In a 2014 episode of Modern Family, Mitchell’s friend Brett gets calf implants and confides in Mitchell that he plans to debut them at the beach on Memorial Day. Brett explains he’s always wanted to be “one of those guys who could run around in tights,” but was too embarrassed to reveal his scrawny legs. Comedy ensues when Mitchell attempts — and fails — to withhold Brett’s goofy secret from Cam, his blabbermouth boyfriend.
The intrinsic humor of calf implants was again on display in 2016, when Amy Schumer posted a doctored photo of her inflated lower legs, tricking 4.7 million Instagram followers into believing she was “so excited for my calf implants! #prettyhurts #worthit #balmain.” Even Conan hopped on the foreleg humor bandwagon in 2010: “Thinking of removing my calf implants,” he confessed to his audience. “My eyes are up here, ladies.”
I wondered, though, Is this gag even a real thing? Are throngs of chicken-legged dudes eagerly anticipating unveiling their new and improved calves IRL this Memorial Day weekend? Has this become the male equivalent of the boob job?
Sorta. At least comedically.
“The calf implant gag is an illegitimate grandson of the boob-job joke,” explains screenwriter Dode Levenson. “It’s funny because it’s so specific and idiosyncratic, especially when directed toward the physically overly-conscious gay community.”
And yet, it’s certainly more than a reliable comedy trope. In fact, some contend that calf implants are among the most popular plastic-surgery procedures for gay men (along with liposuction and laser hair removal). That’s because when it comes to body-image concerns, explains mental health advocate Zach Rawlings, author of “The Truth About Body Dysmorphia in Gay Men,” homosexual males suffer far more than their straight counterparts. The primary theory behind this discrepancy has to do with something called “minority stress theory.” Essentially, for gay men, it’s psychologically taxing to manage fears of being rejected upon coming out. The anticipation of that feeling often leads to rejection sensitivity, a perception that one has been rejected despite it not necessarily being true. “Gay men employ a variety of defenses to buffer themselves against that,” Rawlings notes, the most common being to perfect their bodies.
Which, come beach weather, means minding those calves.
Angelo, for example, tells me he hated his lower legs so much that he regularly wore long pants to the beach while on vacation in Greece despite it being 104 degrees. “My boyfriend definitely thought my calves were skinny,” Angelo says. “But he never said anything because he knew how insecure I was about them.” Angelo’s biggest fear was that people would mistakenly think he skipped leg day at the gym, when in fact all he did was train his legs. Alas, though, no matter how many squats, leg presses and calf raises the 33-year-old Canadian did, his calves wouldn’t budge. He even trained with a former Mr. Canada, but it was all for naught.
That’s because calf muscles are resistant to training, Harvard Medical School professor Harrison Pope, author of The Adonis Complex: How to Identify, Treat and Prevent Body Obsession in Men and Boys, explains. What’s more, Pope adds, “Even if you take steroids, you still aren’t likely to see a dramatic increase in the size of your calves. That might be a factor in motivating people to get calf implants.”
That said: “Calves are a tough muscle to build, but it CAN be done as long as you’re willing to put in the effort,” counters Nick Nilsson, aka the “Mad Scientist of Muscle.” “Genetics play a big part, but with proper training, you can maximize the growth potential.” (He recommends pausing for at least two seconds on every rep, thereby forcing the muscle to do the actual work rather than the connective tissue. Also, he suggests, focus on lower-rep, explosive training — like standing calf raises — for the inner muscle; on the flip side, focus on higher-rep, endurance exercises such as seated calf raises for the outer muscle.)
Nothing, though, worked for Angelo. Case in point: When his younger brother posted a photo of the two of them on the aforementioned Greco vacation, the first comment read, “Your brother has skinny calves.” Holy crap, Angelo thought. He lept into action (albeit with limited propulsion), researching every calf-implant surgeon in North America. Fortunately, Marc DuPere, who had done hundreds more calf implants than anyone else in Canada, was in nearby Toronto. Sure, DuPere was a little pricier than average, (around $12,000 for both legs, as opposed to an average cost of $4,500-$6,000), but Angelo was willing to pay top dollar to silence the calf-shamers once and for all.
“I do the most calf implants in Canada,” DuPere proudly declares in an email. He’s definitely noticed an increase in men having the procedure, he tells me, which he credits to insecurities unearthed by photos posted on social media, like the one that unhinged Angelo. “It’s a sexy part of a guy’s body,” DuPere explains. “People are attracted to muscular legs in shorts.” Which is likely why he’s averaging five to seven implants a month in preparation for beach season. (In 15 years, he’s done nearly 1,000.)
The approximate breakdown of DuPere’s calf-implant patients is evenly split between females and males, only half of whom he says are gay. “Muscular bodies are obviously popular in the gay community. But in the era of the selfie, both gay and straight men care about the way their bodies look.”
Indianapolis plastic surgeon Barry Eppley confirms that calf implants are no longer exclusively a homocentric pursuit. “I’m unaware of any of my recent male calf-implant patients being gay,” he says. “Of course, that may be due to my lack of awareness.” When I ask Eppley about the history of calf-implant surgery, like DuPere, he admits that the details are murky. For example, he recently saw a 78-year-old Michigan man who got his calf implants in 1968. “Whatever they put in there was very strange — old blocks of some form of silicon — and surprise, 40 years later, he developed complications.” Commercially speaking, he says, licensed calf implants have been available in the U.S. since the mid-1990s, when Implantech and AART — the only two implant manufacturers — were formed.
The point of the procedure, he explains, is to imitate the gastrocnemius muscle. That muscle has two heads — the inner medial head and the outer lateral head — that are best mimicked by either one or two sets of silicone implants, depending on the size of the patient. (Of DuPere’s male calf-implant patients, 75 percent opt for one implant per leg; the rest — typically bodybuilders — double down for two.) Angelo, being shorter than average, went with just one. “There were three sizes,” he remembers. “I told them, ‘Give me the biggest one you have.’”
With patients in the prone position (i.e., laying on their stomach), DuPere cuts a two-inch incision behind the knee. From there, he cuts through a fatty layer to reach the fascia — the white, shiny layer on every muscle in the body — and creates a small pocket underneath where the implant is inserted.
Pain is significant after surgery, DuPere admits, because of the amount of cutting to the muscle. He recommends crutches for seven to fourteen days for pain management and says that most people take at least a week off of work. “If they have a lot of walking to do,” DuPere warns, “they won’t be able to do it easily.” They’ll also be unable to drive for a couple of weeks since their calf muscles help depress the pedals. Astrix81, a 37-year-old DuPere patient who had four calf implants inserted in 2016, can attest to the post-op discomfort. “This surgery is painful,” he cautions the RealSelf messageboard. “I walked into the surgery not fully comprehending its full intensity. This is a surgery for the die hard. You must really have crap calves and REALLY want to improve them.”
For Angelo, though, the pain has definitely been worth the gain. “Your whole body is different,” his partner recently noted. “It’s like your calves make your whole upper body bigger.” And so, Angelo now sleeps well at night knowing there’s no way in hell anyone’s ever gonna think, That guy skipped leg day, again.