Man boobs and my decade of shame

I was 13 when I discovered my body was different. It took me years, and plastic surgery, to come to terms with that

Published January 2, 2014 1:00AM (EST)

   (<a href=''>Bliznetsov</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>/Salon)
(Bliznetsov via iStock/Salon)

Every finger in the gym pointed at my chest. I looked down at my tender lumps. “Titties! He’s got titties!” the new kid yelled.

Minutes before, all the real guys had been taking turns lifting up their shirts, comparing torsos. Then it came to me. I was a 13-year-old, half-Jewish nerd in the seventh grade at a Bronx prep school. And I had just learned there was something wrong with my body.

Clinical gynecomastia is the benign enlargement of breasts in males. Distinct from your average fat-borne "man boobs," the condition is marked by the development of glandular breast tissue. According to the New York-Presbyterian website, 65 percent of 14-year-old males have it and 90 percent of them will have natural regression by the end of puberty. The condition has been attributed to over-consumption of soy products, due to the estrogen. Recently, a prescription antipsychotic, Risperdal, has been causing gynecomastia in adolescent boys, resulting in a series of controversial lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson that have been in the news.

But at the time I had nobody but fate to blame. I was quoted anonymously in a 2007 New York Times article on the subject as saying, "If I was fat, I could have lost weight … But this was simply genetic, and there was nothing I could do.” My dad told me that his little brother had nickel-size lumps behind his nipples that vanished before he turned 20. But I never got the courage to ask him about it.

I began a morning ritual: Check to see if it got any worse the previous night and dig my fingers underneath the firm tissue between my pectoral muscles and nipples. I hopped up and down in profile in front of the bathroom mirror. Under hot water, I desperately massaged the masses, trying to worry them away.

That was my first year of sleepaway camp, a liberating moment for a kid – his first time away from home. Yet, mine came with dire risks: changing clothes, group showers and a mandatory swim test. I took it with my shirt on.

My desire to fix my body was intensified by my desire to see the naked bodies of girls. My best friend at the time had lost his virginity to his eighth-grade girlfriend before we boarded the bus in June. The competitive nature of our relationship left me analyzing how he won, and the only reason I saw was his flat chest. One more reason to hide in baggy clothing.

Then I met Lorenzo. He was a soft-bodied, fiery redhead who wore skintight athletic shirts, highlighting his relatively ample breasts. I watched in awe as he lounged on a picnic table, a gaggle of girls laughing around him, fondling his chest. It never occurred to me to use my boobs as a tool of seduction. That guy was an inspiration: He turned his "defect" into an asset.

But I never let anyone catch me shirtless. My first kiss was with Jamie, a 17-year-old counselor-in-training. When she asked me why I never wanted to swim, I told her I was embarrassed. She smiled coyly, inviting me to continue. We were sitting on the dock on the lake, and I gave her a quick flash. It was my own “Girls Gone Wild” moment.

But the teasing was wearing on me. One day, my best friend asked me to stand up straight. He said it was funny to see my breasts poke up against my shirt.

When I got home, I began scouring the Internet. The tenor of my conversation with my parents became fevered. My mother was very supportive. She knew a professional renowned for breast reductions. Grandma chipped in. My eighth grade history class research group was none too pleased when I took a week off school before our presentation.

In my first consultation, my plastic surgeon gave it to me straight: My gynecomastia was never going away on its own.  The next time I checked into her office in my dad’s old dress shirt. The plump doctor dragged a felt pen against my skin, leaving marks like streaks of spray paint on a city block before it got the buzz saw. I lay on my back on the gurney and counted backward from 100. It felt like only a second passed before I woke up in a dark room, wondering if it worked, waiting for real pain.

I hadn’t told a single friend about my procedure. When I got back, I told them it was a dentist visit.

I wonder now if the condition would have reversed itself. Even if it hadn’t, I’ve always regretted that I wasn’t more like Lorenzo. Rocking the “moobs” I was dealt. Now that I’m older, I understand that attractiveness is so much more about confidence than an ideal shape, and I wish I could say I would do it differently. That I shouldn't have cared. That the payoff wasn't worth the money, the time spent in bed recovering, or the slight scars, still visible on the underside of my nipples. But I can't pretend it didn't make a difference to have a body I wasn't ashamed of. It revolutionized my adolescence.

The compression vest came off a few months before my 15th birthday. After the scars healed enough to withstand sunlight, it was a challenge to keep my shirt on. Within 12 months I lost my virginity to a 27-year-old Florida college student on spring break. I showed up to college with the word "Orange" sunburned in negative on my chest. It was written in permanent marker on my bare skin during Color War my senior year of high school.

Before leaving for college, my mom asked me if I would speak to another boy from my high school who suffered from gynecomastia and was considering the same operation. I knew the kid, and remembered jokes made in the hallway about his breasts – the curse of being on the swim team. He’d been picked on for years on the premise he was gay. But I wouldn’t do it. That’s how threatened I still felt. I refused to be outed as the guy who once had boobs.

I’m 23 years old now. I graduated from college last year, and I've got a chest I don't hate and a decade of shame. I can't say I'd take the procedure back, but the part I will always regret is not talking to that kid. I hope he finds peace with himself. It took more than breast reduction surgery for me to find that for myself.

By Zachary Valenti

Zach Valenti is a New York City-based freelance writer, filmmaker and social entrepreneur. You can learn more about him at

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