I felt like a B-movie actress on the casting couch as I unbuttoned my shirt under the penetrating gaze of Pat Croce, a Philadelphia-area fitness guru.
"Well, yes, I see what you mean," he said. "I'd say you have one." Perhaps I'm paranoid, but Croce seemed to grimace as he said it, and I quickly buttoned back up.
Yes, I do have one, and I didn't need Croce to confirm it. What I wanted him to say was, "Hmmm, doesn't look too bad to me." But he didn't. He said: "I'd say you have one."
Potbelly. Paunch. Spare tire. Gut. Call it what you will. I've had one for quite a while now, probably a decade, but today, at the age of 40, I'm still struggling to come to grips with it—easily grippable as it might be.
Fortunately, my potbelly is not as prodigious as, say, that loading dock carried around by actor Charles Durning. In fact, some people still consider me skinny, which I definitely was during my first 20 years on the planet. I was the one at whom kids hollered, "Hey, turn sideways so you disappear." And for reasons I cannot comprehend, I am still asked dozens of times a year whether I've lost weight. My mother-in-law, bless her heart, asks once a week. I'm at a loss to explain this, but my wife says it's because my face has a way of "changing shape" with each haircut or shave.
The truth is, I've neither lost nor gained much weight over the past 15 years, carrying between 175 and 180 pounds on a six-foot frame. My arms and wrists are still thin, my shoulders narrow, my legs average-sized, and my face, evidently, changeable. Even my waist measurement, 34, has remained constant since the early '70s. Those are the things people see when they call me skinny.
But, alas, I know the real me, the me with the soft, round stomach and the love handles, odious first cousins to the paunch. Inches may not have been added to my waist, but flaccidity has arrived with a vengeance. Like the Reverend Dimmesdale, I'm living a lie, and I'm probably destined to wake up one day with a scarlet letter—P for paunch—emblazoned on my abdomen.
You don't have any idea how this bothers me. (But you will soon.) See, I believe I should not have a potbelly. I don't deserve one. I have my history of skinniness, and though my job is sedentary—tapping on a keyboard and scribbling on a notepad—I've stayed active by exercising, playing basketball and jogging.
And then there are the unfavorable social implications of the beer belly. I like a brew now and then, but I don't spend my evenings sprawled in front of the tube with a mug in each hand, cursing joggers and the dearth of Archie Bunker reruns.
Worse still are the medical reports on potbellydom. (You knew this was coming, didn't you?) Recent studies have shown that people with beefy hips but trim waists are much less prone to heart disease and other serious medical problems than people with paunches and small behinds. The people in the former group are generally known as women. The people in the latter group are generally known as men. One of them is me.