Men of America, it's time for a national gut check.

Not so long ago, a huge Howard Taft pot belly signified a man's sated appetite for wealth, success and power. But in the Narcissistic Nineties now upon us, slimness has become the measure of a man. To the point of obsession. Why else would just an inch-pinch of a love handle send a man scrambling for liposuction or fretting over a promotion?

"It's appalling there's so much concern over physique," says Kelly Brownell, a University of Pennsylvania professor of psychology who specializes in weight regulation. "It's bad news because men are becoming afflicted by the same unrealistic standards that have been tormenting women for years."

Consider:

Plastic surgery for men, including liposuction, is dramatically on the rise. One Washington-area plastic surgeon says a growing number of his clients are healthy male baby boomers worried their blossoming bellies might hinder their careers.

Recent eating disorder studies are focusing on males, who are now believed to suffer from bulimia and anorexia. Those sicknesses traditionally have been associated with women obsessed with appearance and often mask a deeper psychological problem.

The male image machine is working overtime. Just check some magazines -- and not just male magazines. You'll find a proliferation of ads preying on male paunches and urging men to "change the spare tire" and "abdominize" themselves into sculpted washboard wedges.

The September issue of Gentleman's Quarterly features a five-page article titled "How to Flatten Your Tummy, Win a Tony and Get The Girl in Act III." The informative and presumably well-read story offers insights into an actor's abdominal workouts to "protect your belly from going to pot."

What's going on here? Individually, these timely tummy trends may seem like innocuous ripples from the fitness craze. But some experts suggest they signal a shift in cultural values. That is, men are defining themselves more and more by their looks.

"The greatest danger is that men will become the way that women say they used to be," says Murray Bilmes, an associate clinical professor in the psychiatry department at Stanford University. "Men are turning away from developing what's inside of them. That's a loss."

Theories abound about why some men are becoming slaves to the scale. And it's more than an aversion to acquiring a John Candy-sized midsection or double chin. Psychologists say a combination of factors -- the advent of the youth culture, Madison Avenue, increased job competition, and even the women's movement -- is driving men to extremes.

First, we're living in a society that places increasing importance on youth, says Robert Mashman, a San Diego-area psychologist. Respect for wisdom and old age is being undermined by the focus on Youth Culture. So in this regard, fat around the midsection represents the antithesis of youth, the harbinger of middle age.

"What we see all around us are striking, youthful people," Mashman says. "The perception is that a youthful, healthy body correlates with morality, sexual ability, success and power."

The second finger of blame points at media emphasis on appearance. A casual observer finds paragons of male physique seemingly everywhere, including music videos, television commercials and magazine advertisements. Sometimes it's subtle: Like those fun-loving Dockers dudes in Levi's ads. They're not exactly fighting the battle of the bulge. And for those men who are, a variety of ads for gut-gadgets and midsection machines can be found at the back of mainstream men's publications.

A third factor is increasing competition in the workplace, says Mashman. Appearing youthful (read: trim) sends the right signals to the boss; lest we forget, the letter "Y" stands for young in the word yuppie. But as the male boomers get older, mother nature will see to it they get thicker, like it or not.

"We're definitely seeing more men; a lot are baby boomers working at middle and upper management levels," says Ronald R. Cameron, a prominent suburban Washington plastic surgeon whose clients have included senators William Proxmire and Strom Thurmond. "They often feel that {plastic surgery} will give them an extra point or two in their careers."

Liposuction, one of Cameron's top procedures for men, isn't just for obese or heavy clients. In fact, some of those patients actually exercise strenuously and eat well, according to Cameron. "But no matter how hard they try they still can't get rid of that one-inch love handle," says Cameron, who adds that the elimination of even those small amounts of fat can positively change a patient's self-image.

A final reason for man's growing preoccupation with appearance is a reaction to the women's movement. Psychologists say that as women have gained more independence and responsibility in the workplace, they similarly have achieved a more equal footing socially.

"The question has arisen -- Why can't men be sex objects?" says Stanford's Bilmes.

Apparently, that's already been answered.

Mashman, who has studied personal ads in San Diego-area newspapers and magazines, says about 20 percent of the women seeking a partner are stipulating "No porkers," "No men with beer bellies" and "weight proportional to height."Says Mashman: "Women can afford to be more choosy now. So men are responding."

The road to paving flat a man's stomach is tough, grueling and without guarantees. Experts say stomach fat can be some of the toughest to get rid of. Also, the body's metabolic rate starts to slow down around the age of 30. After that point, the body burns 5 percent less energy every 10 years. Yet caloric intake often remains unchanged. And once the weight is on, you can kill yourself trying to get rid of it. Almost literally.

A newspaper item recently alerted consumers that 700,000 "stomach eliminators" were being recalled by the manufacturer. The reason: 62 people (presumably a number of men) suffered "serious facial or body injury."

"There's a whole world of weight-loss gadgets out there," says University of Pennsylvania's Brownell. "Men need to learn how to distinguish between "credible" and "incredible" exercise machines."

Even with "credible" exercises it can be just about impossible to achieve the perfect look. The idealized body essentially is found in people who're "genetic anomalies," says Brownell, who recommends that men learn to accept a few extra pounds.

Some men, however, won't accept that. In extreme cases they suffer eating disorders. While research is in its early stages, recent evidence suggests men suffer from anorexia nervosa and bulimia -- eating disorders thought to be strictly female illnesses.

"Men generally are dissatisfied with their body size and shape," says Arnold E. Andersen, director of the Eating and Weight Disorders Clinic at John Hopkins University Hospital. "Women want to lose weight."

Andersen believes the disorder won't ever affect men to the degree it does women, partly because of differences in social values and hormonal levels. Also, extreme skinniness in men now is most often associated with people afflicted with AIDS. This may thwart some preoccupation with extreme weight loss, he says.

Granted, abdominal fat is more closely linked to a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. But small amounts of fat aren't necessarily dangerous. Andersen points out that genetics can play a huge role. And someone with a perfectly shaped body, free of waistline fat, can still suffer heart disease if it's hereditary.

Andersen suggests men -- and women -- pay less attention to the mirror and more attention to three basic principles: eating a balanced, low-fat diet; exercising moderately, and dealing directly with stress instead of eating during difficult situations.

After that, the only lightening up men should do is emotionally, says Andersen: "Whatever you look like is what you're meant to look like."

Machines & Gimmicks

The male stomach has become something of a soft underbelly for fitness companies, many claiming to offer a quick and painless way to become the next Calvin Klein model.

But be on guard.

"Watch out for anything that promises easy solutions, rapid weight loss, new technology or a break-through discovery," says Kelly Brownell, an expert on weight regulation at the University of Pennsylvania. "There's a whole world of gimmicks out there."

Brownell says it's important to distinguish between the "credible" and "incredible" exercise machines.

Exercise machines that simulate rowing, cross-country skiing and cycling offer a credible, effective way of losing weight and toning stomach muscles, Brownell says. Even then, though, there's no guarantee you'll get a flat, "perfect" stomach.

"There's no such thing as spot weight loss," he says. "Your body decides where you lose weight."

Weights & Measures

A little bit of fat around the midsection is normal for men as they get older. Keep an eye on it, but don't obsess. Two factors -- height-to-weight and waist-to-hip ratios -- are more telling than what you see in the mirror. The following guide of updated government recommendations may help you determine if you have any reason for worry about the risk of heart disease, diabetes and hypertension:

Waist-to-hip ratio: Wrap a tape measure around your waist at about the level of the belly button. Note the circumference. Then, measure around your hips, including buttocks, where they are widest. Divide the waist measurement by the hip measurement to get your ratio. Ratios above 0.95 for men (0.80 for women) are linked to greater risk for several diseases.

Acceptable weights for men and women -- height (no shoes), weight in pounds (no clothes): 19-34 years, then 35 years and up:

5'0" -- 97-128; 108-138

5'1" -- 101-132; 111-143

5'2" -- 104-137; 115-148

5'3" -- 107-141; 119-152

5'4" -- 111-146; 122-157

5'5" -- 114-150; 126-162

5'6" -- 118-155; 130-167

5'7" -- 121-160; 134-172

5'8" -- 125-164; 138-178

5'9" -- 129-169; 142-183

5'10" -- 132-174; 146-188

5'11" -- 136-179; 151-194

6'0" -- 140-184; 155-199

6'1" -- 144-189; 159-205

6'2" -- 148-195; 164-210.

Source: Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 1990 (to the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health & Human Services).