When a friend recently saw the size of the pizza I was about to eat, he said, "Ted, that pizza should have its own zip code." I responded, "So should my ass." We make fun of ourselves to cover up what we're really feeling—frustration, embarrassment and anger that we're not perfect.
But other people's jokes sting. Mark Meador, 37, of Westerville, Ohio, returned from a trip to Disney World with photos of himself. "Man, you look like Big Pun," Meador's friend said, referring to the obese rapper who died of a heart attack. Meador laughed off the comment, not letting on that it hurt. That same weekend, his daughter said, "Dad, you look like you're having a baby." Fortunately for Meador, the gentle pokes inspired him to change. He dropped junk food, started Tae Bo, and lost more than 40 pounds.
3. We're worried about our bodies because we're competing for you—and against you
With more people both marrying later and getting divorced, it's a competitive environment for finding mates. And since this generation of women can support themselves, they're freer to pick a man for his cute butt. Lynne Luciano, Ph.D., who has researched body-image issues at California State University at Dominguez Hills, says women are tired of being objectified and have turned the tables on men. "They don't like a man to be overly vain," she says. "He shouldn't care too much about the way he looks, but on the other hand, he should look good."
At the same time, men are also shaping up because they're seeing that people who are fit are more successful at work. "Women are very good at using their looks for competition," Cash says. "So men think, 'I'd better clean up my act.'"
4. We're not just checking you out
We're a visual gender. We like the way you look. A lot. But that doesn't mean we don't compare ourselves to other men the way women compare themselves to other women. I notice the way men look on the beach, at work, or simply walking by. Maybe it's male competitiveness or primal instincts, but we don't just want to have better bodies to attract you. We want better bodies to improve our position among ourselves. A scary thought that proves the point: When Luciano interviewed doctors who perform penis enlargements, they reported that the main reason men undergo the surgery isn't to improve their relationships, but to be more impressive in the locker room.
5. We want to look like we're 25
It used to be that our mythical heroes had wisdom, experience and maturity. Think Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. Now our heroes are baby-faced with six-pack abs. Think Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man."The youth movement has been cruel to men," says Luciano. "The Cary Grants have fallen through the cracks. Today's ideal is younger, buffer, more muscular. A lot of men in their 40s and 50s have trouble trying to emulate that." So men, like women, are swimming against the age current. That might explain why from 1997 to 2001, the number of men who had cosmetic surgery increased 256 percent. (Last year more than 800,000 men—and north of six million women—went under the knife.)
Fear of aging also explains why going bald is so painful. We can try to stop it (Rogaine, Propecia), hid it (hats, comb-overs), or live with it (doing nothing, shaving our heads), but hair loss signifies a loss of vitality and control. "If a man's not in a relationship, if he hasn't fallen in love, he figures that's it, that's the end of romance," Cash says. "He thinks no one will ever want to be with him."