I have man boobs.
I always have and I probably always will. They aren’t particularly prominent these days but they’re there. Even if no one else noticed them or cares, I do, and the childhood scars haven’t gone away.
When I called Dr. David Stoker, a plastic surgeon based in Los Angeles who has been featured on Extreme Makeover Weightloss Edition, the slang he had heard most often was “moobs.” While I’m usually not one to argue with a surgeon, I’ll stick with “man boobs.”
That’s how I ended up being called “Mr. Tits” and “Titty boy.”
I’ll defer to the good doctor on everything else, though. The technical term for man boobs is gynecomastia. It can refer to excess fat, excess breast tissue, excess skin, or even prominent nipples and areolae. Adolescents can have prominent nipples that will go away with age. Older men taking testosterone blockers as part of prostate cancer treatment can develop man boobs. In cases of extreme weight loss, excess skin needs to be removed and the procedure is similar to a mastectomy.
While I should be grateful that I don’t have an extreme case, it doesn’t help much with my own self-image.
Sunscreen smells like shame to me. Whenever I catch of whiff of it I’m transported instantly back to childhood summers, either at a pool or a beach, and having to take off my shirt, apply sunscreen, and, worst of all, reveal my man boobs.
Unfortunately, in childhood, permission to generate cruel nicknames is not granted to those with the greatest wit. That’s how I ended up being called “Mr. Tits” and “Titty boy.” Neither one a bon mot of the highest order.
Once at soccer camp, as I was about to take a throw-in, an opposing player shouted at me, “throw it, you fat lard.” At boy scout camp, as I walked shirtless toward the lake someone said, “boom-baba, boom-baba” like they did for Lardass in Stand By Me.
“Dude, come on, take off your shirt, what is wrong with you?”
That’s another thing, in the dog eat dog world of kiddom – cruelty cascades down. At that same soccer camp, a kid who was larger than I was had to be skins in a scrimmage. He was even more afraid than I was of taking of his shirt, so, he rolled up the sleeves of his t-shirt to his shoulders, creating a makeshift muscle shirt. I had the good fortune to be called shirts, so, naturally, I took the opportunity to mock him. “Dude, come on, take off your shirt, what is wrong with you?” In retrospect, I should have been kind because I knew what he was going through but I saw my chance to deflect some attention from me and I took it.
I asked Dr. Stoker, if most men are comfortable talking about this. He said they weren’t and, in fact, most patients exhibit, “shyness and shame and just heaviness about it that to me frequently seems out of proportion to the condition.”
I know I don’t like talking about it. I was afraid to do a crowdsource post about man boobs on Facebook. So, there was no, “Hey friends, would any of you like to talk about your man boobs for an article I’m writing?” I didn’t want to risk having no one respond nor did I want to put anyone in the position of thinking about their own man boobs if they didn’t have to.
I texted a close friend who had suffered the same fate as mine in high school. I told him that I was writing an article about man boobs and wondered if he wanted to talk to me about his experience. I wouldn’t give his name, I just wanted to get some more perspectives.
He texted back “WHA?” and then avoided all follow up texts.
So, the sample size of the man boobs population that has been interviewed for this article is one. Me. But I think I feel confident speaking for my man-boobed brethren.
Can we laugh about it? Well, sort of.
There are plenty of pop culture references that poke fun at “moobs.” There was an episode of Seinfeld where George worried about his man boobs. He felt them shake while in a bouncing car? He even asked his mother if his grandmother was “bosomy,” trying to suss out if this was genetic. (According to Dr. Stoker, it isn’t. A more relevant indicator for man boobs would be a family history of obesity.) Kramer and Mr. Costanza even went so far as to create the bro/manzier. Will Ferrell did a sketch on SNL holding his man boobs (along with Sarah Michelle Gellar holding her, for lack of a better word, standard boobs). Louis CK even had a bit in which he talked about his man boobs growing in.
And yet none of that made me feel like, “Haha! That’s so me!” It just reminded me of my man boobs and then I immediately wanted to forget about them. I chuckled and then tried to think about anything else.
Even with all of this in my life, I’ve never really considered surgery. I suppose I never hit a point where I said to myself, I have to take care of this. I asked Dr. Stoker if there was a catalytic event that brought people in to see him.
He said many people just come in once they “figure out that there’s a solution to their problem that is very doable.” Another reason is because of a life transition. He had two patients come in who were graduating high school and college. Some patients come in after a divorce. Others come in because they are finally able to afford it. (The surgery will cost you in the neighborhood of five to fifteen thousand dollars. Also, for the record, Dr. Stoker urged using a board certified plastic surgeon who has several examples of before and after photos.)
The doctor asked me if I was considering the surgery.
“No,” I said. “I’m planning to live with my body as is at the moment.”
This isn’t necessarily a happy tale of self-acceptance, though.
The irony of my adult life that I have essentially the same amount of fat on my body as I did as a child. It’s just that the children that I knew who were once so wiry in gym class have grown larger than I have. I’ve even described me as “slim.” This is no doubt helped by the fact that I live in The United States and in a part of the country where it is cold at least seven months out of the year.
I can still see my man boobs, though. Even if no woman I’ve ever been with has said anything, even if I haven’t been taunted for it in over twenty years, I still know they’re there.
“This is how I look and I need to take this damn shirt off.”
Something happened a week or two ago, though. I went for a long run in Prospect Park, a little over six miles. It was really humid and by the end of my run, I was just putting one foot in front of the other to finish. I was drenched with sweat and my shirt was uncomfortable. And so, on this particular day, I did the unthinkable. I took my shirt off. In public. My pale pasty man-boobed self was on display for all to see. As I walked back to my apartment building, I encountered a few neighbors. I was still shirtless. I didn’t run inside. I stretched, then walked slowly up the stairs to my apartment.
As I’ve gotten older, the line between acceptance and resignation has gotten blurrier and blurrier. I thought, “This is how I look and I need to take this damn shirt off.”
I still check my reflection in store windows as I’m walking down the street. I wear dark t-shirts for the slimming effect. But I feel okay about myself, man boobs, love handles, and all.
Now I can direct my attention where it belongs: on my male pattern baldness.