Few things invite unabashed male body-shaming quite like gynecomastia, a condition better known as "man boobs."
Caused by an imbalance of estrogen and testosterone, gynecomastia is the term used to describe the swelling of breast tissue, which can create the appearance of breasts. While the condition is often treated lightly — as a punchline to a joke, a freak phenomenon to gawk at or even celebrity tabloid fodder – it's an aspect of male body image that a Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine report estimated 30% to 50% of healthy men struggle with.
For many men, gynecomastia seems to be a real source of insecurity and fear. When Vice published an article about hoppy craft beer consumption allegedly causing men's breasts to grow, for instance, Twitter became flooded with tweets from men declaring their intentions to boycott IPAs.
But what's it like for a guy to actually live with gynecomastia? Is it possible for a man to make peace with having man boobs? To flaunt them proudly, even? Or are they invariably an unwanted source of shame that must be eradicated, even for those who might otherwise label themselves body positive?
In search of answers, Mic talked to a few gentlemen with firsthand experience about how having gynecomastia has affected their lives.
"I was a skinny little boy at around age 11 — and then all of a sudden I started developing breasts," Merle Yost, a psychotherapist in Oakland, California, told Mic during a recent phone interview. He was describing his experience with adolescent-onset gynecomastia, which he said is a result of the body's inability to process the testosterone generated from puberty to the point where the hormone ultimately gets converted to estrogen, thus leading to the development of breast tissue.
Of course, school bullies didn't necessarily care about the reasons why Yost began developing breasts. They just noticed that his body deviated from typical gender norms and taunted him accordingly. "The girls were all offering me their bras," he said. "And the boys were slapping my chest." Having the misfortune of always being drafted to the "skins" team during gym class didn't help matters, he added.
These early experiences of body-shaming stayed with Yost, contributing to a self-conscious preoccupation with his chest throughout his twenties and, ultimately, breast reduction surgery in his thirties. He has since made it his life's work to help other men who've struggled with their bodies by studying the psychological effects of male breasts, publishing the book Demystifying Gynecomastia and founding the website gynecomastia.org, a resource for men with the condition.
"The girls were all offering me their bras. And the boys were slapping my chest."
"There was virtually nothing on the web [about gynecomastia] at the time," he told Mic.
Today, a simple search for the term "gynecomastia" pulls up nearly a million Google results. The phrase "man boobs" will get you more than 29 million, with most links offering suggestions for how to banish, lose or get rid of them once and for all. Yet most who Google the term will inevitably find that there isn't a quick fix for the condition.
"I thought if I worked out, they would go away," Zach Valenti, a New York City-based filmmaker and speaker told Mic of his adolescent experience developing breasts.
Going to the gym didn't help, though. Instead, it just led to more body-shaming.
"All the dudes in the gym were comparing bodies and lifting up shirts," he said. "And when I lifted up my shirt, everybody got quiet. There was a pause... [My friend] burst out laughing, with a finger pointing right at my chest. I was destroyed."
The cultural stigma associated with men having breasts reflects a larger issue with male body image, a topic that generates little discussion in the media. While our society is notorious for projecting unreasonable body standards onto women, there's also no shortage of pressure for guys to have sculpted, muscular bodies. From cologne ads to movies and TV shows to men's magazines, the media sends the message loud and clear: The ideal male body is supposed to look toned, sculpted and muscular, with nary a curve or swelling of soft tissue in sight.
Even when dudes are praised for having not-totally-in-shape physiques, it comes with a caveat: Men who are larger than average can be considered attractive, provided their fat is distributed in just the right places. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the "dad bod" craze earlier this year, which extolled the hotness of men who managed to achieve "a nice balance between a beer gut and working out."
"It's not an overweight guy, but it isn't one with washboard abs, either," wrote Mackenzie Pearson, the author of the original dad bod piece, implying that while a slight tummy can be sexy on a man, extra weight anywhere else is decidedly not.
The fact that gynecomastia involves men having characteristics that are typically viewed as feminine suggests there's a fair amount of low-key misogyny at play in the man boob-shaming as well.
"The teasing and bullying I experienced as a kid was mostly due to people associating my body with femininity," Matt Cornell, a Netherlands-based PhD student in cultural analysis who developed breasts at age 12, told Mic. "I think that society's contempt for 'man boobs' is a symptom of cultural misogyny."
Cornell added that "I don't think that bodies should be described in terms of gender norms. There are men with breasts. There are also women without breasts. Many bodies do not fit the rigid gender binaries imposed on them."
Yost agreed that men likely feel self-conscious about having breasts for similar reasons. "As an adolescent, you're trying to feel more masculine and figure out what it means to be a man," he told Mic. "And then you get this characteristic that is associated with women."
"There are men with breasts. There are also women without breasts."
It's these rigid societal messages, along with the bullying and rejection that comes with having a body that deviates from gender norms, that ultimately make men believe they can't date, go to the beach or live full, confident lives until their breasts are "fixed." And when working out doesn't help the condition, surgery can often wind up being the only option. The procedure, which is similar to a mastectomy, involves removing the breast gland tissue. In some cases, testosterone therapy has also proven effective.
Even Cornell, a proponent of body positivity, felt that surgery was the best course of action after he lost weight at age 17 and still had breasts. In terms of improving his self-esteem, he said the surgery ultimately worked. "I actually lost my virginity while I was still wearing the bandages from my second operation," he said.
So is there any way for men with breasts to come to a place of body acceptance without "correcting" their chests? Or is this the one area of male body image that is just impossible to get over?
Yost told Mic that while the majority of men he's worked with in his private practice disliked their breasts and sought to eliminate them, there were some who managed to embrace them as they were.
"Some men really do enjoy them," he said, adding that he knew one straight man whose wife was so into them that she even bought him a bra as a sexy-time gift. "How your partner feels about them — if you have a partner — matters a lot."
Valenti said that he even knew a boy at summer camp who seemed to be so OK with his breasts that he'd frequently give girls offers to feel him up. "He just had a different way of being about it," he said.
But those ultra-confident types are exceptions to the general rule, which is that being body-shamed throughout life is typically going to result in a lifelong sense of inadequacy. "It was only much later, as an adult, that I learned to accept my body," Cornell said. "And I am still learning. I think for most of us, it is a lifelong process of rejecting societal bullshit that gets placed on our bodies."
While Valenti said he ultimately didn't have any regrets about opting for surgery, he did say he sometimes wonders about one thing. "I don't know if I would do things any differently, but I definitely wish I had more compassion for myself," he told Mic. "Then I don't think I would've felt so strongly, negatively and shamefully about other peoples' reactions to my body."