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Special Men's Fashion Issue

The uncomfortable middle

He Longed to Be Thin. But Now That Portly Is In, Is He Chubby Enough?

September 07, 2003|Paul Brownfield | Paul Brownfield is a staff writer for The Times' Calendar section.

When comedian Jon Stewart hosted the 2002 Grammys, he did a brave and startling thing: He stripped to his boxers onstage, revealing a body (and here I am referring to the all-important chest and waist areas) that could judgmentally be deemed flabby.

His body was mine--the one I stare at with disappointment in the mirror, the one I never see on TV. Neither fat nor thin, in shape nor out. I'm talking about those of us with modest guts and good legs, who can pull off an array of outfits (even if the pants are a shame-inducing 36 waist). But at home, in front of unforgiving bathroom ambience (bad lighting and a full-length mirror) we see ourselves as doughy and lumpen, unattractive. TV has done this to us, TV and the movies. Magazines, too, I suppose. Significant others don't know what to say. But they say things anyway, as we pinch at our spare tires and push in our drooping chests:

"You're not fat."

"Then join a gym."

"You're worse than a woman!"

Stewart's partial frontal nudity came in the name of comedy (a bit about heightened awards show security in which even the host got strip-searched). But he also took one small step for his guy brethren. Those of us with average to below-average bodies need a hero.

We don't have many to work with. Watching a "Seinfeld" rerun, we see George Costanza, his "man breasts" visible beneath his polo shirt, and we see ourselves. We wonder why he tucks in those shirts, why he wears them in the first place. Doesn't he know how he looks? We can't believe he's eating French fries at Monk's Diner, or asking for bread from the Soup Nazi.

In my battle with self-image, television offers a typical mix of conflicting imagery, the male body at opposite extremes. What you tend to see is the imposingly trim male (Eric McCormack of "Will & Grace," Noah Wyle of "ER," to name two) or the character-based fat guy (James Gandolfini of "The Sopranos," Drew Carey of "The Drew Carey Show"). Nor has so-called "reality TV" made things much more realistic, after a promising start with Richard Hatch, the first, abs-challenged winner of CBS' "Survivor." Like the genre itself, reality TV contestants have only become more cartoonish since then, from the cardboard hunk Evan Marriott of "Joe Millionaire" fame to Ralphie May, the morbidly obese "funny man" on "Last Comic Standing."

The confused center of it all is represented by Stewart, who appears four nights a week as host of the Comedy Central series "The Daily Show." He is a man who looks good in a suit, sitting at a desk; he also has great hair, a handsome face and sensitive, expressive eyes. But underneath is a body that, in the words of one observer, is "uncut, unripped, unbuff."

"He's not dressing like a 'metrosexual,' " says David Wolfe, whose New York-based firm, the Doneger Group, analyzes fashion trends. The good news, according to Wolfe, is that women like him anyway.

"What you're talking about is the power of the personality that's stronger than the physicality. That's the secret of it, really," says Wolfe, who also noted that "a bald, fat, Jewish guy" on HBO's "Sex and the City" was able to land sexy co-star Kristin Davis.

Still, as an adult male with body-image issues, I have spent the better part of my TV viewing life wishing I looked like the slim men in sleek clothing, from Bruce Willis of "Moonlighting" to George Clooney of "ER." It goes without saying that the in-shape stars are enviable. But the fat ones?

That's where I find myself vis-a-vis Gandolfini's Tony Soprano, who raises a vexing question: Is my fat fat enough to look that good?

As a mob boss, Tony looks properly dapper and imposing in an expensive suit, and much has been made of his penchant for wearing so-called "wife beater" undershirts. But for me the most interesting Tony scenes (on the male fashion front) take place when he is in therapy, sitting across from Dr. Melfi. For I have noticed that in a good many of these scenes Tony is wearing form-fitting, chest-hugging sports shirts, expensive slacks and a belt cinched tightly at the waist. Sometimes he has a sports jacket over the shirt, sometimes not.

He tends to enter the room and jam himself into the chair opposite the therapist, crossing his legs, actions that have a less-than-slimming effect. When Melfi's therapeutic probing cuts too closely he shifts in his seat, further accentuating how tight his clothes are.

And yet, he seems comfortable in his body--so comfortable that he even looks good standing at the refrigerator in his bathrobe, sniffing leftovers. He looks virile. If I were to stand at my refrigerator and sniff leftovers, I wouldn't be caught dead in a bathrobe. I would probably dress for the occasion in sweats and a too-big T-shirt, hiding from myself.

Of course, Tony is attractive because he is a fearless mobster, whereas I am fearful and not a mobster. Even if I gained the weight necessary to have a gut like his, I would still be fearful, still not a mobster. So where does that leave me if I'm going for the fat look?

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