The fat that collects around women's hips, on the other hand, tends to be subcutaneous, or just underneath the skin. It does not drain directly into the liver and so has less impact on the way that organ functions. "It's not how fat you are, it's where the fat is located," says Ostlund.
Perfect. I'm not fat, except in the wrong place. And then Brownell lobs this one at me: "Researchers found that a surprisingly high risk of heart disease exists in men who have excess fat around their middles and are otherwise thin." Why do I feel like my photo is attached to this study?
Smoking, evidently, also factors into the potbelly equation. (I'm off the hook here.) A study published in the Nov. 15, 1989, issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that men and women who smoke tend to carry more weight in their abdomens. This is true despite the fact that smokers usually weigh less, on the average, than nonsmokers. And, for both sexes, the tendency to gain weight in the abdomen appears to increase with the number of cigarettes smoked, says Dr. Elizabeth Barrett-Connor of the University of California School of Medicine in San Diego, who led the study. The likely reason for this, she says, is that smoking affects the hormones that affect body shape. "It's just one more piece of information about the notion that smoking is bad for you," Barrett-Connor says.
Now, we all know guys who get no exercise, keep the local doughnut shop on a 24-hour production schedule, get Christmas cards from 12 breweries and smoke three packs a day, yet still have stomachs that look like washboards. Those people are called, unofficially, The Kind of People You'd Like to Strangle. But don't blame them, blame their parents. The most important factor in determining whether or not a man (or woman) will develop a potbelly is genes. "If your father doesn't have a potbelly, there's a greater likelihood that you won't either," says Croce.
And vice versa, right, Dad? Yes, at the age of 76, John McCallum Sr. has nearly perfect eyesight, all his hair, a deadly short game of golf...and a potbelly.
"I was always pretty skinny. Then one day, all of a sudden, I had a gut," says McCallum père, shrugging his shoulders. How old was he then? When did it start to get, you know, real big?
"Don't remember," says my father. "But I know one thing—I never worried about it as much as you do."
I suppose that potbellydom never worried my dad because, until fairly recently, there was nothing wrong with it—just as there was nothing wrong with smoking, eating beef seven nights a week and not helping your significant other with the dishes. There were potbellied quarterbacks like Sonny Jurgensen, potbellied pitchers like Mickey Lolich, potbellied comedians like Jackie Gleason. Oh, the occasional potbellied hero still appears, nay, absorbs the contemporary sports landscape, like that lovable heavyweight with all the sons named George. (Let's face it—even Mr. Foreman didn't look that whale-bellied when he KO'd Adilson Rodrigues in June.) But, by and large, potbellied athletes are not socially accepted role models these days.
It all starts at the top. Consider recent images of the U.S. presidency: the wan but game Jimmy Carter competing in a 6.2-mile race near Camp David, Md., mouth hanging open, fatigued, straining, sacrificing and, finally, collapsing before the finish line; the eerily well-preserved, horse-riding Ronald Reagan, a Teddy Roosevelt in search of a metaphorical San Juan Hill; and the preppy, lean-bellied George Bush leading reporters and cameramen on a two-mile morning jog. It's doubtful that in today's body-conscious America, where you can get two solid hours of midday exercise programs on ESPN, even a veritable Winston Churchill—statesmanlike and brilliant but round-bellied—would make it past the Iowa caucuses.
Potbellies on athletes like Jurgensen and Lolich used to be winked at as long as their owners got the job done. We need, in fact, look no further than one George Herman Ruth—and, indeed, standing behind Ruth, one would not be able to look any farther—for the finest hour in the history of potbellydom.