“What Are Those?” A Meditation on Moobs
When I google “moobs,” the search results can be divided into three categories. One category gives definitions of the word. Dictionary.com takes a scientific route, describing moobs as “overdeveloped breasts on a man, caused by excess weight or lack of exercise.” Urban Dictionary puts it more bluntly: moobs are “what happens when fat gathers in a male’s chest area, and gives him the appearance of having breasts.” A portmanteau of the words “man” and “boobs,” the word “moobs” is demonstrated in a brief dialogue on Urban Dictionary that goes as follows:
Person A: “Those moobs are quite sizeable.”
Person B: “Indeed.”
The second category contains articles about the addition of the word to the Oxford English Dictionary in September 2016. The OED adopted the word “moobs” along with “YOLO” and “Oompa Loompas,” the hyper-tanned Dahlian characters whose bodies we love to mock.
But by far the most common of the search results are advice columns, men’s articles, and how-to pages on curing yourself of your moobs. Though moobs can be acquired in several ways (including a hormonally-spurred enlargement of breast tissue, known as gynecomastia, common in teenage boys), these articles mainly focus on the moobs of fat men. According to National Institutes of Health statistics, approximately 74 percent of American men are “overweight” or “obese.” (I place these terms in quotes due to the NIH’s use of Body Mass Index, or BMI, to define them. There is a growing body of evidence showing that BMI is a deeply flawed measurement of human health.) After doing some quick math on the back of a Wendy’s to-go bag, I figure there are roughly 240 million moobs in the U.S. that supposedly need eradicating.
You would think from reading some of these search results that moobs are an otherworldly plague on mankind. A piece from Askmen, a free online web portal with the slogan, “Become a Better Man,” pronounces that moobs are “every man’s worst nightmare,” and a Men’s Health article advises readers to “banish” their moobs. Most columns offer the standard solution of diet plus exercise (although usually dressed up with phrases such as “eat like a man” and “become one with the bench [press],” according to GQ). A WikiHow page offers multiple paths to mooblessness, including: wearing looser shirts; wearing collared shirts; wearing shirts with built-in girdles (which I, a moob-owner, did not even know existed); wearing shirts on top of shirts; committing to losing weight; making an exercise plan; sticking to your exercise plan; and saving enough money—a mere 5,000 dollars—to undergo elective cosmetic surgery. The last of these options is accompanied by an image: a drawing of a middle-aged man post-moobectomy, fist-pumping the air without a hint of jiggle.
I’ve had moobs for as long as I can remember because I’ve been fat for as long as I can remember. It’s no secret why: during my elementary school years, a home-cooked meal was harder to come by than a ten-piece chicken McNugget with fries. My physical activity consisted exclusively of napping outside on a sagging trampoline and spotty attendance at a weekly boys’ tumbling class held at my local gym.
A dozen or so boys, myself included, would (sometimes) show up to this class and cartwheel, backbend, and flip (sort of) across the spongy gym floor, all while our mothers peered down from a raised observation deck and pretended not to see us prancing between exercises. While waiting for my turn on the trampoline, I would always watch the girl gymnasts perform their acts. Not because I was interested in them—I was much too young and much too gay for that—but because I envied their leotards.
Boy gymnasts had to wear athletic shorts and shirts, with or without sleeves. The girl gymnasts’ leotards, colorful and sleek and shimmering, made me long jealously for a type of a beauty that seemed categorically inaccessible to me.
I was waiting patiently in the trampoline line when the short, thin boy in front of me turned around and, with absolutely no pretense, extended a bony finger and probed my left moob.
“What are those?” he asked in an annoyingly high-pitched voice. Apparently, he had never seen anything resembling a breast before.
“That’s my chest,” I responded, retreating from his grope.
“They look like my mom’s,” he said, twisting the word “mom” into something cruel and demeaning. “Why are they so…big?” he pressed. He looked at me with the same disgusted curiosity he might show a rotting millipede. Before I could respond, he hopped onto the trampoline and executed an infuriatingly flawless routine.
Beyond that single conversation, this boy does not exist in my memory. I do, however, remember our class instructor telling us that in order to gather the most spin on our jumps, we should tuck our arms by crossing them over our bodies. I remember stepping onto the trampoline and folding my arms across my abundant chest. I flattened my moobs against my rib cage and felt them pressing against my very core.
Perhaps the place most accepting of moob-owners is the beach. When I was younger, my family drove eight hours every summer to visit Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, and we could hardly throw a Frisbee around there without it rebounding off the portly chest of some male sunbather. The beach was popular among residents of the numerous senior living communities in Horry County, so it probably had a higher moob concentration than most places. Through sheer habituation, beachgoers at Myrtle became desensitized to the moob’s peaceful, flabby presence. In fact, moobs are so prevalent there that in low-resolution photographs with poor lighting, Myrtle could be mistaken for a clothing-optional beach.
One summer I ditched the annual Myrtle trip to travel to Barcelona with my Spanish class. Our teacher, Mrs. Posey, allotted us one beach day only, and during the metro ride to the shoreline she briefed us on a crucial detail: the beach was clothing-optional. We were enthralled.
We weren’t actually considering getting undressed (except for a strapping football player with moob-scale pecs who flirted with the idea). We were mostly intrigued by a visit to a place where the human body could openly exist in its purest state: without clothes.
We burst out of the suffocating Barcelona metro and spilled onto the beach. Keeping my eyes focused on the ground directly in front of me, I shuffled along with the group to a small parcel of sand. I laid down my towel, shucked off my T-shirt, and rushed to the safe cover of the warm Mediterranean water.
My classmates followed suit. Soon we were all paddling around, splashing each other and disrupting the quietude of the beach. The distance made looking directly at the nude beachgoers easier, but also more taboo—almost voyeuristic. It was surprisingly hard to spot the naked ones from our vantage point. The shoreline blended into a corpulent collage of thighs, bellies, and—yes—moobs.
As the minutes passed, we got more adept at noticing the subtle curve of an uncovered breast, the sagging asymptote of a bare butt cheek. We were like tourists on a safari silently pointing out exquisite specimens to one another. Those moobs are quite sizeable, our knowing glances said. Quite sizeable indeed. We filed each sighting in our mental folder labeled “Weird Things Europeans Do,” along with charging for soft drink refills and showing uncensored nudity in mid-afternoon television commercials. After we had dried off and I had donned my shirt again, we sprawled out on our towels and continued our people-watching.
To my right, a stocky, middle-aged man crouched over his crying two-year-old daughter, desperately trying to shush her with a pacifier. His matronly moobs swayed as he lovingly shoved the plastic bit into the kid’s mouth. The girl gradually calmed and began smiling and giggling at her busty father. Soon the two of them were waddling toward the water, splashing their feet in the shallow edges of the water, jiggling together.
To my left, an older gentleman reclined on his beach towel, one arm extended fully above his head, the other elbow-deep into a bag of Ruffles. His moobs drooped proudly off to either side of his body. He slowly extracted a single potato chip and, with a grand flourish, lowered it vertically into his mouth. There was something formally graceful in his movements. Paint in a couple rosy-cheeked cherubs and some august marble columns, and replace the chips with a cluster of purple grapes, and the man would have looked positively classical.
It wasn’t the dazzling spectacle of a leotard, but it was something.
Maybe it’s not the appearance of moobs that invites so much scorn, but rather what they represent. At their most basic level, breasts imply femininity. That simple association belies the complex relationships women and men, especially those who participate in artistic sports, can have with their bodies.
As a young male gymnast, I wasn’t aware of the intense bodily scrutiny directed at the female athletes I so admired. In a brilliant essay published in the Yale Daily News in 2017, Liana Van Nostrand ’20 wrote about her experience as a dancer and her decision to undergo breast reduction surgery. My admiration, brought from a place of deep insecurity and internalized stigma against fatness, flattened the experiences of my fellow athletes. Breasts are more complicated than I had thought—for people of all genders.
For me, my moobs have thrown into sharp relief the demands of masculinity and femininity. They are my body’s rebellion against manhood—or at least, how men are meant to behave. Men are not supposed to prance around in bedazzled, skintight leotards; men should not lounge serenely on the coast, engorging themselves on junk food; and men, above all else, should not be motherly.
And I think that’s bullshit.
The summer after I went to Barcelona, I visited Virginia Beach with a few of my high school friends. We had all just graduated and were about to scatter ourselves between four distant universities. My friends weren’t much for swimming, and there’s really nothing lonelier than floating shirtless through the trashy brine of the Virginian coast, so we spent most of our time sunbathing. I set up our umbrella with every intention of reclining beneath its protective shade, safely covered by my dark-blue T-shirt.
Then I remembered that annoying boy from tumbling class. And the unapologetic nudists in Barcelona. Fuck it, I thought, and flung off my shirt. With the salty breeze wicking at my ample moobs, I felt utterly free.