Pressure to conform to particular body types is well-known among girls, but a new study shows boys are subject to some of the same ideals and influences when it comes to becoming a man.

Schools are being urged to include both girls and boys in body image awareness, following a Flinders University study revealing boys believe they need to be big, strong, muscular and physically dominant to be a man.

The research – published this month in the international Journal of Child Health Care – found that boys as young as five have already formed clear perceptions of the male body through social influences like the Internet, TV, films, video games and advertisements.

Focus groups revealed a trend across all age ranges of the emphasis on muscular size and strength as a descriptor and signifier of what men are “supposed” to look like.

“The boys were all firm in their belief that men have muscles,” Flinders Professor of Sport, Health and Physical Education Murray Drummond said.

“When commenting on an AFL player, one eight-year-old said; ‘I really like him because he’s really strong and he’s muscly and he’s tough and if he gets punched in the head he doesn’t cry’, which was indicative of the way most Year 3 boys articulated their view on men, muscles and strength,” he said.

“Asked whether it was important to be muscly, the same boy stated; ‘yes because you win’, so for most boys the equation looks something like muscles = strength = power and dominance.”

It appears that for boys, the tendency to feel anxious about their bodies or envious of men with bodies that they considered muscular, strong and powerful was not so intense.

Researchers said this might be because “they all thought they would one day be muscular, strong and powerful themselves”.

Professor Drummond said that as media sources increasingly influence the way both girls and boys perceive the ideal body, schools need to start developing strategies to minimise the impact of unrealistic body images across genders.

“Too often schools focus on the meaning of bodies for girls, despite evidence suggesting that body image and eating disorders are increasing in prevalence among young males,” he said.

“Teachers of health education and social studies in the primary years need to be aware of such issues and begin addressing them early in a child’s life.

“The male body is something that needs to be dealt with in the nurturing school environment to ensure the information is understood and reinforced.

“It’s also important that both boys and girls are privy to sharing discussion around the topic, rather than in gendered isolation, given the significance of society in shaping body ideals for both genders.”