Guys, concerned that you may have let your body get a little soft over the years? There’s good news: your physique now matches what some see as the ideal of masculine sex appeal — the “dad bod.”
The media has scrambled to cover this phenomenon sparked by Clemson University student Mackenzie Pearson. Although the term “dad bod” has been floating around for years, it was Pearson’s explanatory essay that recently drew widespread media attention to the concept, according to Slate. Pearson celebrates the dad bod as a less intimidating, more approachable body type possessed by a guy that women may prefer to date over a chiseled, muscle-bound type. Opinions on the topic range from outraged critique of gender inequity (Time) to full embrace of this doughy ideal (Washington Post, GQ). In honor of Father’s Day, we’re taking a closer look at how well the media covered the dad bod as a health issue.
It’s important to point out that Pearson’s piece is only 500 words and is clearly targeted at a college audience. Ironically, her “dad bod” is actually a term of endearment for soft-around-the-middle frat boys, not dads (GQ points this out as well). “The dad bod is a new trend and fraternity boys everywhere seem to be rejoicing. Turns out skipping the gym for a few brews last Thursday after class turned out to be in their favor.” Someone with a dad bod is preferable to a guy sporting sculpted, six-pack abs, she goes on to say, because his dad bod probably won’t suffer much from the effects of age and actual fatherhood. “We know what we are getting into when he’s got the same exact body type at the age of 22 that he’s going to have at 45,” Pearson says.
However, some media outlets have taken the term “dad bod” and used it to launch a discussion on men’s health. This coverage by and large conflates an individual’s health status with their appearance. Some of this coverage (GQ) suggests that the dad bod is not an unhealthy body type: “Technically, you’re in okay health, but you’re too busy to get all fitness model”. But many of the stories argue that the dad bod is indeed setting a bad example. And they cite celebrities such as Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Simon Cowell, and Leonardo DiCaprio to make their point about the health risks. For example, NBC’s Today Show coverage of famous dad bods, including Rogen, Segel, and Dicaprio, includes discussion of how carrying too much belly fat is unhealthy. “Now the phenomenon known as dad bod—where guys carry a little extra padding around the middle and are often seen as attractive—has some concerned,” the story worriedly begins.
In the segment, Dr. Mehmet Oz is brought in to provide some expert commentary on the issue. “It might seem like this gentleman [with a dad bod] will take better care of you [because he’s not spending much time at the gym] but a man who really loves his family takes care of himself so he’s there for you,” Oz says.
There’s no question that excess weight is associated with an increase in certain health risks; however, the celebrity men discussed in this feature, while not very toned, certainly don’t appear overweight. Should those in relationships with DiCaprio-shaped men worry — as Oz apparently suggests they should — about their partners going to an early grave?
Yahoo’s coverage of the dad bod seems similarly overwrought. Shirtless photos of DiCaprio, Jon Hamm, and Adam Sandler are juxtaposed with discussion of the many dangers of belly fat. Citing nutrition expert Keri Glassman, MS, RD, the article states: “Weight around the midsection is more closely related to increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.” The article concludes with another stark warning for those who possess a dad bod: “’We should embrace people of all different shapes and sizes—and that’s wonderful—but for their health, if you want them to be around for the long haul, you will want to motivate them to exercise and eat healthy—and shed the belly fat, Glassman says.”
A BBC editorial, which mixes discussion of the dad bod with analysis of Internet chatter about an obese dancing man who became a viral sensation, takes things one step further by suggesting the dad bod phenomenon is making people accepting of obesity. “I don’t want to man up and love that girth,” says author Rob Broomby. “It’s not good for me and I shouldn’t accept it. So, while there is pressure on young men and women to look like models there is another equally pernicious trend emerging—the normalization of obesity.”
The article goes on to discuss the obesity crisis in the UK and the potential health consequences of being obese. “A quarter of children are now overweight or obese and the figures for adults are much, much worse. Some of those people, unless their lives change, will die younger than they should.”
So, where does this coverage leave us? It seems that most media who discuss the dad bod seem to think it reflects a poor diet and unhealthy lifestyle. Yet, this message is inconsistent with the photos of the celebrities that accompany these features, who generally are not overweight and seem as though they could well eat healthily and get reasonable amounts of physical activity. Professor Timothy Caulfield, an expert on celebrity health messages and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, points out that while the public health message about obesity is important, the discussion on dad bod in relation to obesity is not an informative angle.
“On the one hand, we need to communicate that being overweight and obese is not healthy,” he said. “It comes with social costs and can have an adverse impact on many aspects of a person’s well being. This is a message that needs to be communicated, even though sustained weight loss is ridiculously tough. On the other hand, we don’t want to stigmatize or encourage weight bias, which also can have an adverse impact — as a growing body of research has demonstrated. The ‘dad bod’ story seems to be playing to both extremes. Neither message is constructive.”
Let me conclude by saying that discussion of the dad bod is nothing if not interesting. It’s interesting in what it says about changing expectations of men’s bodies. It’s interesting in the way it brings gender inequity in body types into stark relief. But trying to use the dad bod as fodder to build a health news segment is simply fluff. You just can’t tell very much about a man’s health based on how well he’s rocking the dad bod.
Carolina Branson, PhD, is an associate editor for HealthNewsReview.org. Her graduate research focused on the depiction of health issues in the media.