The XX Factor

The New York Times Reassures Parents That Their Sons’ Penises Are Probably Totally Fine

“Everything looks normal.”

Darrin Klimek/Thinkstock

As Boys Get Fatter, Parents Worry One Body Part Is Too Small.” It’s hard to say whether this New York Times article title violates Facebook’s algorithmic crackdown on “headlines that withhold information required to understand what the content of the article is.” On the one hand, the headline doesn’t explicitly say what the “one body part” might be. On the other hand, anyone with even a passing familiarity with common euphemisms can guess what the body part is: the ear.

Just kidding, it’s the penis. “Questions about penis size have become more common over the past decade, as my colleagues and I have all seen more overweight children coming in for physical exams,” writes pediatrician Perri Klass, who offers no statistical evidence to back up her observation. (To be fair, it’s probably not easy to secure funding for longitudinal studies about parents’ penis anxieties.) “I see dissatisfaction with the phallus very regularly,” Dr. Aseem Shukla, a man who has a way with words, tells Klass.

The article, which appears in the health blog Well, aims to reassure parents that their chubby child’s penis is probably normal. “A baby or toddler’s penis can look very small, and maybe especially when the child himself is larger rather than smaller,” Klass explains. But there are some situations where you kind of get why parents might be alarmed:

The penis can be buried in the fat pad that sits in front of the pubic bone, and it can remain hidden as boys go through adolescence. What is called a “hidden penis” can be a combination of being prepubertal (so the penis has not begun to grow), being overweight (so the fat pad is significant), and in some cases an anatomical condition in which the soft tissue below the skin of the penis doesn’t adhere well to the Buck’s fascia, the thick covering that surrounds the penile nerves and arteries. This fixation problem can yield what Dr. Shukla described as a “slidey” penis, in which the actual shaft retreats and only the skin, or the foreskin, in an uncircumcised boy, is clearly apparent.

But even if your child has the dreaded “slidey” penis, be not afraid! He’ll probably grow out of it. Puberty is a magical process by which hidden penises emerge from their fat pads like crocuses popping out from beneath the melting snow.

Approximately 90 percent of Well is comprised of articles about dieting and weight loss, but this one is refreshingly devoid of fat-shaming, with weight loss mentioned briefly only once. (Maybe someone’s been reading the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation against weight talk!) However, the comments are a predictable, horrible mess of parent-shaming and fat-shaming. “Why are today’s generation of parents examining the genitals of their 10 year olds? We live in a sick world,” declares commenter Zif1, apparently unaware that parents and children sometimes see each other naked in the course of living together, and that children sometimes approach their parents with concerns about their bodies. “Cowardly parents, letting their children get fat. Tip: plums are on sale now. Much better for your child, and yummy, too,” writes John. Feed your child plums, that’ll fix his slidey penis! (Unrelated: Is John under the impression that produce sales are national, or even international?)

Obviously, parents should do their best to avoid projecting their own body anxieties onto their children, but it’s a pediatrician’s job to reassure parents that their kids are growing normally. And if this article convinces parents to chill out about their sons’ slightly atypical penises, it will have done a public service. Dr. Shukla’s advice is actually pretty poignant. “We don’t all walk around with our pants down, and we don’t see how everybody is,” he says he tells boys who are worried about their penises. “But you should realize the private area can be different, and because yours looks different from your brother’s doesn’t mean there is something wrong.” Wise words for all of us owners of genitalia.