Man Flab, It’s Fab

062606 article vilkomerson Man Flab, It’s FabOne by one, from Hollywood to the Hamptons, men have liberated themselves from the flat-stomached emo-boy reign of terror. Over the weekend in Westchester, U.S. Open enthusiasts cheered for Phil Mickelson, the golf crowd’s non–Tiger Woods favorite, whose previous winning record coincided with a softly expanding waist line and what one observer near the 18th hole described as “a sweet pair of man boobs.”

Meanwhile, at the movies, New Yorkers escaped the heat to watch Jack Black’s ample ass cavort in stretchy pants in Nacho Libre, and Vince Vaughn’s gutty hotness argue over the semantics of wanting to wash the dishes in The Break-Up.

And on the streets themselves, it seems that everywhere you can see a girl, power-yoga’d into the holy size zero, walking hand in hand with a guy who clearly never met a cheeseburger he didn’t like.

Our men are carrying an extra 10—hell, maybe 15—pounds in the midriff, haven’t even thought about the gym in months, and they are unashamed. Why should they be? The Hollywood box-office draws have stopped looking like the lithe and graceful Orlando Blooms of the world, delicate and emotive and who might possibly weigh less than an average female fan, and instead now look like guys you can recognize as being from the same planet you inhabit, who eat, drink, and smoke what they want, pack on the pounds and still get to regularly bed skinny actresses who can’t remember what carbs taste like. What’s more, the women don’t mind a bit—in fact, some prefer it.

“You don’t want a guy who’s too skinny,” said a young, sporty blonde named Adrienne Rochetti, who lives in the West Village and considers Vince Vaughn a hottie. “If a guy is skinnier than you, then you’re the one that has to go to the gym.”

Danielle, a 22-year-old Upper East Sider who works in public relations, agreed. “In New York, skinny, scrawny guys are often in style—and you’re like, ‘Wow you could be a girl!’”

"IT DEPENDS ON THE SCRIPT, OF COURSE, but overall, for studio pictures, if you’re going to talk about who are the top contenders, you’ll talk about Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Vince Vaughn, Jack Black or one of the Wilson brothers,” said New York casting director Adrienne Stern. “I watched Old School the other night, and I saw those three guys—Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn. The three of them together personify frat boy, and that’s what America wants to see.”

But while America may be embracing the flab, we’re not talking about the boorish, crass and brainless beer boys of lad magazines and The Man Show. The man-flab marquee star is a big lover. He has a heart—perhaps, yes, with massive arterial blockage, but a heart nonethless, one that he wears in his limpid, always somewhat moist eyes. Man-flab must also be distinguished from “fat.” If you imagine a man-flab man with his shirt off, what comes to mind is a sort of doughy mattress, soft but not squishy, and no beer gut. It feels good, not distressing, to get a man-flab hug.

“I think the whole face of American cinema is changing,” said casting director Lisa Beach, whose credits include David Dobkin’s Wedding Crashers (a film in which Vince Vaughn’s character was shown perpetually shoveling entire wedding platters of food into his mouth). She is currently at work on the director of that film’s next project, which has the equally hairy and out-of-shape Paul Giamatti and Vince Vaughn playing brothers. Ms. Beach, who also pointed out that this was only a new development for white boy actors—she cited Bernie Mac’s success as a leading man—said that television paved the way.

“Look at that show”—Still Standing—“with Mark Addy and Jami Gertz, or Ray Romano and Patricia Heaton,” said Ms. Beach. “You see the success of those shows, which have a very attractive, well-put-together woman, in an upper-middle-class kind of way, with the guy who fits in perfectly in his blue-collar existence. I think that’s now starting to translate to features.”

So which came first: our personal man flab, or Hollywood’s depiction of it?

“A movie is a fantasy, and you are taken on a journey,” said Ms. Stern. “You’ll have a better chance of going if someone is on the screen you can relate to.”

“It depends on which audience you are trying to appeal to. If you are trying to get the biggest audience, then you’re looking for the everyman,” said Ms. Beach. Jacked-up Arnold Schwarzenegger? Gone. Musclehead Sylvester Stallone? He is no more. There’s no more grunge-friendly skinny like the early Keanu Reeves, and no stomach as ripped as Brad Pitt’s circa Fight Club. (Well, besides the eerily, almost frighteningly well-built Ryan Reynolds.) The men that women tend to root for are the smart, funny ones, who they could imagine coming home to, who might need a Lean Cuisine once in a while. Indeed, Tom Cruise, who looked like a skinny, crazed teeth-machine in his publicity blitzes for 1) his romance with Katie Holmes and 2) M:I-3, revealed the nasty side of the hypertoned male—and lost more than a few female fans—when he attacked Brooke Shields for taking antidepressants. (Well, they can bloat, you know.)

Heck, even Will Ferrell, who seems to have a pro-nudity clause in his contracts and who is also a serious athlete, still shows the familiar beefiness that we can’t help but find endearing. Check it out: Hollywood heavyweights (ha!) like Russell Crowe, Colin Ferrell and Leonardo DiCaprio—men who certainly have never had any trouble attracting women—have all been puffed up on-screen and, well, in home video. Kiefer Sutherland can save the world from terrorism again and again (and again), but he might not ever lose the soft curve of a belly that gives him a literal and figurative extra layer.

Plus there’s no denying that there is an added sexiness to a man who knows how to enjoy himself, be it with food, wine or women.

“There is a sort of domineering quality that comes with more meat, and that can be very attractive,” said Medaya Ocher, 19, a salesgirl at Steven Alan. “Obvious frailty is never an attractive quality. People describe the Vince Vaughn body type as bloated, but it can also be round, huggable and welcoming.”

Hollywood starlets, on the other hand, shouldn’t hold their breath for a reversal in body image. “It’s never going to stop for women,” said Ms. Stern.

“METROSEXUALITY IS OVER, IF IN FACT IT EVER EXISTED,” e-mailed Men’s Health editor in chief David Zinczenko. But could the local burgeoning of bulge be related to something more important than the death of that whole charade and the fattening of America at large? “This might be wacky,” Mr. Zinczenko suggested, “but you know how skirts get shorter as the stock market booms, and get longer in times of financial worry? I think men’s bellies follow the same rules. When your $500K apartment is suddenly worth $1M two years later, it’s easy to find time to work out and take care of yourself. When the market stagnates, interest rates start to climb and you’re sitting on a 15-year A.R.M. that you can barely afford, you have less time to devote to eating right and staying fit.”

Not so fast, said Joe Barron, founder of Manhattan’s personal-training gyms, Definitions. “When the economy—and remember, my clients are the very affluent—is certain, men work out less. Maybe they feel secure in their wealth and position. When the economy is uncertain or poised for a downturn, they work out a lot more—they worry more about their position and wealth.”

Mr. Zinczenko did point to a biological basis for our belly boomers. “Cortisol, the stress hormone, increases the body’s tendency to store fat. The more stress we’re under, the flabbier we get as a society.”

“In our 23-year history, men’s average visits to Definitions on a weekly basis has seen the biggest jump ever—it started in March and is still rising,” said Mr. Barron. “While it is good news for our slightly uncyclical business, it means the movers and shakers in this town are very worried and probably think something bad is going to happen to the economy in the next year or so.”

If men menstruated, the old joke goes, there’d be a national holiday every 28 days. So have men successfully converted their stress fat into a sexy commodity?

David Kirsch, a celebrity-fitness guru whose clients include Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Heidi Klum, conceded that Vince Vaughn and the resurgence of more regular-looking guys “have opened it up and made guys a little more at ease. There’s a different attitude: People want to be healthy and want to do cardio, and they are not going to extreme measures.”

Gone too are the days when men lifted weights until they looked like superheroes. “Guys are looking to be natural athletes now. They want to feel good. They don’t want to be shackled to the weight machine. I’m 45 years old; I still have 10 percent body fat, but I don’t want to be the body builder that I was in 1987,” Mr. Kirsch said.

“Guys who are all puffed out, they strike me as insecure people,” said Patrick Creadon, the director of the documentary Wordplay. “They’re like peacocks with their feathers in full bloom, and that just seems like way too much.”

“The hard male body does not ideally come from sitting around in a mirrored, air-conditioned room, wearing tight clothes while another man counts off how many times you’ve lifted a small bar of metal,” said Ms. Ocher. “It comes from war and bear hunting and providing food for your children.”

Just like Goldilocks, there does seem to be a little not-too-much, not-too-little sentiment among possible suitors. “The East Village is full of those guys who are 25 years old and 95 pounds,” said a 22-year-old Upper East Side resident named Daniel. “You want to say, ‘Eat a sandwich!’”

“If women have issues with their weight, they don’t want their men to be sticks,” said Mr. Kirsch. “But my girls want their guys to have good asses—they don’t want them flubbery. I think men and women are meeting in the middle. They want the same thing: They want them to be healthy and lean—not necessarily Kate Moss or Brad Pitt.”

JILL AND MICHAEL, A TRENDYISH-LOOKING COUPLE strolling through the Greenmarket last Friday, seemed to embody, literally, the whole man-flab acceptance movement. “He’s my ideal,” said Jill. “He’s big and strong and has something to grab onto. It’s the whole being-protected thing—not that I think about that consciously. You want to be with someone who can protect you.”

“I like to work out. I like to eat. I work for a living, so I don’t have a lot of time to think about those things,” said Michael, who sported a beard and chin-length long hair in addition to a bit of a belly. “I’d rather eat and drink a beer than starve myself to look like some Chelsea boy.”

Which leads us to the constant trend in straight men’s body types: Aren’t they always about 10 years behind the gays? With the advent—and later cooption—of the super-flabby gay-bear movement, aren’t straight guys once again following in the shoes of the gays? There’s a new stereotype to subsume, so off goes the “Chelsea boy,” that overly quaffed, buffed-up, muscle-bound sort who spent as much time at the gym as he did on his skin-care regimen.

“Any guy who I’ve met who’s really put together, their personality reflects all that primping. That’s not a guy to me,” said Maria Sansone, who works in TV. Indeed, the point could be made that a guy who lets it all hang out might be the one more secure in his masculinity.

“My first impression is that they’re gay,” said Jack Dunlea, a strapping 6-foot-3 type, carrying his extra little belly with pride. (He clearly missed the bear era altogether.) “I was sitting on 18th Street as we were waiting for lunch, and next-door is a gym, and they all come out and they’re puffed up like a pigeon and, I don’t know, they’re heading to their gay lover or going out for a rock ’n’ roll Friday afternoon.”

But don’t worry, Christian Bale and Brandon Routh and all you Equinox aerobics boys! Not every New York single gal has been won over by the resurgence of man flab. Katie Doyle, a pretty 21-year-old corporate-media blogger, is so not on board: “Fat rolls are disgusting. Also, I don’t like sweat; I find the presence of sweat embarrassing. Meaty, Vince Vaughn–esque bear men sweat profusely and would potentially sweat on me during sex. I’d rather sew my vagina shut.”

—additional reporting by Alex Gartenfeld, Lidija Haas and M.K. Stump