The phrase is relatively new – but what it describes cerainly isn’t new. The lovable Homer Simpson sent it up – eliciting genuine laughter across the television-viewing world – decades ago. And Seth Rogen has been rocking it since 1999’s Freaks and Geeks.
Still, every few years, some article online will break the news that men with decidedly unsexy physiques are regularly able to snag hot, attractive women.
To be clear, the supposed ‘dad bod’ movement among men isn’t toward obesity – even though that’s the only body type that is supported by science and statistics.
The thing about a dad bod isn’t anything in particular, in fact. The body type can be defined more plainly by a man’s habits rather than anything else.
The man with a dad bod will visit the gym from time to time – but he has never met a plate of steak-and-potatoes he didn’t like.
What’s up with dad bods, anyway?
The physical manifestations of these habits are difficult to describe precisely because they are nondescript.
Unlike the tight, slim and beautiful physical presence of his date, a man’s dad bod is more or less invisible, irrelevant.
So much so, in fact, that even accomplished pop culture writers like Sara Vilkomerson will humorously lapse into equivocal language to describe it.
The dad bod, she says, is a “sort of doughy mattress, soft but not squishy, and no beer gut.”
But what does the average woman really think about dad bods?
And what’s behind the cultural celebration of the wholly unremarkable – if not slightly disappointing – middling male physique?
Most participants in the focus group were university-educated and familiar with popular feminist ideas about sexual objectification.
The researchers showed them a range of images of men’s sexualized bodies from advertising, films, and TV and asked various questions.
The researchers also asked whether they felt the phenomenon of men being more interested in their own appearance affected their sexual relationships with women.
The women apparently took pleasure in talking about sexualized male bodies. As one participant noted of the star of the movie, Magic Mike, “Damn! Channing Tatum can move!”
“Looking for Personality”
Yet despite this, participants did not talk about men’s appearance alone. They did not want to be thought shallow, unethical, or “un-feminist.”
Some struggled to “objectify” men at all, and when it came to their preference for a long-term relationship, sexy fantasy figures were out.
Interestingly, some women described the attractiveness of men’s bodies according to what men could do, rather than how they looked.
They also discussed specific body parts as aspects of the whole person. This was partly about not wanting to be seen as treating a man as just a body part, as women often see men doing to other women.
“I can become fixated on somebody’s hands because it shows how they’re interacting with the environment, or how they’re interacting with my body as well,” says Kaitlyn, a 24-year-old bisexual woman.
Intensifying Female Anxieties
Some women thought themselves sexually deficient in not being able to objectify men.
They thought men who posted sexualized images of their bodies on social media or dating sites might be shallow or superficial.
“I’m looking for the personality in the picture of their body and I’m not getting that necessarily from someone that posts a picture of their washboard abs,” says Scarlett, a 30-year-old heterosexual woman.
Some of the participants described muscular and athletic men as sexual fantasy figures but discounted them as viable, long-term partners.
Others thought brawny, attractive men represented broader interests in fitness and athletics that might not align with their own values.
They thought them too preoccupied with their own attractiveness. Indeed, these men’s work on their muscles intensified some women’s anxieties about their own bodies.
“Yeah, I want my superman to be really big,” says Jane, 34, a heterosexual woman who is currently in a relationship. “But I think if I was married to someone that would feel a bit uncomfortable, like, I wasn’t keeping up my end of the bargain.”
The Perfect Guy? Really?
Some women also thought that while conventionally attractive men were acceptable for sexual gratification, they were less certain about such men for serious, committed relationships.
Abigail, a 45-year-old heterosexual woman, said such men usually played a “shut up and fuck me role” in most women’s sex lives.
Some participants in the focus group described their preferences for “dad bods” over muscular physiques, gesturing to other qualities that could define a partner as attractive.
“I really love that dad bods are in,” says Harriet, a 29-year-old pansexual woman who is in a relationship. “That’s the perfect body, guys who are having fun and a little bit of a tummy.”
Elsa, a 33-year-old ‘mostly straight’ single woman says most of her previous boyfriends had dad bods. She says the physical appearance of her former partners never worried her.
“As long as they’ve got nice hands, like, I can look into their eyes and feel a connection,” she says. “The rest of it isn’t super important.”
What can men with dad bods do, in return?
The researchers concluded that, in seeking to avoid treating men like objects, women still hold the idea of revolutionary female empowerment against the light of conventional values.
These are, of course, incongruous, contradictory ideals. That should explain why the women struggled to explain what it was about the dad bod they found appealing.
“This suggests that beneath the veneer of sexual empowerment presented by Magic Mike, etcetera, women’s sexual lives are still often shaped by traditional values.”Lead researcher Andrea Waling
Ultimately, that’s the problem with the whole dad bods ‘fetish.’ The cuddly, lovable mle doofus of pop culture who wins the hot girl actually reinforces the inequality about what is attractive for men and women.
Not that there is anything wrong with men who have better things to do than worry about their abs or their physical appearance.
Women will readily attest to the fact that dad bods aren’t necessarily a turn off for them.
We certainly know that men with dad bods often do capture the hearts of outlandishly attractive women.
Rather, we all need to be happy in our bodies and make intelligent, healthy choices to please ourselves.
We should all be able to live the lives that we want –not the ones imposed by fashion magazines and pop culture.
Men don’t need much help in that department anymore. Men can indulge every now and then and not feel ashamed about it.
Women have given them license to do so, which is partly why the dad bod is a cultural icon all its own now.
So, no, men don’t require any more help reveling in their likable little imperfections.
Instead, it’s their turn to help women accept and celebrate their own bodies, no matter what they look like, too.
What’s your story? Do you go for men with dad bods or do you prefer the chiseled male physique? Tell us what you think about men with dad bods in the comment section below.
Parts of this article were written by Andrea Waling for The Conversation.
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