growing perspective in the research community that children, as actors in their own right, have the capacity to participate as respondents in the research/interview process (Docherty & Sandelowski, 1999; Scott; Spencer, & Flin, 1993). However, their participation is dependant on a research design that supports their abilities rather than exposes their perceived inabilities (Birbeck & Drummond, 2005; Darbyshire et al.; Scott). This is not to say that the views of parents and adults should be ignored. Rather that, if one wants to hear the children's voices one must recognize that they speak "more softly" than adult voices, and, therefore, one must listen more carefully without the distraction of other, "louder" voices.

The purpose of this research was to develop a better understanding of when and how notions of body image are first created and internalized in young boys. Of particular significance is the need to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how children develop constructions of their own body identity. There is a critical need to expand the focus of investigations of body image and explore these ideas through the looking glass of the children's own experiences. The development of our knowledge of perceptions of body image development in early childhood strongly suggest that this is the time when children try to make sense of their body and the bodies of other people (Davison & Birch, 2001; Feldman, Feldman, & Goodman, 1988). The early development of these perceptions may profoundly influence these children as they journey into adolescence and adulthood. Hence, we need to undertake qualitative forms of research involving children that, ultimately, develop this understanding while informing the areas of curriculum development and health promotion with an aim to minimizing the children's body image issues.

The Need to Focus on Young Boys

In contemporary Western culture, the gaze associated with men's bodies may have never been stronger (Drummond, 2005). Increasingly, men's bodies are being portrayed in ways that commercialize and objectify the male body similar to ways in which the female body has been, and remains to be, commodified. Arguably, this has occurred largely as a consequence of media focus particularly with respect to advertising and television programming. Such media focus, according to researchers, has played a significant role in the construction of negative body image for many males (Pope, Phillips, & Olivardia, 2000) especially among young adolescent males and boys (Drummond, 2001,2005; Garner & Kearney-Cooke, 1997; Pope et al.).

Despite Connell's (1995) argument that male bodies continue to remain under-theorized, recent research has provided data that highlights the difficulties contemporary males face with respect to their body image and body identity. However, a concern with much of this data is that it either has focused on young men and/or adolescents or when looking at preadolescent boys the data that has been largely quantitatively based. Some would argue that very young boys' voices have not been heard on this topic. Two reasons may explain this neglect. First, qualitative research methods may not adequately deal with such a young age group (Birbeck & Drummond, 2005). And second, phrased in the form of a question: "What do very young boys have to say that is worth telling at such a young age?"

It is difficult to ascertain when males begin to develop conceptions around themselves, their bodies and masculinities, and the meanings they place on body images. Body image researchers have placed a large amount of time and energy investigating the period of early adolescence, mainly in girls, but increasingly in boys, as it is commonly perceived as the most significant transitional period in an individual's life. That is, he or she is changing from a child into an adult where physical and emotional changes occur quite dramatically. How an adolescent deals with these changes has often been perceived as a measure of adult success. While the value of understanding an adolescent male's construction of body image and body identity cannot be questioned, the need to investigate the early years is a priority (Birbeck & Drummond, 2005). The earlier we begin to understand the meanings and values that young boys place on their bodies and notions of masculinities the more comprehensive our understanding of boys' development will be.


The research data for this paper emanated from a larger research project in which both girls and boys, aged between 5-6 years, were interviewed in-depth on issues relating to body image. This paper will present, analyze, and discuss only the data emerging from the boys' interviews.

Forty-seven children between 5 and 6 years chose to be involved in this research study with the consent of their parents or guardians. Twenty-five boys and 22 girls from seven different independent-based schools in the Adelaide metropolitan region of South Australia participated in this study. The schools were randomly selected and were approached with an information kit detailing the intention of the, study, with its broad underpinning line of enquiry, which examined young children s body image. Given the sensitive nature of the topic with young children, the children's parents and/or guardians were notified that the study had been approved by the University of South Australia Human Research Ethics Committee.

Children were provided with nine silhouettes of bodies varying in width but not in height. These nine images ranged from ectomophorhic (thin) to endomorphic (large/fat). Primarily, these images acted as prompts to engage the children in discussion about body shapes, sizes, and images. Tiggemann and Pennington (1990) developed these images, which have been used as the primary instrument in previous research (Birbeck & Drummond, 2003; Lowes & Tiggemann, 2003; Tiggemann & Pennington). Permission was sought and granted for the images' use and modification in this research with 5-6 year-old children.

The first modification entailed transferring the images from a continuum on a single page to nine individual images each on its own separate page. This modification was made so that the sequence of the pictures was not so readily apparent. Poudevigne et al. (2002) noted that the continuum of images used in their study may have contributed to a bias in the images selected by their study's participants. The rationale for this criticism is based on the notion that, if a particular child was uncertain as to which image to select, the original structure of the tool (i.e., all images appear side-by-side) suggests that the middle range of images is the safest choice. The images on either end of the continuum define extreme parameters (very thin or very large/fat) and as such seem to require some sort of explanation.

A second reason for modifying the images as separate figures is that it transforms the instrument from a passive instrument to a more active instrument requiring physical manipulation. In terms of engaging children of this age group, active or manipulative tools are developmentally appropriate (Eggen & Kauchak, 1997).

The second modification of the instrument was to move the numbers under each image to the reverse side of the paper. A key tenet of Symbolic Interactionism, according to Meltzer, Petras, and Reynolds (1975), is that humans respond toward symbols on the basis of the meanings they impose on the symbols. As Symbolic Interactionism is a theoretical basis for this study, it seems appropriate to tease out these symbols. As for the instrument used here, there are two symbols. The first is the body image itself. Identifying the participant's meaning of the body image is the purpose of the study and justifies Symbolic Interactionism as a theoretical framework. The second symbol, on the original instrument, is the number (1 through 9) at the base of the image.

Numbers as symbols have cultural meaning. The clearest example is the number "1 ," which is often associated as the "winner" or the "best" and is something we are culturally encouraged to aspire to. Thus having the numbers (1 through 9) at the bottom of the images could have meaning with respect to these images and could influence the respondent's selection. For this reason, the number was moved from the front of the sheet directly beneath its relevant image to the reverse side of the sheet. This modification was thought to reduce the possibility of the respondent choosing an image based on the number of the image rather than the image itself.

In terms of the underpinning theoretic framework, the research utilizes Phenomenology and Symbolic Interactionism as complimentary frameworks. Phenomenology has developed a diverse range of variations to its definition and application (Patton, 2002). However, the basic tenet to all phenomenological studies is that they relate to how humans make sense of and experience their existence. Phenomenological studies argue that individuals do not simply interpret and respond to the world as if they were on the outside looking in (Gubrium & Holstein, 2003). Rather, they are participants in the world actively taking part in the construction of their own unique understandings of their world (Gubrium & Holstein; Patton). It is the intention of this study then, to use the phenomenological approach in its traditional sense in order to seek and to understand the commonality of these experiences (Patton). In this paradigm, the analyst sets aside any belief that there is a single objective reality and focus on the ways participants subjectively constitute the objects and events they take to be real (Gubrium & Holstein).

The second framework is described in the seminal work of Meltzer, Petras, and Reynolds (1975) as the Chicago variation of Symbolic Interactionism. Symbolic Interactionism is both a theoretical framework and an approach from which to study human behavior from the perspective of the actor and is, therefore, congruent with phenomenology studies (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982; Meltzer et al., Patton, 2002). The Chicago variation is distinctive in that it advocates a subjective and denies the notion that there may exist universal principles of human conduct (Denzin & Lincoln, 2003; Meltzer et al .).


The interviews were conducted in a safe and convenient location within the school environment. The research was explained to the children and then they were invited to confirm their willingness to participate. They were each informed of the right to be able to leave the research at any time without ramifications using specific words and discourse they clearly understood. Further, each child was informed of the right to be able to say, "I don't know," if they did not how to respond to a particular line of enquiry. This is an important component of research with very young children as it supports children's emotional need to provide an answer when an adult asks a question (Birbeck & Drummond, 2005; Dohnt & Tiggemann, 2005). The next step in the interview phase was to make clear to the children that the images they were viewing were the same age as themselves while also noting that each image was in some way different from the next.


Interviews were transcribed verbatim and observational notes taken at the time of the interviews were analyzed congruently with the transcriptions in a process described by Patton (2002). A manual system of coding was employed to identify themes that emerged from the raw data where statements that described an aspect under scrutiny were highlighted within the transcript (Cavana et al., 2001). Statements were grouped together as themes, although it was pertinent and appropriate to analyze some statements as if they were small case studies. Themes were analyzed for uniqueness using the constant comparative process as described. The data was then inductively analyzed. Patton (1980) described inductive analysis as "patterns, themes and categories of analysis [that] come from the data; they emerge out of the data rather than being imposed on them prior to data collection and analysis" (p. 306). Marshall & Rossman (1999) identified that data can be coded into one of two types of categories. There are times when the participants explicitly use language that directly classifies the statement. This data Patton refers to as indigenous typologies. The second form of category is analyst-constructed typologies (Patton). Marshall & Rossman defined analyst-constructed typologies as those categories created by the researcher directly from the data but not used explicitly by the respondents.

The process of analyzing the data was continuous and occurred concurrently with data collection. Analysis of first round interviews informed subsequent interviews. Where possible, the understandings developed in previous rounds were tested in subsequent interviews. These understandings were thought of as emerging patterns and understandings and always under critical evaluation in the search for alternate explanations. Marshall & Rossman (1999) noted that an alternate understanding will always exist and the job of the researcher is to argue and reason why the explanation associated with the data is a better explanation than the alternate understanding.

Patton (1990) warned that researchers are always at risk of being accused of imposing an understanding that reflects the researcher's world better than the world being studied. The search for alternate understandings was considered one method that could be used to counter this accusation. This is not to say that the charge cannot be leveled without some amount of justification. The intent of a study using Phenomenology is to see through the eyes of another, and this can never be completely achieved.


The Meaning of Size

The analysis of the boys' concepts of body image presented contentious results. Previous research suggested boys were more likely than girls to select an image that was larger than their perceived "real" image (Lowes & Tiggemann, 2003; Poudevigne et al., 2002). In as much as the participants' selections were analyzed in isolation from their comments, it might be argued that the results from this study were comparable with previous studies cited above. However, the statements from the participants presented a different picture. It was the case that almost each male that selected an image that was smaller than their real image stated that they did so because they thought it was taller.

The objective determination that each image was identical in height prior to, and during the interview, did little to change these perceptions. It was possible that these perceptions of the body image instrument may have been a consequence of the inexperience of participants when working with two-dimensional images. In some cases, participants maintained this belief despite measuring the images themselves and determining they were the same size. In these instances the objective determination that the only difference in the images was width did not alter that they perceived one image as taller than another. One of the boys exemplified this phenomenon when he selected a thin image and claimed, "It makes you look much taller. The skinnier you are, the taller you are. I like being tall. Everyone wants to be tall and skinny." Another concurred by claiming that image 1 (the thinnest image) was "the coolest." Further he stated, "It's cool to be thin and to be tall."

It is difficult to present a rationale that definitively explains why it was that participants of this study experienced such a level of confusion. It has been speculated that the issue may be explained by an illusionary effect created by the width of the object. Adults, having had experience in working with objects of various dimensions are aware of this visual illusion and maybe less likely to be confused (Bandura, 1986). However, the young children involved here have had little experience in working with dimensional illusions and are perhaps more likely to be influenced by these dimensions. Piaget's theory of intellectual development describes the age and cognitive developmental of these children as one characterized by issues of perception (Eggen & Kauchak, 1997; Pressley & McCormick, 1995). Of particular interest is the notion of "centration" defined as the tendency to focus on one perceptual aspect of an object or event to the exclusion of all others' (Eggen & Kauchak, 1997). One could certainly not say with any confidence that these participants selected a skinnier, or thinner, image because they desired to be thinner. Further, to attempt to explain these boys' selections in this manner may, in fact, be including participants who actually desired to be larger than their present size.

The comments and perceptions of the children in this regard are of particular importance. Should it be that these children did experience difficulty in assessing the height of the images in the manner it would represent a finding that has implications for a number of other studies in this area. Lowes and Tiggemann's (2003) study of 5-to 8-year-old children's body image determined that there was no significant difference in boy's rating at any of these ages. However, girls 6 and 7 years old rated their ideal figure as significantly thinner than their figure. The implication of this conclusion was that body image issues of children in this age group could be predicted by gender (Lowes & Tiggemann; Tiggemann, 2001).

The dimensional confusion experienced by these boys could affect the way the results of this and other studies are interpreted. It is possible that boys who participated in previous studies have been selecting images based on height as well as width. In this case, it may be that, in these earlier studies, some of the boys that selected images determined as "smaller" might, in fact, have been thinking these images were taller and therefore "bigger." The suggested re-interpretation of earlier work is not presented here as a criticism of these studies, rather as evidence that there may need to be further studies in this area directed at determining the meaning of children's selections of body image beyond that of what may seem reasonable and logical from an adult perspective. Secondly, the determination that pre-adolescent males are unaffected by body image issues, or arguably, not as affected as pre-adolescent females may have resulted in preadolescent males being under researched and their body image issues underestimated.

The Body and Performance

For the boys in the research, the ideal of a larger body was strongly associated with physical performance. If one was bigger, one could run faster, swim better, play football better, and all manner of other physical pursuits. Associated with the notion of physical competence was independence. If these boys were bigger, they stated they would not have to rely as much on adults to help them out or ask for their help as often as they do.

Feldman et al. (1988) noted a similar result when they discussed the differences between girls and boys in terms of children choosing images and pictures of other children they preferred. In this study, Feldman et al. identified that boys were concerned about images and pictures of boys whose bodies represented decreased functionality such as boys with missing limbs. They concluded that functionality and the ability to perform physically was important to boys. Being tail, big, and strong was important to many of the boys. The following are some of the comments and discussions that highlighted the significance of these three culturally archetypal masculine signifiers:

P: I would like to be big and tall

I: What is good about being tall?

P: Because you can reach stuff that is high and you don't need to ask people to get it.

I: Why do you like that body?

P: Because it is bigger. If he was bigger he could kick balls higher.

P: I would like to be a lion actually.

I: Why would you like to be a lion?

P: Because they are strong and fast.

Improved physical ability was also ambiguously associated with being older. There existed a fine line of demarcation between those boys who perceived a bigger body as an older body and those that perceived larger bodies as alternative bodies of like age. In terms of dimensionality, this study has argued that perception was more powerful than objective or factual statements for many in this cohort. In this instance, the contentious issue was age. Participants verbally acknowledged the intention of the study was to present all images representing children of the same age. However, the comments made supporting age and increased body size suggested there was an element of uncertainty in this regard.

For the purposes of this research the association with age by the male participants did not necessarily affect how their comments were analyzed. It could be argued that, regardless of whether any particular male interpreted an image as older or of like age, it was the advantage that particular respondent perceived as derived from the increased body size that was important. Whether or not participants interpreted the images as older, the overarching issue was that a larger body was perceived as being more capable and more independent.

Of utmost importance to these boys was the ability of their body to perform physical functions in times of threat. The competence of one's body to respond to physical threats by either fighting or removing one's self from the threat quickly was highly desired. These types of claims are reminiscent of Connell's (1983) early work on men's bodies when he claimed that, as a male, he would attempt to appear taller and broader to make himself seem more formidable in the event of walking toward other males late at night. Here Connell was discussing the notion surrounding occupation of space and masculinity. This is similar to the ideology identified by the 5-6 year-old boys as well. One boy simply stated that, "long legs and long arms" would enable him to "fight properly." Another boy claimed that, "if you have a bad man come to get you, you can fight or you can run away." The notion of physical prowess previously expressed in terms of speed and skill development was given purpose. These threats were discussed in terms of adopting one of two forms: bullying by peers and threats by strangers or adults.

The association of a threat by a stranger or an adult and one's body raised the possibility of children discussing instances of abuse. However, there was no occasion when a respondent discussed being abused or harmed by an adult. All discussions in this respect were raised as an abstract event and as a form of perceived fear or possible threat. Not only were all instances of possible abuse by adults discussed as abstract possibilities but so too were almost all instances of bullying by peers. It was rare for any of these participants to have actually experienced a bullying event.

The selection of an ideal boy's body, in terms of bullying, adopted one of two perspectives. Boys that preferred a body that was skinny and tall selected with the intent to remove themselves, or run, from physical threats. Conversely, a larger body was desired if one wanted to stay and respond. Responding took the form of a physical response and "fighting back." Those that desired a larger or wider body for this purpose did so by revealing their personal threshold figure. That is, the body image continuum empowered larger bodies with more powerful physical traits. However, the empowerment ended at the first body that the boy subjectively perceived as "fat." The largest body that was not perceived "fat" (threshold) was the most desired body for the purpose of retaliation. Those bodies larger than the threshold (often described as fat) were subsequently associated with negative physical characteristics.

An Appropriate Research Instrument for Boys?

The boys' responses who selected ideal images for responding physically to a bully may have revealed a limitation of the research instrument chosen for this study. The tool portrayed male images from ectomorphic bodies to endomorphic bodies. The bodies in between were portrayed as increasingly larger bodies but not as muscular bodies. In light of these boys' responses, there may have been limitations imposed by the instrument in as much as the instrument does not present bodies as muscular.

It is most likely the case that the boys who chose an image for the purpose of a physical response might have benefited from the opportunity of selecting images that represented a true mesomorphic body type. It could be argued that the selections represented a "closest fit" to a mesomorphic image. However, this perspective raises the specter of developing a continuum of images that ultimately develop the body into a mesomorphic body intended to represent a five-year-old boy. Subsequent studies that consider adopting the use of either a mesomorphic continuum or two separate continuums, one of which is mesomorphic, would need to consider the impact of presenting mesomorphic images to young children. One might envision an increased possibility of harm and the suitability of these images that represent a muscular or hyper-muscular body type and presenting them to children that may not have previously considered this perspective. O'Dea's (2004) challenge to research in this area resounds powerfully with "first, do no harm."

Body Performance Dissatisfaction

The notion of a male perceiving one's body in terms of performance is not a new idea. Butler's (1994) notion of performativity may lend some insight into understanding the gender construction apparent in these comments. Butler (1994) defined performativity as "that aspect of discourse that has the capacity to produce what it names ..." (p. 33). Using the notion of performativity within the context of this study, one could argue that these boys are establishing their sense of masculinity using their body as their means of expression. In this sense, the term "discourse" is used to describe the way these boys identify themselves and impose their masculinity within their peer groups by their physical prowess through activities such as their running, their jumping, and monkey bars.

Robinson (2005) affirmed this notion within the realm of early childhood by noting that children repeatedly perform their masculinity in order to do it correctly. Further, she notes that performing one's gender well is critical if one is to avoid being ostracized and bullied. Robinson's perspective of performance related to identity resounded emphatically in his study with both boys and girls. Furthermore, it could be argued that, in the eyes of members of the cohort, the larger images were perceived as unable to perform in a manner required by the social construction of their gender.

Demonstrating the importance of performance and the need to perform to identity was the story told by Shaun. During the first two interviews, Shaun discussed his body using positive terms. However, at the last interview, he discussed his body as lacking in physical ability and revealed a negative association with his body. Shaun's frustration stemmed from his inability to keep up and run around with his friends at recess and lunch times. They would run off and leave him and he said this made him feel sad and excluded from his peer group. He claimed the solution to his problem was to be skinnier and taller. He stated that he would then be able to run faster and have a better relationship with his friends. What made Shaun unique was that all other participants talked in terms of improved physical performance but not in terms of a present inability or inadequacy to perform physically. Shaun's body, in his view, was unable to perform to a level that he needed to participate and be included.


Given that body image concerns in children have largely been seen to be the domain of older children, in particular adolescents, there has been a dearth of research literature on younger children and body image. More specifically, the majority of research has focused on girls with respect to body image concerns. Therefore, this paper has identified the body image perceptions of 5- and 6-year-old boys in an attempt to develop a better understanding of the way in which young boys perceive themselves, and their bodies, and provide valuable qualitative data around the burgeoning area of early childhood body image research.

The argument presented in this paper is premised around the notion that body image perceptions of 5- and 6-year-old boys have been under reported and not regarded as an issue of concern for this cohort. While previous studies report body ideal selections for 5- and 6-year-old boys across a range of images both larger and smaller than their reported "real" images, there are several contentious issues. For example, psychometric testing and analyses may balance one form of body image ideal against another. Therefore, the decision to balance the ideal selections of larger images versus smaller images and arrive at a nil difference must be questioned. The second issue is the boys' confusion over the choice of image size and the meaning of their choice. That is, upon further discussion, the taller images indeed meant bigger and not more muscular. These are certainly areas for further exploration.

The attempt to develop instruments suitable for use with very young children is problematic if the research methodology is not congruent and aimed at the abilities of the children. Further, the assumptions around developing an instrument with limited variables, such as standardized heights, do not appear to be effective if used in isolation. As it has been identified with these boys, children in this age group do not appear to perceive this standardization. Moreover, instances where they acknowledge that, for example the height of images are the same, is not a guarantee against a decision being made in spite of the knowledge.

The boys in this study associate increased body size with increased performance. It is possible for some to speculate that boys might be more resilient to body image dissatisfaction as their body increases in size due to the biological maturation process. That is, as they get older, and they grow larger, one might expect their sense of body satisfaction to grow congruently with their body. However, the inherent problem is linked to how that individual compares his body to his peers and the archetypal representations of male bodies according to the culture in which he exists.

For practitioners working with young children, this paper has identified the need to be aware that boys have clear understandings and expectations of their bodies. Indeed, size is a signifier of their concept of a male body. However, physicality, and the ability to use that body, was also clearly perceived as being a male body indicator as well. The importance of physicality and being perceived by peers as physically competent has been an important finding in the construction of very young boys notions of the representation of a male body.



University of South Australia

David Birbeck and Murray J. N. Drummond, School of Health Sciences, University of South Australia.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Murray J. N. Drummond, University of South Australia, School of Health Sciences, North Terrace, Adelaide, South Australia 5000. Electronic mail:


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Author:Drummond, Murray
Publication:International Journal of Men's Health
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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