"No," he says, "it's just fat."
Since that day, my fat has absorbed more darts than the back wall of a bar.
When I turned 14, my new doctor asked me, "Do you get embarrassed on the bach because of your femininely shaped hips and chest?" (He said I had an "extra gland.") In high school, locker-room jokesters composed a song about my love handles. And in college, a friend analyzed my body shape by explaining that I have "a low center of gravity and those childbearing hips."
At six feet two and 215 pounds, I'm not huge. I just carry my weight where women do—in my hips, butt and thighs. And I hate it. I hate the way clothes fit. I hate that friends say I use the "big-butt defense" in basketball.
But I'm not the only man who wishes his body looked more like Michael Jordan's and less like a vat of pudding. A recent survey showed that only 18 percent of men are happy enough with their physiques that they wouldn't change them. "Men used to see their bodies as functional objects—to lift things, to play sports, to do something," says Roberto Olivardia, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School and coauthor of The Adonis Complex. "Over the past 20 years, the tide has changed. The idea of men's bodies as sexual objects has intensified."
So while women get there first, they don't have a monopoly on stressing over looks. Here, eight fundamental truths about men:
1. We have more body angst than you realize, but we'll never have a serious conversation with you about it.
Look at the standards we have to measure up to: If we're fat, we're labeled as beer-guzzling couch potatoes. Too thin, and we're deemed wimpy. We can have too little hair on our heads or too much on our backs. And maybe worst of all, we can be too big in the backside of our pants yet too small in the front.
Now add the fact that our mental struggle has two layers. "A man thinks, 'Not only does it bother me that I'm fat and my hair is thinning. It bothers me that it bothers me, because I'm not supposed to feel this way,'" says Thomas Cash, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. "The thinking is that it's like a woman to worry about looks."
So we won't talk to you about our insecurities. Nor will you ever catch us ever asking a friend for advice: "Hey Bill, do these pants slim my beer gut? Do I need to trim my chest hair? Which accentuates my triceps, the blue shirt or the red?"
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."
I can't remember the last pair of pants that fit me well. If I buy size 38s, they fit around the waist but suffocate my hips and butt. If I go to a 40, they're roomy where I need it but gaping in the waist. Several years ago, I tried on my wife's post-pregnancy size-20 jeans to see if they were cut differently. "Did I just admit that?" Trying on women's jeans—this is about as low as it gets, I thought. Then I realized it could get lower: The jeans fit me perfectly.
I wore those jeans for six months, and I felt leaner every day I wore them. My wife asked me why I didn't just buy a big pair of men's jeans and have a tailor alter them. My answer: Why pay for alterations when I know that tomorrow I'm going to start an exercise routine that will change my body shape forever? It's been my mantra for two decades.
7. Men's body image problems can be just as dangerous as women's
For some men, poor body image can lead to anger, anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction and steroid abuse. Doctors may fail to recognize eating disorders or muscle dysmorphia (the need to constantly bulk up), even though it's estimated that eating disorders affect one million men. Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School and coauthor of The Adonis Complex, says secrecy reinforces the patients' sense of shame. "I've treated men who would tell people they were alcoholics, but they'd never admit they were bulimic," he says.
Cody Swann, a 21-year-old graduate student from Stuart, Florida, was so obsessed with being thin that he measured himself on a body-fat scale every day. "I remember how happy I was when I stood on the thing and it came back 'error' because I didn't have enough body fat for it to read," he says. "It wouldn't read below 2 percent, which is what I was. Woohoo, can't do much better than that." It took Swann a year to realize he was anorexic. At six feet tall, Swann is now a muscular 205 pounds and feels he has overcome the disorder. But he still obsesses about his appearance. He exercises three to four hours every day and has eaten in a restaurant only twice in the past two years. If he can't weigh his food, he won't eat it. Swann watches every last morsel. "My rule is that I have to chew a piece of gum for 30 minutes so I burn off the calories in it."
8. We don't blame anyone (except maybe Tiger Woods and Taco Bell). But we'll be grateful to anyone who makes us feel good about shaping up.
We know what it's like to be bombarded with images of perfect bodies. We see the men in commercials and on magazine covers, the bigger-stronger-better mentality that dominates our culture. "Look at Tiger Woods. The best golfer in the world has an outstanding physique. Golfers used to be everyday men," says J. Kevin Thompson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of South Florida. "Basketball players used to be skinny. They're all muscular now." Hell, even our president runs sub-seven-minute miles.
As much as I'd like to, I won't blame my shape on genetics or the media. I'd love to blame stress or lack of time. But the real culprit is my elephantine appetite and a four-times-a-week Taco Bell habit.
Nine years ago, though, I'd had enough. I took a 150-mile charity bike ride and gained weight rather than lost it because of all the cookies I ate at the pit stops. That was my epiphany. Four months later, I dropped from my all-time high of 231 pounds to 191. My wife dubbed me "Little" as I started to lose weight. That encouragement kept me on my program. But now I'm back around 215 and want desperately to drop to 180—for my health, for my looks, for my confidence, for the quest to find the perfect-fitting pair of pants.
It's not that I can't change my body; it's just that I haven't. All I do know is that I'll never stop trying to shrink my hips, tighten my gut, and deflate my rear tire. Because if there's one thing I believe in, it's that every love-handle story should have a happy ending.