Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Protecting men from anorexia and bigorexia

Maggie Hamilton

Speaking at Warrane, the author of “What’s Happening to Our Boys”, Maggie Hamilton, offered advice to the College’s residents on how to help their future sons avoid traps laid for them by marketers and advertisers.

The College’s special guest on Wednesday 1 April 2015, drew attention to the way that marketing experts are now able to target children in their earliest years through product placement techniques.

For instance, because toddlers are fascinated by their own dribble, she said marketers placed branded logos in prominent positions on t-shirts and nappies in line with children’s vision as they stared at their dribble.

It is a potent weapon for marketers, she said, because they realised that even the youngest children are able to retain the information behind branded logos.

As a result of such techniques, there had been a dramatic impact on the youngest children who are now displaying “huge levels of anxiety”.

“Boys aged only three to five years are already anxious about whether have the right brand of backpack or whether they have the right body to go to preschool,” she said. “They worry about whether they have the right gear and whether they are packaging themselves to be accepted.

“This is where anxiety and self-loathing is beginning for this generation.”

Ms Hamilton said in recent years big corporations had realised that boys were the last demographic to be marketed to in a serious way and they had spent millions of dollars to take up the challenge.

Entertainment companies and producers of everything from cosmetics and toiletries to hair products and the latest fashions began changing the whole climate for young boys.

“We are seeing cradle-to-grave marketing,” she said. “Brands that were traditionally just for teens and adults are now pushing down the line as much as possible.

“They have even costed how much per brand a little boy is worth and have come up with the figure of $100,000 per brand, per child, from cradle to grave.”

As a result, very young children were now experiencing feelings of anxiety and self loathing.

“It starts to really take hold during the tween years,” Ms Hamilton said, commenting on the years from seven to 12. “Advertising and marketing push this age group. They are a very specific demographic psychologically – very vulnerable to self-esteem issues.

“While they feel like a big person because they are going to school, they don’t have a strong sense of self. While they want to push out from mum and dad, they don’t want to stick out in the wrong way.

“Boys very vulnerable to body image issues. Some boys as young as seven are having to go into formal counselling for depression, anxiety and eating issues.

“So these things are now kicking in way before teenage life. Parents don’t realise that the whole eating issue for boys is growing exponentially.”

Ms Hamilton said the trend was being expressed in two ways. Some boys were now seeking “the skinny, inner-city , anorexic” look, while others were into “bigorexia” – the opposite of anorexia, where “guys want to be pumped up and really toned”.

“Bigorexic guys can never be too toned,” she said. “They are exercising to the point of heart attacks and using extreme diets, steroids and so on.

“Their anxiety grows as they come into teenage life because of the types of marketing we are now seeing which is getting to be incredibly clever and subtle because the corporations use psychologists so they know all the buttons to press – for whatever age.

“Take neuroscience, for instance. Marketers now use neuroscience electrodes on the brain to see if it lights up. The brain is so sophisticated that, if you are a Coke devotee, all marketers need is to have that specific shade of red on-screen at some point and it will light up the craving part of your brain.”

Studies had found that 8-year-old boys are now very conscious of their own presentation.

“Hair is huge, shoes are huge and there is a real anxiety about how they present themselves to the world. One boy said it would be social suicide going to school wearing the same t-shirt twice in one week.

“So by the time they are getting into teen life we are now seeing major anxieties around these issues which is based on something ironically and tragically that is actually to do with making more and more money out of our boys.”

Ms Hamilton said that neuroscience had shown that if orange juice was poured into a tumbler glass rather than a tall glass, young customers would consume 75 percent more juice. Fast food recipes were also being manipulated with some foods containing up to up to 35 carefully chosen ingredients using nano-technology.

“The Hungry Jacks burger of three years ago did not have the same mix of ingredients as today because they have to keep working on the ingredients to seduce your taste buds, and so it is constantly changing.”

Collection of data on individuals was also becoming increasingly organised.

“There is a massive collection of data to get a sense of how much we can reveal about ourselves.

“Every time that a rewards card is used – like a frequent flyer or shopper points card – that data is collected. For instance, some supermarkets and banks now share data so every time you use a credit card you are revealing what your interests are.”

In the United States, the retail chain Target had employed mathematicians to study data and look at patterns and it was now possible to predict when women shoppers are pregnant because they stop using certain soaps and so on.

“This is important for retailers because they can send out mailers to on forthcoming products to get ahead of the competition,” she said. “The father of one 16-year-old girl was very upset when his daughter was sent mail outs aimed at pregnant women. Neither he nor his daughter had realised that she was she was pregnant at that stage. It is just one more example of the extent to which our lives are being monitored.”

Ms Hamilton said she did not think that the solution was “a matter of opting out”, but being clever about choices and realising that “we can all make choices”.

“It is important be be conscious of where our vulnerabilities lie,” she said, “and not to be led by the nose to be manipulated into spending.”

Asked how parents could instill in children the sort of self esteem that would prevent them from being defined by the brands they wear or how they look, Ms Hamilton said it was very important that children grow up in the world they are going to inhabit,

“It is about bringing the children with creative toys in a world of creation and imagination,” she said. “Children can be almost like battery hens – using a computer and  watching DVDs over and over and over again. Parents can’t understand why they are so mad about Thomas the Tank Engine, but it is because they have been brainwashed.

“Neuroscience shows that it is the old fashioned childhood that helps to grow a child’s brain – swinging in trees, digging worms in the garden, going to the beach and getting covered in sand. because you are interacting with your world.

“When you are just sitting at home playing with junky toys, there is not a lot of brain activity. They should also play and imagine with things they find or discover, like pots and pans or a box that becomes a treasure chest or a ship or whatever. That imaginative capacity is really important.”

Asked to comment on the challenges posed by Facebook, Ms Hamilton said younger kids tended to mistake their Facebook friendships for real friendship.

“They confuse popularity and friendship,” she said. “Friendship is messy and complicated. The nuances of being able to manage a friendship stretches us as human beings. If you grow up thinking it is about Facebook and so on, then you are not learning about those very powerful aspects of true friendships that are important in life. And it has never been more important to be able to read the nuances of situations as it is in today’s highly complex world of interactions.”

Ms Hamilton said it was also important for young people to be involved in three or four friendship groups, rather than only one. When something went wrong with one group, the teenager would not feel devastated because they still had the other friendship groups to fall back on.

It was also important for teenagers to have friends of different ages because older friends could help them to get a better perspective on life.

“They can glean wisdom beyond their own experience,” she said.

In conclusion, Ms Hamilton said it was important to remember that there are still many “positive wonderful things” in contemporary life. New generations were now growing up with a sense of a global world and access to many wonderful possibilities, understanding about different cultures and knowing more about what they are able to achieve.

“The reason I look at our issues is that I want your tomorrows to be far more profound than what my generation experienced,” she said. “Look at the future and be excited about what you can do with it. There are many, many positive things happening. I am not a doom-and-gloom person. These are our challenges. When you know them you are able to step around them more nimbly and step into the future more empowered.”

[Warrane College offers a lot more than just student accommodation at UNSW: find out about some of our other guest speakers.]