It used to be that if a guy was unhappy with his midsection, he didn't let on. He might joke about his "love handles" or "the spare tire," but that's as far as things went. Not anymore. Today guys who wear jeans the same size they wore in high school can't resist the temptation to poke their bodies and wonder aloud if they are fat. You find them in elevators, gyms, restaurants, and clothing stores, complaining about how huge they feel after one bowl of pasta, prodding anyone within earshot to inspect flab that's barely visible to the human eye. Take Houston salesman Michael Brichford, 39, for example. At five feet eight and 150 pounds, he doesn't have so much as a Thin Mint tucked beneath his belt. He knows this, he truly does, and yet if he eats a cheesesteak or misses a day on the treadmill, he can't help but whine about how balloonlike he feels. "I should probably just keep my mouth shut, because anyone who hears me is going to think I'm an idiot," he says. "I'm not going to get any sympathy if I say, 'I can't see my abs right now.'"

The typical "flabulist" tends to be a guy in his late twenties to mid-thirties who only recently noticed that as you age, your muscle mass decreases. He is often shocked to discover that that no-fuss physique he's been bragging about since college now requires maintenance. But the fear and loathing can strike diligent, type-A men, too. Dr. David Edelson, the medical director of Thin-site.com, frequently meets with lawyers and businessmen who tell him they need to lose weight even though his well-trained eye says no, they don't. "You never saw that in the past," he says. "In cases of normal body composition, men are demanding to be put on diet pills. They're in control of the rest of their lives, but when their body isn't doing what they want, they get a little freaked out."

Now, men have always fretted about perceived inadequacies, be it the girth of their biceps or of that more private asset, and this chubsessiveness is surely just another phase. How could you not be swayed by those photos of shirtless beanpoles (runway models, soccer players, even the president), by the skinny suits, jeans, and ties, by the looming threat of obesity? But the show-and-tell stuff is brand-new.

"It's proof," says Dr. Michael Finkelstein, who runs a holistic-medicine practice in Bedford, New York. "If you have a headache, you can't prove it, but if I squeeze my abdomen and show you two inches, that's proof. You may not agree that I'm fat, but there's something there."

As a manager at Odin in New York City, Colin Lynch sees evidence of the trend daily. He was surprised at first to find slim guys leaving the dressing room to ask if the pants they had picked out were too snug, but it happens so often he's used to it now. "They have a mirror in the room, but they come out because they want to talk," he says. "They say, 'This part right here bugs me.' Whether they squeeze their ass or stomach, they make a point of showing you." Coltrane Curtis, a 34-year-old marketing exec in New York, who could stand to lose a bowling ball or two, is incensed by the very idea. "It's like, 'Shut up and leave the fat-guy game to the fat guys,'" he says.

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