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The Science of the Fat Male Face

Capital-P People has just anointed its Sexiest Man Alive for 2017, and it’s country star Blake Shelton.

In response, the lowercase-p people have spoken, and they have made two things clear: 1) Blake Shelton is categorically not the sexiest man alive — he “has that kind of face where you forget what he looks like while you’re still looking at him,” in the words of one sick tweet; and 2) his face is not just an unmemorable face, but a fat one.

It’s not the only time this year he’s been called out for being guilty of fat face:

And it’s not a new critique of Shelton, either. He was called out for his fat face in 2015:

And in 2014:

And in 2013:

What is new is that it seems Blake Shelton might actually be the only fat face the magazine has ever chosen as the sexiest. To be clear, some of the men on the 32 covers they’ve issued — Brad Pitt was chosen twice — have had fat faces at some point or another in their lives due to weight gain (cough Ben Affleck cough). But Shelton appears to be the only fat-faced man who has won with a fat face at press time.

What to make of this novelty? Perhaps they’ve loosened the standards for chiseled good looks. After all, men are largely given a pass on looks never afforded to women. Women must be attractive first and — sorry, is there a second thing they have to be? Compare this with men, who may be rich, powerful, funny, distinguished and any other number of admirable things before they ever have to be good-looking, if at all. We are only slowly beginning to critique men and objectify them in the same way we have always objectified women. The upside to this is equality, cynical as it may be. The downside? It’s just as vicious when we do it to men.

“Fat face” isn’t the only pejorative slung at Shelton in the wake of the honor. Here are a few of the thousands:

Yes, you can argue, it’s all in good fun. After all, by plucking a celebrity out and pasting his visage on a magazine and calling it the best in its class, People all but demands the masses become shallow, unforgiving arbiters of male attractiveness.

But viewed through the lens of the male body positivity movement, we must acknowledge that subjecting men to the same cruel, shallow aesthetic judgments we subject women to about where their fat happens to land is, well, just as juvenile and cruel.

So let us explain that, much like women mocked relentlessly for cellulite, men (and women) cannot do all that much about their facial fat. Experts say that like most things in life, where you carry fat on your body is a combination of lifestyle and genetics.

“Often, the face is the last to shape up, and the first to puff up,” The Times of India explains as to why facial fat is so difficult to control. Everyone stores and loses fat in their own way, and in a certain order, and your face has a few hardwired parameters that will make it much harder to drastically alter.

First, there’s your face shape, over which you have little control. How fat your face looks is partially determined by your facial skeleton and how tissue and muscle are laid across it. On top of that are pockets of fat — the body’s natural facial fillers. Baby fat looks adorable, and young plump faces are pleasing. But over time, either due to aging or life choices, we jack this up.

Cosmetologist and aesthetician Sadhana Deshmukh says lifestyle can derail even the best-laid facial fat plans: Eating a lot of salt- and sugar-laden processed foods can make you retain water in your face. So can a high-carb diet.

“Aging, alcohol intake and stress add to the problem, causing facial ligaments, whose job is to hold the fat pockets in place, to weaken,” Deshmukh tells the Times of India. “The fat relocates, causing prominent folds and a double chin.” Smoking adds insult to injury, as it depletes vitamin C, which is necessary for maintaining the skin’s elasticity.

Toss in a little gravity, and boom: You have a fat-migrated, bloated, jowly face, and possibly a wattle — that crepey turkey neck look that no one has yet to declare sexy or fetish-worthy, aside from that one subplot on Ally McBeal 20 years ago.

For what it’s worth, most of the hand-wringing over fat faces is still directed at, no surprise, women, who likely do the lion’s share of Googling to find out how to lose weight in their faces. But then, they are finger-wagged at by countless articles chronicling cautionary tales of women who’ve successfully slimmed down overall and toned up only to — quelle horreur! — lose too much fat in their faces, leaving them with a condition called “diet face”: Their body is super bangin’ but the face is drawn and haggard from too much fat loss. (Though there are gendered differences in where men and women hold onto fat, the face doesn’t seem to make the top of this list.) This leads people to desperately search for ways to just gain fat in their faces.

But a too-skinny face is also a fear of bodybuilders who lose fat to bulk up muscle. And a too-fat face is also a fear of otherwise thin or average-sized people who happen to still have a round face or double chin. On the site Muscle for Life, Michael Matthews address the pesky issue of being the size you want but not being able to spot-reduce that big face. Aside from facial structure, which can simply create roundness regardless of your weight, Matthews says that you can also just have a body fat percentage that’s too high, even if you’re not overweight, that causes fat face.

“Specifically, most men need to get to the 10 percent body fat range before they see a noticeable shift from facial roundness to angularity, and most women need to get to around 20 percent body fat,” he says. His advice is that, in spite of the fact that some people will simply always be more angular than you, you can only reduce your face by reducing your overall body fat percentage.

Men who are less committed to intense diet and exercise programs are increasingly turn to jawline augmentation. Business Insider noted that re-contouring the jaw to make the face more angular and enhance cheekbones is now among the top cosmetic procedures men are seeking out. It costs from $2,000 to $4,000.

But while all the above may be relevant to men who feel plagued (or now somewhat redeemed?) by a bloated face, this should not suggest that Blake Shelton’s rounder face, for whatever reason, is the problem here. His face shape is not the real reason he shouldn’t have been named the sexiest man alive. It’s his face color (to say nothing of his many unsavory opinions over the years) terribly unsexy. There were nothing but more attractive diverse candidates who aren’t known jokers to choose from this year — Idris Elba, anyone? Colin Kaepernick? Mahershala Ali? Oscar Isaac? Dev Patel? Anyone but another standard-issue white dude? — so the real missed opportunity here wasn’t about a fat face. It was about fat racism. And as of this writing, there’s still no diet or cosmetic surgery for that.