While breasts have been an object of male obsession for ages, more and more boob men are becoming fixated on a specific pair: their own.
Many have opted to get that extra something off their chests with breast-reduction surgery, and a surprising number of these patients are adolescent boys.
“Most of these boys have difficulty at school,” said Virender Singhal, chief of plastic surgery at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. “In the locker room, they get teased severely. They have problems making friends or playing sports.”
Singhal performs breast-reduction surgeries on patients as young as 14 with a condition known as gynecomastia, or enlarged male breasts, which affects 40 percent to 70 percent of adolescent boys due to a hormonal fluctuation during puberty. While most grow out of it after two years, about 15 percent continue to experience anything from puffy nipples to C-cup breasts. Even lactation.
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Of the 20,000 U.S. males who had the breast surgery last year, nearly 14,000 of them, 70 percent, were ages 13 to 19, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
“You can hide it by wearing extra layers or binding them with ACE bandages or wearing jackets in the summer, but if you’re going to have a normal childhood, that doesn’t really work,” said Merle Yost, a California-based psychotherapist and author of the book Demystifying Gynecomastia: Men With Breasts.
Yost, who had breast-reduction surgery when he was 35, created a Web site, gynecomastia.org, as a resource and forum for those who suffer the shame of bearing a feminine bust.
“At 11, I started developing breasts,” Yost said. “I was tortured in school. Boys gave me titty-twisters. Girls offered me their bras. I had a coach who kept deliberately putting me on the ‘skins’ team.”
Yost now devotes his life to educating society about the condition.
“I see boys on the discussion board who are suicidal, who want to take a knife and cut it out, who are morbidly depressed,” Yost said. “Some of the guys have never dated and have never had sex. It’s certainly the exception and not the rule, but it’s really devastating.”
And a far cry from the pop culture references to “moobies” in recent years. In a famous episode of “Seinfeld,” Kramer invents the Bro (or Mansiere), a “support undergarment specifically designed for men.” And in last month’s release “Knocked Up,” Seth Rogen’s character is identified by his “man boobs.”
Although presented in comical contexts, both examples regard male breasts as an unsavory attribute in a culture that exalts masculinity.
“I think men are more sensitive about their bodies than women,” said Beverly Hynes with the Hynes Plastic Surgery Center in Kansas City. “Having breasts equates with being effeminate.”
While enlarged breasts can be a symptom of obesity, gynecomastia is a result of an increase in estrogen levels from some medications, liver disease, testicular trauma, steroids and a host of other causes.
A June New York Times article reported that the foremost reason for the increased number of male breast reductions is the rise in obesity. But many plastic surgeons refuse to operate on patients with what Singhal called “pseudogynecomastia,” or excessive fat accumulated in the chest area. The local surgeons interviewed have turned away overweight candidates and encouraged them to lose weight instead.
For those with gynecomastia who don’t want to resort to surgery, which insurance rarely covers, Yost recommends celebrating an ample chest and accepting it as “not a flaw but a feature.”
“A lot of boys are ashamed to show their parents,” he said. “They feel fatally flawed in a way that’s not redeemable.”
He encourages not only parents but also teachers to be tolerant, adding that coaches can help fight the stigma by normalizing the condition.
Originally published July 31, 2007