"Do I look fat?" No... (yes!!)
June 2, 2014 9:47 AM   Subscribe

My husband sometimes asks me, "Do I look fat?" The answer is yes, but I don't know how to say "yes." Should I tell him the truth? Here's the context: For several years he has been hitting the gym hard. 5x/week at Crossfit, and currently in training for his third marathon. He went from a skinny, twiggy guy to a mass of muscle. He looks great, feels great, is healthy (we are vegan but do drink lots of beer on the weekends)... but as his muscles have grown, his belly has, too. It's big and looks fatty, even though the rest of him is muscly.

So when he asks if he looks fat, pointing to his belly, I want to be honest without hurting his feelings. Maybe he's doing something wrong at the gym. Maybe he shouldn't drink that protein powder.

To complicate matters, several years ago he was diagnosed with a treatable form of cancer, and is healthy now. His gym and running routine are tied in with his recovery from the disease. So, bottom line: as long as he is healthy, I'm happy. But when it comes time to body image, the belly is unflattering, unsexy, and I feel like a liar, when I'm the only one who could tell the truth.

What to do?
thank you.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (32 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Look up the term skinny fat.
This is all about diet.
Basically, as a vegan, he's hitting too many carbs, probably some are high glycemic index.
Cut back on carbs, up the protein and water.
Is he tracking everything he eats?
How many grams of carbs each day? How many grams of protein?
How many calories each day?

These are the places to start.

posted by John Kennedy Toole Box at 9:52 AM on June 2, 2014 [26 favorites]

If my girlfriend asked this question, especially repeatedly, my answer would be "I'm proud of how hard you work out and I want you to be happy, and I don't want to be set up as the keeper of your body image. How do you feel about yourself?"

Because really, that question isn't about an objective assessment. It's looking for reassurance, and doing it in a way that puts you in an impossible position.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:53 AM on June 2, 2014 [157 favorites]

I think this is one of those times you can very specifically answer the question he's asking and leave aside how you feel about it. "I think you need to talk to your trainers about it, because it's incongruent with the rest of your shape and I think that's strange."
posted by Lyn Never at 9:53 AM on June 2, 2014 [11 favorites]

I'd be honest, "Gosh honey, I know how much time you're putting in at the gym, and how you've been watching your diet, I agree, that tummy is sticking out a bit. I wonder if it's the way you're doing your abs, or perhaps it's adipose tissue. Can you get a guy at the gym to help assess it?"

When Husbunny and I first got together, he once said to me, "It's kind of weird how your figure is, there's nearly no adipose tissue above your waist, it's all below."

I had to laugh. "Adipose Tissue" is rather kinder than "fat."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:53 AM on June 2, 2014 [11 favorites]

Men often store fat in their stomachs. If it's not visceral fat (around the organs, you can tell because his stomach would still feel muscly when you poke it like a drum) and he's otherwise healthy, it's not really the end of the world and it's unlikely he can do much about it other than really clean up his eating. There's lots of info about this online.

I'd say tell him exactly what you wrote here, but I'm having some trouble reconciling this:
"He looks great, feels great, is healthy"
"But when it comes time to body image, the belly is unflattering, unsexy"

You say he looks great, feels great and what you care about is his health so sum up this question and reassure him you think he's sexy, healthy and that his stomach makes a good pillow in an emergency situation.

edit: also maybe this is the one situation liposuction was made for. Spot reduce it and then focus on diet to maintain the lack of belly because it's really a diet not an exercise issue.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:54 AM on June 2, 2014

I don't know, this is hard. With my boyfriend I'd probably just play it off lightly. "I don't know, hon - I guess you do have a little tummy chub-a-lub lately. Your biceps on the other hand...dayum, lookin' FINE." *smooch him and squeeze biceps*

If he wants to cut back on beer, sugar and carbs to deal with the belly that's on him. You can avoid lying about it and still reassure him that you find him sexy.

I eat paleo so I don't buy that vegan diet is automatically healthy. ;)
posted by amaire at 10:04 AM on June 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

He probably *feels* fat if he's asking you if he looks fat. It sounds to me like he actually wants to talk about this belly issue, but doesn't know how. Next time he asks, "do I look fat," maybe ask him why he's asking you? Whether he's feeling fat?

That he's developed this large belly while being relatively cut everywhere else is actually kind of strange anyway, I think (granted, I'm not a man, this is just spitballing). Is he allergic to something? The whey/protein powder maybe?
posted by rue72 at 10:05 AM on June 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

If he's asking if you think he looks fat, he already thinks he's fat.

I would probably respond to a question like this by asking him how feels about his body and if it bothers him. I would guess that a person who is training for their third marathon and does crossfit 5x per week is more than willing to put work in to change something they don't like about their body.

I wouldn't make the conversation about how you personally find his body unattractive in it's current form.
posted by inertia at 10:07 AM on June 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

I would be honest. Suggest cutting back on the beers and switching to a healthier, more well rounded diet.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:09 AM on June 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

He knows how he looks. Overweight people always do. The gym will have a mirror, and he will be getting on the scales. God, men's trousers are even sized by waist measurement, if he had no other clue. That isn't what this is about. When he asks you if you think he's fat, he's asking if you still love him despite his tummy. Just tell him he's hot and you love him. That's what he's asking, and hopefully you can answer that meta-question positively without lying.

You can go on to say "Why, do you think you're fat?" and if he says yes then you could ask how you can help, because you want him to be happy in his body. But saying "Yeah you're fat and it's unflattering and unsexy" would be being tone deaf and cruel, not honest, so don't beat yourself up about not doing that!
posted by tinkletown at 10:10 AM on June 2, 2014 [16 favorites]

I have to disagree with some of the above comments--it is seriously difficult (if not impossible) for most people to eat a diet that allows them to put on significant muscle mass while simultaneously lowering body fat percentage. Professional bodybuilders, for instance, cycle through "gain" and "cut" stages, where they eat what they need to eat to gain muscle and then switch to an extremely restrictive diet to drop their body fat down to where you can see muscle definition. Your husband may be eating an appropriate amount, and his belly may not even be a sign of an unhealthy diet or an unhealthy amount of body fat--especially since he's doing crossfit, which puts an emphasis on core strength, and can be strenuous enough that he probably needs most of the calories he's eating (though if eating a vegan diet means that a majority of your calories are coming from simple carbohydrates/sugars, you might want to reevaluate where your calories come from). Part of what you may be seeing, in fact, are bulkier core muscles below fat which was already there.

Mostly, it sounds like you have unrealistic expectations for what your husband's body should look like to be sexy/flattering--"twiggy", for instance, is as unrealistic for men as it is for women, especially for anyone who is remotely athletic.
posted by pullayup at 10:11 AM on June 2, 2014 [15 favorites]

Yeah, if he's worried about looking fat, he sounds like he's in a place otherwise where he can do something about it. No sense in wasting a good opportunity!!

The thing to do here is to do some internet searches and talk to some personal trainers at his gym. There is almost certainly a lifestyle solution to your husband's problem. It sounds like he's concerned that, because he's toning up, etc in all these other areas of his body, that he's reached the maximum return of working out and eating differently, and that almost certainly isn't so.

So, not being someone who knows anything about your relationship, the next time your dude asks you if he looks fat, ask him if he thinks he looks fat. If he says, "man, this belly just isn't going away and it's making me sad", then you can say, "baby, you've been crushing so much stuff recently; have you talked to anyone or done any reading on how to deal with this belly issue?"

There is a good chance that he's
1) bulking, which is good for your muscles, and bad for your bodyfat %. It's the Holy Grail of body builders to bulk muscle while cutting fat, because it is, practically speaking, impossible

2) doing core exercises which are strengthening his ab muscles over his visceral fat, making his belly even roundier and poochier than it was, with some extra fat on the top which he hasn't lost because of #1 above.

In either or both cases, the solution is to look at his diet and see what it's probably doing to him, and to look at his workout program and see what that's probably doing to him as well, and then comparing that to what his goals are.

I don't agree that you have unrealistic physical expectations. At the very least, if you do, your husband is having them right along with you, and he's the one who brought it up first.


1) Next time he asks, say "what do you think?" (or "why do you ask?", or whatever) and if he says, "MAH BELLY!" then talk about possible solutions, how long he's felt that way, whether he thinks he can do anything about it, etc. Your man has already proven that he can put the time in to get results and this is no different.

2) same as anything else, you gather information from people and sources who know more than you, and then you create a plan of attack that addresses your issues. There is no shame in asking trainers at your gym for help with a difficult but addressable problem that's bumming you out!
posted by Poppa Bear at 10:23 AM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

The fact that you guys are vegan and he does crossfit five times a week implies to me that, no, your husband is not fat, and you should probably just do what men have been doing to their body dismorphic wives for decades and just tell him he looks great. Because I mean even if he is "fat" on some level, what the hell is he even going to do if he's eating such a low-calorie diet and working out that intensively? Like, why drive him crazy over this?

Now, it also kind of sounds like you're no longer attracted to him, which is a much bigger question than "do I look fat in these jeans?", and something I think is above the pay grade of this AskMe question.
posted by Sara C. at 10:25 AM on June 2, 2014 [8 favorites]

So when he asks if he looks fat, pointing to his belly, I want to be honest without hurting his feelings.

What is YOUR own truth about your husband's belly? Sounds like your truth is you find it unacceptable. And it sounds like he's clearly picking up on that. I mean, he has to have noticed your body language and your facial expressions every time you've non-answered his repeated question.

I would submit that you have already been "honest" with him vis-a-vis your body language, and your previous non-answers, and that if you were to say something like "Yes, your belly looks fat" you would FAIL the test of Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? (Yes. No. No. Got that?)

Sounds like he's already working extremely hard on maintaining his excellent health. Five days of Xfit? Marathoning? Cancer survivor? Wow. That's impressive. Now if there is something specific you'd like him to start or stop doing, you can always mention that at some other time, way, way outside the specific context of him inquiring about your thoughts on the looks of his belly.

In cases like these, I think of the late, great Nora Ephron in I Feel Bad About My Neck:

"I feel bad about my neck. Truly I do. If you saw my neck, you might feel bad about it too, but you'd probably be too polite to let on. If I said something to you on the subject—something like “I absolutely cannot stand my neck”—you'd probably say something like “I don't know what you're talking about.” You'd be lying, of course, but I forgive you. I tell lies like that all the time—mostly to friends who tell me they're upset because they have little pouches under their eyes, or jowls, or wrinkles, or flab around the middle, and do I think they should have an eye job, or a facelift, or Botox, or liposuction. My experience is that “I don't know what you're talking about” is code for “I see what you mean, but if you think you're going to trap me into engaging on this subject, you're crazy.” It's dangerous to engage on such subjects, and we all know it."
posted by hush at 10:45 AM on June 2, 2014 [8 favorites]

But when it comes time to body image, the belly is unflattering, unsexy, and I feel like a liar, when I'm the only one who could tell the truth.

Personal anecdote: everyone I've dated has been insecure about something that both wasn't a big deal at all and was also totally a thing that really did exist (a crooked nose that yes, really was crooked, a bit of a poochy belly, a splotch of freckles, or whatever). I didn't shine them on and claim an easily verifiable physical reality wasn't the way it really was becaues come on, that's silly, condescending, and I think unhelpful. But I didn't find them unsexy because of it, and I generally enjoyed their [crooked nose/belly pooch/freckles]. They wouldn't be them without it!

I think you need to fall in love with the belly and find it sexy. I know, I know--that is about as helpful as telling a depressed person that they need to start thinking happier thoughts.

Good luck.
posted by jsturgill at 11:00 AM on June 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

Is it possible that he has poor posture and that this is worsening the appearance of his stomach? A lot of people have such trouble with posture (kyphotic/lordotic type) that their stomachs appear to stick way out even when their proportions are perfectly normal. Maybe this is just a matter of the way he holds his body, especially if the rest of him seems muscled and fit.
posted by dialetheia at 11:01 AM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

tl;dr but it might be the beer that is causing beer belly. It certainly is the culprit for other men who need to find a new place for their belt, either over or under their protrusion, or wear suspenders.
posted by Cranberry at 11:09 AM on June 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

This really depends on his personality. If he's prone to insecurity and sulking, and if he's the type of person whose day will be ruined by a negative comment, then just deflect and ask what his trainer thinks about his weight. If, on the other hand, he's the type who just wants to know what others see so he can problem solve or simply get a broader picture of how he appears, then say what you said here. To rearrange your words a little: "You look great, though even though the rest of you is muscly, you do have a belly. If you don't like it, maybe there's something you could do differently at the gym, but as long as you are healthy, I'm happy."

I'm just saying this because if I asked someone if I look fat - which I wouldn't do to very many people, or very often - it would be because I want to know the truth! I would consider "no, you look fine" to be an insult, if the person didn't really mean it.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 11:12 AM on June 2, 2014

I have a chubby belly I've always felt self-conscious about. If it were me, I'd want you to lie through your teeth. I'd want you to tell me "You look great, darling. But I want you to like the way you look, and if you're feeling bad about your belly you might want to consider trying XYZ, but I will support you whatever you decide."

Bellies are hard if not impossible to change without surgery. If they could be changed through diet and exercise, you better believe I would have done so years ago. He, and you, might be stuck with the belly for the long haul. You don't have to find it hot, but be aware that it might not go away.

The question he's really asking is not "do I look fat?" but "do you still think I look good?" or "do I deserve to feel good about myself?" Answer that.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:15 AM on June 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

I would probably cry, feel defeated, and wonder why we're even together if I got most of these responses. Maybe he wants the truth, even if it is harsh, maybe he wants confirmation that his work is showing up in his body, and maybe he wants a little reassurance you still are attracted to him even if a part of him sn't perfect.

You know him, so you can probably figure out the question behind the question better than we can.
posted by Aranquis at 11:19 AM on June 2, 2014

This is very situationally dependent and I think you’ve received good answers on how to get at what he really wants to know. An additional way I might use to sidestep the question would be to say, “I know you so well/ love you so much that I can’t answer that question objectively. I guess I can see what you’re talking about, but it’s hard for me to say whether other people might register that as “fat” because I find you attractive and it doesn’t affect my overall perception of you.”
posted by metasarah at 11:41 AM on June 2, 2014

"More of you to love!"

That's my go-to answer for stuff like this.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:00 PM on June 2, 2014

"It's big and looks fatty, even though the rest of him is muscly."

Does he get checkups with his GP, separate from any post-cancer followup visits? If he really does have a weirdly protruding belly despite being very fit, he should check in with his regular doc for a routine physical. Possibly some very ordinary GI issues (gas, constipation, etc.) are a factor. (It's not clear from your question whether his "fatty" belly is soft and flabby or hard and rounded.)

Otherwise, I have to say that my gut reaction (ha! I'm sorry that was terrible) is that the alleged bigness of his belly is just commonplace bad posture habits plus being a little unrealistic about what regular, non-model bodies look like...though I totally admit that I don't have enough info to make that assumption, especially without knowing his age.
posted by desuetude at 12:06 PM on June 2, 2014

Magic answer: "I know you're totally fit and you're working hard. I feel like your current training is taking you toward more of a strongman/powerlifter build. I still think you're hot*, but if you're going for a runner/swimmer kind of look, it's worth checking your routine with a trainer."

* or whatever reassuring thing you can truthfully say
posted by booksandlibretti at 12:38 PM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well you don't think he's generally fat, right? He just has a fat, if you will, belly.
If it were me I'd be all: "No, you look healthy and fit. Your body shape has changed with the working out, though. Why, Do you think you're fat?"
posted by Omnomnom at 1:49 PM on June 2, 2014

My first thought was performance enhancing drugs (some cause a distended belly). Or perhaps it's a posture/pelvic tilt issue.
posted by vespabelle at 2:23 PM on June 2, 2014

I would tell him you don't think he looks fat, but that if he decides he wants to get cut, you'll support him in achieving that goal. Reaching any diet or exercise-related goal is much easier when you have a partner who's on board.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:52 PM on June 2, 2014

I've known a couple fat vegans. There's nothing inherently healthy about that lifestyle.

I also see fat body builders at the gym all the time. When I say "body builder" I mean people on the lift platforms who are doing amazing amounts of weight with deadlifts, clean-and-jerk, etc. There's actually a common saying: if you want to get the muscle, you've got to lose the abs.

There's another really common saying that complements: abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym.

I think there are two types of serious guys in the gym: the body builders and the body models. Type A will train for strength but look a little fat/doughy. That's OK because it's compatible with those goal (be strong as hell). Type B won't ever lift an impressive amount, but they'll be amazingly cut. The hardest part of their workout is in the kitchen watching what they eat; the gym is just for adding enough muscle to show off.

Sounds like your husband is training for type A but really wants to be more type B.

I would say be honest with your husband. He seems unhappy with that aspect, and it sounds like it's a real issue (opposed to something that's only true in his head). Most importantly it's fixable. He has a very high activity level; I bet some easy modifications in his diet will get him the results he wants.
posted by sbutler at 4:09 PM on June 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

My answer to this would be "you are the sexiest man alive" or something that embraced him and sidestepped the detail. He can ask a lot of other people this question, but you're the person he most hopes still finds him good looking. If he is truly curious, he can always reply ("well thank goodness for that! but what I'm trying to figure out is...").

I would not say "Why, do you think you're fat?" unless you're comfortable just saying "yes." It's universal code.

That you don't find his current body sexy is a bigger deal and as Sara C. put it, above our pay grade. There are previous questions about how to deal with a partner's weight gain, but brace yourself. If i recall, they have a mess of answers ranging from sympathetic ones to "break up now, your partner deserves someone less superficial who truly loves them." You'll probably have to figure out what really works for you.
posted by salvia at 5:00 PM on June 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I also tend to think that when someone opens themselves up and shares an insecurity, it's a vulnerable time and you should avoid the temptation to agree with them even if, in part, you do. I mean, it depends on the person and the issue, but since you're here asking it, then I'm assuming your instinct is that it would really hurt him if you said "yes," so don't.

One way to avoid it is to keep in mind how imperfect language is. Remember that trippy realization you had as a kid: "what if we all just agreed to say 'the sky is blue' but your 'blue' is totally different than my 'blue'!?" When he says "do I look fat?" maybe he means "do I look a tad more overweight than before?" (to which you might say "yes") or maybe he means "I know I'm a tad more overweight than before. Do I give off the same impression as my uncle Joe who is not only overweight but picks his nose in public and wears beer-stained clothing and smells bad?" (to which you might say "no!!"). What if his "fat" is not your "fat?" Don't agree with his secret fear because you don't even know exactly what it is!

These are actually two different issues: his body image and your attraction to him. So my advice would be that you not mix the two together by saying "yes" when he asks. Instead, get him to talk about his body image and related worries ("you've asked that a lot lately, are you not liking the way your belly looks or something?"), and at at separate time, talk about what's going on with your feelings and attraction to him. That way, each of your issues can take center stage at their own appropriate time.
posted by salvia at 5:27 PM on June 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Being vegan is great but it is super high-carb, and so is beer (which can of course be vegan). I would honestly suggest switching to spirits, and replacing any white carbs he consumes with brown and/or grainy carbs, that are higher in fiber.


-Bourbon & Pepsi Max or gin & diet tonic (or something along those lines) for your weekend drinks
-Brown and wholegrain bread instead of white bread
-Brown rice instead of white rice (or quinoa instead of either)
-High fiber and "carb friendly" pastas instead of normal pastas
-Sweet potatoes instead of normal potatoes (or mashed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes)

Off the top of my head, just by making switches like that, and comparing it to the sort of diet I had when I was vegan (yours, of course, may be completely different), you are cutting out as much as 100-200g of carbs every day. It's something you can easily both do as it honestly doesn't make that much of a difference to things, taste-wise, and he therefore won't feel like he has to go it alone or is being punished or whatever.

Vegan protein shakes, like pea and soy protein, I honestly haven't heard too many good things about. Depending on who you believe, soy has been demonstrated to have estrogen-like effects on the body, so it may be worth him cutting down on soy stuff a little.

Finally, depending on your reasons for being vegan, you may be able to make some adjustments as far as guaranteed free range, ethical fish, egg and dairy is concerned. It takes some work, and is expensive, but demonstrating that there is a market for "animal friendly" animal products is actually, to my mind, a better form of advocacy than just not buying any animal products at all. I'm not saying don't be vegan because I reckon veganism is the way to go, but if your husband's size is a problem for you, you may have to investigate some flexible approaches.
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:15 PM on June 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I favorited a couple answers and do think it would help immensely to cut down the beer.

Also, what is his age--it's damn HARD after 30 to keep down the belly.
posted by BlueHorse at 6:34 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

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