The 24 Hour Fitness center on Midway Drive is in a large strip mall with a Vons and a Sport Chalet. It is a two-story club with a weight room; two aerobic studios; two large areas of treadmills, stationary bicycles, and stair climbers; and an “ab room,” filled with state-of-the-art abdominal exercise equipment. On a warm Saturday morning, the parking lot is full and the gym is busy. Most of the clientele are youthful and well-built. The relentless thump of electronic dance music blasts from ceiling speakers throughout the facility.
Ricky Ali, 24, has been a personal trainer for six years. He is tall, lean, and solid-looking. “I’ve always been interested in fitness. All through high school I played sports, and when I joined the Marine Corps, I got really serious about weight training and putting on the right kind of weight. I got a couple of national certifications, started training in the military, and when I got out, I thought, ‘This is one of the most satisfying jobs that I could have.’ I’m in here helping people achieve things that they’ve never achieved before.”
“There’s definitely a boom of interest in getting perfect abs — especially down here in San Diego. In this population, everybody wants to be thin. Everybody wants to have the perfect abs. I noticed that, when I started out as a trainer, there were only a couple of abdominal exercises, but now everyone’s coming out with these new abdominal machines. The AB Dolly, the AB Roller, the AB Tiger. There’s new ones every day.”
The proliferation of ab products reflects a growing demand. “All of my clients are obsessed about their stomachs. I have very few clients who come in here without saying they want to get a six-pack or they want flat abs. And most of my clients are women. I have about 3 men and 25 women.”
“Six-pack,” an inaccurate though popular term, describes a condition not easily achieved. “It comes from having every single front abdominal muscle showing. If you counted them all out, it wouldn’t be six but really eight abdominals. What most people don’t understand is, they think that if they do all these crunches and all these sit-ups that they’ll get a six-pack, and that’s not actually true. If your body-fat percentage is really high, then most of your muscles are covered by fat. Everybody has a six-pack, but if it’s covered by fat, you’re never going to be able to see it. You need to drop your body-fat percentage down so you’re able to see those abdominals.
“Now, women need to have a higher body-fat percentage, because they’re the ones who carry the babies. Men can drop to a lower level, but if it gets too low, it can be physically dangerous. A healthy level of body fat for men who want good-looking abdominals would be between 9 and 11 percent. For women, you want to be anywhere between 19 and 21 percent.”
Making the perfect stomach involves using all the muscles in the abdominal group. “We have our rectus abdominis, which is our eight muscles right here [he points to the front of his belly]. On our sides we have our external and internal obliques. Around that we have our transverse abdominis, which help in slimming up the waistline. You don’t want to sit there and just work your rectus abdominis without ever working your obliques. Your body is going to be better balanced if you’re hitting every single muscle. If you’re not working on your obliques, your love handles are going to be sticking out.”
In terms of time, effort, and discipline, getting a hard, rugged stomach is expensive. “It’s all going to come out with their lifestyle. It’s all about what you eat. Let’s say you’re about 20 pounds overweight. You can’t just come in here and work out. It doesn’t matter how much cardio or how much weight training you do: if you’re not taking in the recommended calories, you’re never going to get to your goal. The first thing you need to do is start eating right. When you start eating right, you’ll drop that body-fat percentage. Then you’ll want to spend between three to four days [a week] in here doing weight training and about five days doing cardio.”
Ali hasn’t measured his waist for a long time, and a lift of his shirt shows why he needn’t bother. His torso reminds one of a Greek statue — until you notice the nipple rings. “My pants have a 32 waist.”
Carlos Sanguinetti, 27, has been working out for 12 years. “I’ve spent the better part of the last year finally doing it right.” At 5'5", Sanguinetti looks like a flyweight boxer, only stronger. Muscles ripple and bulge through his tight-fitting tank top. He demonstrates a murderous-looking sit-up that is done atop a large, red “physio-ball,” a tool Ali insists is an essential for ab development. His body quivers with pain as he slowly moves up and down. “I just recently got a trainer. I’d been doing stuff on my own, but the trainer set up a whole new routine for me. I’d been doing this for a long time, but the stuff they’ve shown me here really works. The difference is technique and a few new ideas on what I could do to make my abs better. I’ve got a whole new diet plan.
"Honestly, eating and diet is almost 80 percent of your physique — shaping it into what you want it to be. I’m eating more! I used to only eat about three times a day, but they gave me this analogy about a sumo wrestler. They get so large by only eating one time every day, in the middle of the day; then they go to sleep and don’t do anything. The meal plan I’m on has me eating four to five times a day, and all good stuff. I eat a lot of protein and vegetables, grains, everything. I used to eat a lot more carbs — mostly pastas. My mom’s Italian, so I grew up eating that stuff all the time. When I told her I had a diet plan from my trainer, she said, ‘What are you on a diet for?’ I had to explain that it’s not that kind of diet. They’re just showing me how to eat the right things. As soon as I told her I was eating five times a day, she had no problem with it!”
Sanguinetti has been whistled at by girls who’ve noticed his physique. “It feels good! But I just do this for myself. It’s just to keep myself in shape. I don’t do it for any other reason. Sure, I get more positive attention, but that’s secondary. Honestly, I just do it for myself. It’s all about feeling good and feeling healthy.”
True to Ali’s assessment, the nine people on the machines in the ab room are all women. One of them, Mary Ann Olsson, a fitness instructor, claims she has been working out her whole life. An immigrant from Sweden, Olsson, 35, is a pixie in size and a tan Olympian in build. “I’ve been coming here almost ten years. I always worked out and always ate healthy. It’s been the natural thing for me to stay healthy and keep my body in shape. In college, I was overweight — when we’d drink beer and eat a lot of pizza — but I made some changes after that. Genetically, I’ve never had the problem of that ‘women’s pooch’ that they talk about, but I’m also an instructor here, so I have students that complain about that all the time. But it makes me feel good and it makes me happy. I like to move.” Probably the least self-conscious person in the gym, Olsson doesn’t seem concerned about the flatness of her stomach, yet her waist size is a slight 24 inches.
Wearing an oversized University of Pittsburgh T-shirt, Colleen Fisher, 24, slowly works out behind Olsson on another machine. Doe-eyed and talkative, Fisher is thin, yet solid-looking at the same time. She’s doing a type of reverse sit-up on a device that allows her to angle herself facedown and slowly ease up from the floor and back down again. This exercise is supposed to strengthen the back — an often overlooked part of building the perfect stomach. “It’s essential for good abs to have a strong lower back. It balances out every muscle. I used to work hard on the ab exercises, then I slacked off for a while. I used to do 20 minutes of ab work per day.” She points to invisible love handles. “When I’m standing, you can see I have fat back here, and the only way you’re going to tighten that up is by working the lower back. So it’s my whole midsection that needs to be worked to get tight.
“I’ve been working out almost two years. I maxed out at 180 pounds and started working out at about 165. Now I weigh 120.” Even with her slender figure, she disparages her waist as “the largest part of me. I think it’s 26 inches. I work out probably two or three hours a week. I’ll try to do a half an hour per day, but this week I didn’t. My eating habits are totally different now than before. I used to be a vegetarian and I ate all carbohydrates. I used to hardly ever eat meat, but now meat is, like, a huge part of my diet. Turkey and chicken mostly, but I do eat red meat too. I don’t eat so much bread. If I eat carbs, it’s vegetables, fruits, and wheat bread. I used to binge-eat too, but not anymore. I would continue to eat even when I was full. I’ll try to eat my last meal three hours before I go to sleep.”
Fisher’s worked to change her body because “I wanted to feel who I felt I was inside — which was a disciplined and beautiful person, and I thought that outwardly I didn’t reflect that. I didn’t look disciplined or healthy having fat on my body. I don’t think fat is beautiful at all. It just so happened that it also changed the way people treated me, but that’s not what kept me going through all of the weight loss. It was definitely intrinsical and what I expected from others. It was totally in my head. Now I think people are friendlier to me than they used to be — a lot friendlier. I think men looked at me before, but differently.”
The more Fisher talks about her abs, the more apparent her dissatisfaction becomes. “Everything else in my body came out the way I wanted it to, but my abs have challenged me the most. If you look at other parts of my body, you can’t tell that I was ever heavy, but if you look at my stomach, you would know. There’s looser skin, though it’s all flat. It looks like I’ve had a child, like a little kangaroo pouch. It bothers me. I would like to have a flat stomach because I want it to go along with the rest of my body. I like every other part of it; like, I think that it’s beautiful and I want that to be as, well, as close to my idea of perfect as I can get it, and I don’t see that it is. If I see somebody whose abs are better, then that bothers me. I’ll think, ‘Is it my lack of discipline that I can’t get my stomach that way?’ ”
At 49, Tom Olmstead is probably the oldest man in the weight room. The red hair that falls over his forehead disguises his age. It also helps that he has a muscular, though not bulging, physique. “I kind of always worked out, but I’ve been coming here for three years. I’ve lost about 35 pounds over a 12-month period. I work out here for maybe eight hours a week. Of that, I’ll work on the abs for maybe 10, 15 minutes, every three or four days.”
For Olmstead, working out is preventive medicine. “It’s being able to function normally and avoid the aches and pains that a lot of people get, which is certainly from their diet and not exercising. I know people at work that are a lot younger than I am and are always going to the acupuncturist or the chiropractor, but they don’t have time to go to the gym. The only reason they’re going to these people is because they don’t exercise. You’ve got to do it just to maintain normal body activity.”
Easygoing and soft-spoken, Olmstead says that losing 35 pounds made a big difference in his midsection, but abdominal perfection is not his top priority. “I had to get all my clothes recut. It never gave me what you would call a six-pack, but it reduced the bulge. You really have to do a combination of strict diet as well as heavy exercise to get that lean-and-cut look. The effort to do that far exceeds the benefits. There’s a certain type of person here that does do that, and they’re usually in the weight room. It’s almost broken down into two camps: There’s the people who only come in to do the aerobics, and there’s the people who come in here to do weights. Primarily, it’s the men who come in here to do weights. I know somebody who’s a doctor, and he could almost be a professional bodybuilder. But that takes a great deal of time. I do aerobics and weights, but it’s more to maintain. I’m not trying to bulk up or anything like that.” As Olmstead lifts his tank top, I see that his size 34 waist is not sculpted like those of the other men in the weight room, but there is no visible fat either — just a flat layer of lean flesh. “The aerobics do more for your abs than any amount of crunches you can do. If you want to lose the weight, it’s not doing sit-ups or abs, because, like I tell everybody else, I’ve got abs of steel under this layer of flab!”
If anyone would know about perfect abs, surely it would be the Godfather of Fitness, Jack LaLanne. Speaking from his home in Morro Bay, LaLanne still has the sound of manic energy, even at 86. LaLanne has no problem with people who want to look better, but he grows furious when he talks about the focus on abs. “You know what’s taking a front seat to everything? With these AB Rollers and this ‘three-minute abs’ and all that? It’s all a bunch of lies. It’s people getting money on false pretenses, and they should be thrown in jail! It’s absolutely a fallacy! This is one of the worst things that’s ever happened in our profession! They should get those people and really do something with them! Five-minute abs! That’s a bunch of BS!” He quickly calms down. “Pardon me, that’s Barbra Streisand.”
LaLanne explains his philosophy about abs and fitness. “The only way you’ll ever, ever get yourself in condition is, number one, you’ve got to exercise your 640 muscles. If you just exercise the muscles in the abdomen, they’re going to get bigger. The fat is there, right? And when you exercise, the muscle is going to get thicker and bigger, isn’t it? So you build up the muscle and the fat’s still there, so the stomach gets bigger! The only way you’ll ever, ever get that physique is you’ve got to quit exceeding the feed limit. People overeat and they underexercise. They eat more than they expend. It’s that simple.
“Do you know how much exercise it takes to burn up a hundred calories? Or four or five hundred calories? My God, you’ve got to do so much exercise, and every person can’t do that much. You’ve got to cut the calories down, at least to 1500 a day for the average person if they want to get down to where they should be and have sculpted abs. I mean, look at these guys who have these sculpted abs, how they work out hours a day and how they watch their diet. It’s a full-time job, boy, I’ll tell ya. It just fouls me up! These people and their lies! When I see those ads, it just drives me nuts! You know, I’ve been in this profession since I was 15 years old. You’ve got biceps, triceps, you’ve got legs, you’ve got back. Your waist is not one-sided. It’s four-sided — front, sides, and back — and fat accumulates all over there and [his voice rises as he punctuates each word] YOU CAN’T GET FAT OFF by just working one group of muscles. You’ve got to work all those 640 muscles, as I said earlier, and you’ve got to count calories. If man makes it, don’t eat it, and if it tastes good, spit it out!”
Never tired of preaching the gospel of fitness, LaLanne continues without a pause for breath. “My whole life I’ve been telling the truth. Why do you think I lasted on television all those years? Because I told the truth! People love me because I have one thing in mind: Helping them. I work out two hours every day of my life, and I’ve never watched my diet closer than I do [now], and I have all these lectures — you know, life is wonderful, but you’ve got to work at it. You know, any stupid ass can die. That’s easy. Think about it. You’ve got to think right, you’ve got to exercise, you’ve got to eat the right food, take vitamins and minerals. You’ve got to keep yourself busy and motivated!” He then asks me about my workouts. Feeling like a fool in the presence of a sage, I quickly find a reason to end the call.
Big 5 Sporting Goods on Rosecrans Street does a brisk business in some of the very equipment LaLanne is so angry about. The front of the store is packed with abdominal devices in cartons, most of which read “As Seen On TV.” Many have pictures showing perfect-looking models (mostly females) grinning while they exercise. Every one of the models looks as if she rotates her time between a gym and a tanning salon, with no time to eat.
During his three years at Big 5, store manager Matt Graham has noticed a significant rise in the sales of abdominal exercise devices. “Most definitely. The influx of new products catches everyone’s eye, and they do buy them. We’ve been doing a lot of specific promotions for them, and they seem to sell at a higher volume than other equipment. Most of the stuff we sell is previously seen in infomercials, until the corporations that market them decide to let the retailers sell them. We’ll buy a massive quantity and usually offer them at a similar price. It’s more convenient, because if they need to return it, they can come to the store rather than send it back through the mail.”
Graham stands next to the “stomach section,” which includes the AB-Doer II, the AB Roller, the AB Fit, the Torso Track II, and many other machines. He points to a plain, flat carton that shows a wheel with two disconnected grips awaiting assembly. “The AB Wheel is probably the most popular item we sell, just because of the cost. The AB Wheel mimics the workout of the AB Slide and some of the larger apparatus, but it’s more compact and cheap [$13]. It uses the same range of motion, but the workout’s a bit more intense because it’s just a bar, two grips, and a wheel. There’s not as much service area, so you’re supporting more of your own weight. The price range can go up to $149 for the bigger apparatus. The most popular of the bigger devices is the AB-Doer II for 100 bucks. Usually it’s younger people that will buy these. People over 50 tend to get into something more isolated, with less stress on the upper body.
“If I had to classify the typical customer for these things, it’d be about middle age or about to transition into the overweight category or maybe postpone or stop it altogether. We don’t really get seriously obese customers for this type of machine. This type of workout isn’t really designed for someone who has gotten to that point. That’s a very specific fitness level. They’d probably want to go into some kind of dieting before they attempted to do something like this. It’s not really a fat-burning or conditioning type of exercise.”
While Graham does see a cultural turn toward bodily perfection, he believes infomercials have been the biggest source of new demand for these machines. “I don’t think it’s anything that’s being specifically pushed by trainers or fitness places. It’s all marketing tactics, spreading the word through television, something that everyone sees. Not everyone talks with a trainer, but everyone watches TV. Without question, there’s pressure on people to have perfect bodies. It’s media-driven and there’s advertising everywhere. I go to the gym! I have an AB Slide — actually, I got it for my wife, and believe it or not, I started using it. It works fine, as long as you use it — that’s the thing. We get returns on this stuff all the time. They make excuses: ‘It’s defective, it’s this, it’s that,’ but it comes down to that they’re not using it and they want their money back.”
At Fashion Valley, a large food court and an 18-theater multiplex attract younger shoppers who would otherwise shun a mall that plays classical music over its PA system and is filled with high-end stores. As the sun breaks through the marine layer, more and more teenagers and twentysomethings empty from their cars. Many of the girls wear the “in” fashion of cut-off blouses. Some show just a little flesh, while others expose eight inches or more.
Yvonne Boulindy’s blouse sho
ws more flesh than most. Her stomach, like the stomachs of most of the girls dressed this way, does not have a visible six-pack but is still flat. A visitor from San Francisco, Boulindy, 19, doesn’t have any special diet restrictions. “But I do a fair amount of exercises for my stomach. It’s very important for me to have a flat stomach. If I didn’t have one, I wouldn’t wear shirts that show my stomach or my belly button. I’ve been dressing like this for about three years. Sometimes I’ll put glitter on my stomach to dress it up. If the day allows it, and it’s sunny, and you want to wear a haltertop and show off your stomach or look cute or whatever, then you do.” She declines to measure her waist.
Maureen MacManus of Peñasquitos is eating with her male friend. MacManus, 18, initially appears shy but seems to enjoy talking about her new fashion look. Her rapid, choppy, monotone delivery is identical to nearly every girl interviewed. “During the summer I’ll dress like this a lot. It’s not that big a deal — but not all the time. I’ve been dressing like this for the last few years. I guess I think about my stomach a lot when I wear stuff like this. It’s important to me for my stomach to be flat. Probably now is the worst it’s ever been. I’ve never put makeup on my stomach, but I had my belly button pierced, then I took it out. Actually, it fell out while I was sleeping, then I just left it out and it closed up. When I got it done, my stomach was perfect instead of how it is now. If I get it the way I like it again, I would definitely get another piercing.” Many of MacManus’s female friends are concerned about their stomachs too. “They think their stomach is too fat or too big. For me, I don’t like to wear a shirt that shows my stomach if my stomach is big. It just doesn’t look attractive and a lot of guys don’t like it. My parents kind of tease me about wearing these, but they don’t give me a hard time about it.” When asked about her waist size, MacManus grows edgier. “I have no idea. My jeans are, like, size 7.” Using a tape measure, we find her waist is 28 inches.
Jenny Menkov, 17, attends Francis Parker School. These tops have been a regular part of her wardrobe since she became a teenager. “I can’t dress like this for school, though. I have to wear a uniform. I don’t really think about my stomach a lot or worry about my weight. I think my stomach’s about right. I did get it pierced, but I had it taken out because my parents didn’t like it. They hassle me about dressing like this all the time. They just don’t think it looks appropriate. But they can’t dress me!” Menkov says she is either a size 5 or 7. When she measures her waist, she declines to share her findings.
Menkov’s friend Shelly Thomas, also 17, attends Point Loma High School. “I’ve been wearing these… probably since ninth grade. I’ll be a senior this year. At school, you’re not supposed to show your stomach at all. Some of the girls do it anyway, but normally we don’t. They don’t really enforce it. If it was something really bad, like showing your whole stomach, then they would. But nobody really does anything about it. I wanted to get it pierced, but my mom wouldn’t let me. It just looked cool. I don’t anymore though. Sometimes I think about my stomach a lot. I try to do exercises for it. I think girls think about it more than guys, but more guys actually work out and have nice stomachs more than girls. I’m a cheerleader, so I do stuff all the time, but I don’t really have a special diet or anything.” Thomas giggles at the suggestion of overweight people dressing like her. “It kind of makes me laugh, but I guess it’s good if they feel they can walk around like that.” Thomas says her waist is “like, a 3.” A measurement reveals 32 inches.
Lori Feffer, 18, a recent graduate of Patrick Henry High School, will be starting at UC Santa Barbara in a few weeks. “I’ve probably dressed like this since I started high school. I think about my stomach a lot and worry about it getting too big. I go to the gym, work out, and do sit-ups. I try to watch what I eat, but I don’t really follow through with it. I have a piercing.” She pulls her blouse up slightly to reveal the hardware. “I had it done about three years ago. My mom took me to get it pierced because I have an older sister who got it pierced and a lot of my friends are getting it pierced, so my mom felt that it really wasn’t a big deal anymore. My dad doesn’t really care — my parents are really laid-back. I just wanted to do it for fun. I don’t know, I wanted a change. I thought this would be fun for summertime and stuff, when you wear a bathing suit.” Feffer doesn’t foresee keeping her piercing permanently. “Definitely, when I’m older, with a family, I can’t imagine a belly-button ring. I probably wouldn’t wear shirts that revealed it. I’d probably dress more sophisticated.” Her waist measures 28 inches.
Malaika Tobias, 18, is visiting from Phoenix. She is reluctant to discuss her clothing choices, but her boyfriend encourages her to speak. When asked if her style of dress bothers him, he grins. “Not at all!” This prompts her to talk. “I’ve probably worn fashions like this for two or three years. I don’t live with my parents anymore, I live with him. But they never objected to me dressing like this. I had my belly button pierced, but I never use makeup or anything. I guess I think about my stomach a lot — it’s kind of a paranoia thing. It’s important because of self-confidence, self-reassurance. If my stomach was bigger, I would probably be unhappy.” If men see Tobias as a sex object, she doesn’t seem to care. “As long as it’s not him [she looks at her boyfriend], then no one else really bothers me. They can think whatever they want, but it isn’t important to me.” Tobias measures her waist at 29 inches.
Michelle McKee is about to enter Tiffany with her mother. McKee lives in Mira Mesa but attends Grossmont College, “because I cheer there.” She seems older than her 19 years, speaking with an almost aggressive confidence. “I’ve probably been dressing like this ever since I was born. [She laughs.] All the time. Whatever looks good.”
When McKee is asked if she has ever worn makeup on her stomach or pierced her navel, her face shows horror. “No! Actually, I thought about piercing it, but I wouldn’t, because of the scars and — I don’t like the way it looks, really. It’s kind of cute sometimes.”
McKee says that wearing a cut-off blouse keeps the pressure on for a flat stomach. She describes her culture’s requirements in a blasé, matter-of-fact tone. “Absolutely. It’s always out there in magazines. You always feel pressured. I notice guys looking at me sometimes. You wear what’s going to get attention in general, but I think it’s cute. You don’t dress like this when you’re sitting in the house alone. Of course you want to look cute, but it’s not necessarily to get a reaction from others. That’s just natural instinct.”
McKee’s mother, Pat, speaks more like Michelle’s pal than a typical mother. “They’re really just coming back. They were really hot when I was in my 20s. In 1969 we were wearing hip-huggers. It doesn’t bother me at all when she dresses like this. She’s got a beautiful figure. Whatever makes her feel comfortable.” Her daughter’s waist is 27 inches.
While most of the girls know their waist measurements in inches, many offer up single-digit numbers: “I’m a size 5.” My confusion about girls’ clothing sizes only increases when I speak with Tammy Blankenship, a manager at Charlotte Russe for 11 years. Charlotte Russe is a women’s clothing store that targets younger customers. Mannequins are dressed in revealing, bizarre fashions, and syncopated pop songs are played so loudly that yelling is necessary for any conversation. “We don’t go by measurement here at all, like a lot of men’s clothing does. You know, they measure the inseam and everything. We don’t do that. It’s junior sizes — a 3, a 5, a 7, a 9, 11, or small, medium, large, and there’s no set number that that will fit. You really have to try it on, because we deal with so many different vendors and they all run a little differently.”
So what are junior sizes? “All of our stuff is junior apparel. The next step up is misses. It’s just a different sizing range. It tends to fit a little differently, and most of your strictly women’s clothing stores are going to carry misses sizes. A lot of the department stores are misses sizes. The youth market will definitely be junior sizes, but it doesn’t mean only youth can wear it.”
In describing current fashion trends for teens and young women, Blankenship broaches a word heretofore unused by anyone: sexy. “The jeans are definitely dropping lower. You know, the lower, the better — as far down as you can get away with. It’s definitely sexy to show your stomach and have the lower-cut pants, which is the most popular thing. You see the commercials on TV from the different competitors. It’s definitely fun and funky this year. All the bottoms have details on them of some sort, whether it’s glitter or patches or holes or safety pins. Definitely some sort of skin always seems to be showing. That’s true for fall fashions too — especially the denim. The denim is very low-waisted, riding off the hips, coming down. They cut them open to make holes in them, then close them up with safety pins so skin is still showing.”
After talking all afternoon with teenage girls about their stomachs, I thought it was time to get another perspective. Nowhere could I find people with more different values from teenage girls than in San Diego’s beer bars. Most of the patrons of these establishments have little or no concern about their girth.
Shakespeare Pub at the India Street Art Colony is noisy with conversation and laughter. Smokers come and go, lighting up on the patio where smoking is legal. Sitting with a group of British-accented friends is Simon Cottriall, a native of Dover, England. Cottriall, 42, has lived in San Diego for 25 years but keeps a foreigner’s perspective on body image, and especially on exercise fanatics. “That’s their problem! They’re probably gay — I don’t know! [He breaks up laughing.] You don’t see it in Britain, because nobody cares. It doesn’t mean anything to me and I don’t worry about my stomach. I like thinner girls, but if a woman’s a bit overweight, it’s not all bad — you never know. Americans are obsessed with it. San Diego and Southern California have very healthy people, but the further you move east, the more normal people are.” Cottriall’s waist is 38 inches and he has a 50 chest. “I’m kind of a big guy. I’m 6'3", 240.”
On Antique Row in Normal Heights, Tuba Man’s has only seven people at the bar, all teasing each other in a familiar way. When the subject of stomachs is brought up, they all start laughing.
Ron Jackson, 49, is probably the biggest guy at the bar. “I come from New Jersey. I’ve lived here since ’77.” His attitude about working out for the perfect stomach is absolute indifference. “If they want to do that, hey! Good! I’m workin’ on mine!” He rubs his belly with his hand. “I sit here and I drink beer and keep my stomach good and stretched. I drink approximately a six-pack a day. I think my stomach looks good. In fact, when I look in front of the mirror, I think I look good.” A single man, Jackson says he has a few girlfriends and they’re just fine with his stomach. “Women like stomachs. They like to rub on it. You ever notice that when you’re laying there? They’re always rubbin’ that stuff. It’s like you’re her Buddha. Now you take a guy who’s got the ripples down there, he don’t want to be touched anyway. But I am more particular about women’s stomachs.” Jackson has a 40 waist and estimates a 36 chest, but he refuses to measure it.
Next to Jackson sits Skip Chew, a thin man with a permanent grin etched on his face. Chew has lived in San Diego since moving from Florida in 1963. “I occasionally think about my stomach. As far as the people who work out all the time, more power to ’em, but I think a lot of them are overobsessed with their looks, or it’s more of a hobby, and that’s what they’re doing it for. I’m married, so I can’t be particular about anybody’s waist size at all! Sometimes I think I could tone mine up a little bit, but it’s just a little more than I would like it to be. Nothing I would obsess about in a gym. I get enough workout at Albertsons. I work in produce and get a lot of workout there.” Chew’s waist is 34H inches and his chest is a 40.
Bob Adams moved to San Diego from Philadelphia in 1980 and has just returned from a visit home. “Back there, everybody’s dressed up.” His ability to be serious about anything is immediately in question when I ask what he thinks about the dedication of those who work out for the perfect stomach. He answers by holding up his bottle. “Lite beer from Miller! That’s all they need is Lite beer from Miller. The problem is, they drink Beck’s and Heineken and things like that. But if they go for the light beer, they won’t have to work out. I only think about my stomach when I have to look at these guys at the bar — then it turns over a little bit! Actually I lost about 40 pounds recently by switching to light beer. Honest to God, I was, like, 240 about a year ago. I’m down to 200 now, and I’m 6'2". I just cut down on my beer intake, started drinking light beer — it tastes terrible, but it works. I didn’t go to Subway like Jared! [a reference to a popular TV commercial]. I avoided all that shit. Of course, I prefer trimmer women, but the fat girls are nice too. It just depends on what time of the night it is.” Adams’s waist is 38 inches, but he says it had been 44 inches. Measuring his chest, he says, “I’m sure it’s Hulk Hogan-like.” It’s 42 inches. “I wear suits — I’m a lawyer. I think 42 long is the last suit I bought.”
Rick Strassman, who is drinking Budweiser, doesn’t seem to have any problem with his waist size. “It fluctuates between 30 and 34. I look at it this way: All the time you spend workin’ out in the gym just detracts from the time you could be in a bar, relaxing and having a beer. The only six-pack I’m interested in is what I drink, not what’s down here [pointing to his stomach]. I don’t like women who are obese, but a little pillow to lay my head on is perfectly fine!”
Adams interrupts: “There’s a lot of fat girls back in Philly!”
Strassman shoots back: “Yeah. Well, they need to store up for the winter. There’s definitely an obsession factor in California about stomachs. I’m from upstate New York. I’ve lived here since August of ’77. I go back East every Christmas. Clothing-wise, they’re way more styled back East, but physically, they’re way more styled out here.” Strassman’s waist is 32 inches and his chest size is 40.
The quietest (and thinnest) person at the bar is Michael Dolan, a native of Ireland. He smiles winsomely as he listens to his comrades. “I’ve been in San Diego for about seven years now. Truthfully, Americans are a little bit heavier than the Irish. I think it’s because there are more fatty foods here. When you look at the people in the gyms, you can see it from their point of view — they want to look better and stuff. My point of view is, it’s kind of silly. You’re here for a certain amount of time. You should enjoy yourself and eat well. But I guess they get enjoyment from doing those exercises.” Dolan is married and doesn’t care at all about his wife’s weight. “Actually, she eats really well and, as a result, so do I. I love her no matter what she looks like. I know I have a little potbelly, but my wife says it’s nice. She likes that. But I don’t worry about my belly.” Dolan has a 32 waist and a 40 chest.
There are only two women seated at the bar. As they listen to the others talk about their stomachs, they seem interested, but the first woman I approach runs to the rest room. The other woman raises her hands defensively. “I’ve been trying to get rid of my belly for two years, OK? They’re men. They don’t have to worry about their bellies. Women do.” She is laughing the entire time, but nervously, warning me to put my camera away.
Farther down Adams Avenue, the Ould Sod is located in the longtime quarters of the former Elbow Club. In fact, the old Elbow Club neon sign hangs inside above the window. There are about ten patrons, most of them talking to each other, none of them interested in talking about their stomachs, except for Mike Player. Player, 59, has been sitting alone at the bar and seems to enjoy having the monotony of his solitude broken. “I’m a California native, and I’ve lived here a long time. I don’t really think about my stomach. I guess I wish it was smaller. I just don’t think about it much. [He chuckles.] I work out, but I work out for different purposes — for my heart and lungs more than my stomach and appearance. I do a lot of walking and bicycling. It’s not important to me if a woman has a thin waist or not. I think the younger generation is probably more obsessed with it, from the preteens into the 20s, but once you get into the 30s, there’s other things that are more important.” Player has a 42-inch waist and a 48-inch chest.
As night falls, the Kensington Club is nearly empty, but four patrons gather around the bench in front, taking the opportunity to smoke cigarettes. Henry Copeland, 65, is the only one willing to talk about his stomach. His tone is one of blissful apathy. “I’ve lived here about 17 years. I’m from Michigan originally. People from Southern California worry about their stomachs a lot more than people from Michigan, and I think they worry about more things too. Michigan is far more laid-back. But if you want to go to the gym, do it. I don’t worry about my stomach, at least not so you could tell!” He places his hand over the mild bulge of his belly, laughing. “I don’t think much about it one way or the other. It just is.” He measures his own waist at 45 inches. When he places the tape measure around his chest, it goes to 48 inches. “Who cares? There’s no big ego in this!” He and his friends continue to laugh as I walk away.
Every Friday morning at 10:30 the Coronado Public Library has story time, where staff from the children’s section read stories and sing songs to infants, toddlers, and children near kindergarten age. This morning, the Winn Room is filled with enthralled toddlers and their mothers listening to a story while the less enthralled roam around the room. Most of the mothers are young and many are pregnant. Kirsten Channing, a Santee resident, is visiting her sister who lives in Point Loma, using the library as a meeting place where their children can let loose. Channing is five months pregnant, and her bulging stomach is noticeable but not prominent. “When I’m not pregnant, my waist size is probably a 27. I can’t say for sure what it is now, but I just bought some ribbon and fabrics for my son for school, and a piece of ribbon I cut that was a yard long just fit around me. So I’m probably 36 inches. I work out, but I don’t think about my stomach unless my pants feel tight when I get dressed. I used to be more obsessed with my stomach, but with my third child coming, I don’t have time for that anymore. It’s not the most important thing.”
As Tara Irons chases her young son around the library, she never stops smiling. At six months into her pregnancy, Irons, 31, is equally unflappable about the size of her stomach. “I honestly don’t know my normal waist size in inches, but I wear a size 8, whatever that is. Right now I’m probably a size 22! [She laughs.] It’s big. I don’t let it bother me because I think that being pregnant is such a blessing that — it just can’t bother me. I’m proud of it. Toward the end of my first pregnancy I was a little more alarmed, but I knew it would go back. I didn’t obsess too much about it.” Irons regards the pursuit of the perfect washboard stomach as “a total waste of time. It’s ridiculous. You need to exercise 45 minutes a day or whatever for health, but too many people are into it to the extreme and it’s a complete waste of time when there’s so many other things to enjoy in life.”
It’s 8:30 p.m. on Labor Day Monday and Bally Total Fitness in Mission Valley still has people working out in a large mirrored room filled with unused treadmills. One of them, Brad Cooper, 33, may have the most perfect six-pack stomach I’ve seen yet. His entire physique is perfect, but when he lifts up his shirt, a ripple of muscles seems to burst through his abdomen’s flesh. Soft-spoken and somewhat shy, Cooper doesn’t seem impressed with his abs. “I’ve been working out off and on for about ten years. In high school I did sports, and I’ve always been kind of athletic. I just try to keep myself in shape, because I coach track and field and I want to keep up with the kids. I don’t really do a lot of abdominal exercises. I probably work out maybe twice a week on my stomach. But I do a lot of running and eat a lot of lean meat and poultry. I try to watch what I eat. About two months ago, I said I was going to start working more on my stomach, because I want to see it look even better. I don’t really consider it a perfect six-pack. I know it’s decent, but I think it could be a lot better. I’ve got to start dedicating more time to working on my stomach. It’s just self-motivation, really.”
The search for a woman with a perfect six-pack ends when female trainers recommend that I speak with Heidi Graham, a trainer at the 24 Hour Fitness in University Towne Centre. When Graham, 22, enters (or bounds into) the room, her athleticism seems indomitable. “I’ve been working out all of my life. I played a lot of sports in high school and college — volleyball and basketball.” A Wyoming native, Graham is in San Diego hoping to obtain a master’s degree in exercise physiology and nutrition at sdsu.
“I usually work on my stomach about five days a week. I usually spend 20 to 25 minutes on my abdominals. I watch my diet. I don’t deny myself anything that I want, but I don’t pig out and eat nasty junk food. Sometimes I crave sweet stuff, especially cookies.” Graham then repeats the mantra chanted by trainer Ricky Ali: “Everyone has a six-pack, but it’s just a matter of whether you can see it or not. But I don’t worry about my stomach — only when people want to take pictures of it!” Graham lifts her blouse to expose her abdomen. It looks like a rock, yet the sculpted bulge of her six-pack isn’t as pronounced as a man’s. Graham drops her blouse as soon as the photo is snapped, glad to pull her stomach away from all the attention.