Is "dadbod" a hashtag joke or a social-sexual movement? A bit of both, probably. A month ago at The Odyssey, Clemson sophomore Mackenzie Pearson explained that this “new trend” had “fraternity boys everywhere” rejoicing. "In case you haven't noticed lately, girls are all about that dad bod," she wrote. "The dad bod is a nice balance between a beer gut and working out. The dad bod says, ‘I go to the gym occasionally, but I also drink heavily on the weekends and enjoy eating eight slices of pizza at a time.’” In the time since, #dadbod has gone viral on social media, to the cheers of Jason Segel lookalikes everywhere.
The phrase is relatively new—TotalFratMove.com penned an ode to it eight months ago—but the idea isn’t. Every couple of years, some publication breaks the news that men without washboard abs are still somehow able to find a date. “It’s Hip to Be Round” read a 2009 New York Times headline, above a Guy Trebay story that attempted to coin “the Ralph Kramden” to describe the tummy shape fashionable among indie-rock concertgoers. Three years earlier, The Observer proclaimed “Man Flab, It’s Fab,” with Sara Vilkomerson writing, “One by one, from Hollywood to the Hamptons, men have liberated themselves from the flat-stomached emo-boy reign of terror.” The supposed movement wasn’t toward obesity—even if, nationally, that’s the only body-type trend that can be backed up with statistics—but toward a "sort of doughy mattress, soft but not squishy, and no beer gut,” Vilkomerson wrote.
It almost goes without saying that the dadbod regimen of play sports, eat pizza is exactly what pop-culture has long said guys should be doing while women strain to maintain what Vilkomerson calls "the holy size zero." Desirable body types have varied across cultures throughout history, and all the recent chatter about the "era of the booty" shows that there's more than one in-vogue silhouette for women. But the flabby-guy/skinny-girl trope is old enough that The Simpsons was sending it up 25 years ago. Women face pressure toward Barbie-doll sculpting; men get to remain proudly pudgy—welcome to Gender Studies 101.
But the term "dadbod" does feel new in a couple of ways. Pearson, the female college student who helped popularize it as a term of praise, also noted a five-part list of its plusses: “It doesn't intimidate us,” “We like being the pretty one,” “Better cuddling,” “Good eats,” “You know what you’re getting.” Check those first two selling points: They invert the idea that women are oppressed by double standards over appearance, and they embrace the notion that being "the pretty one" can be a pleasure in itself. You can see this as regressive, empowering, or just a statement of personal preference. The third pro-dadbod point, "better cuddling," shows up in more crass form during The Cut's discussion of the matter, where the writer Allison Davis offers the theory that “men with dadbods and doughier tummy areas are good at sex.” Here’s an example of women talking in public about men in much the way so many men talk about women, as sexual objects with a list of attributes. “I can't stop thinking about how offended I would be if men were talking about the ‘Mombod,’” Emily Shornick writes, and that’s precisely what makes the phrase feel kind of transgressive. The dadbod turns the tables.
What of the term itself, dadbod? Why dad? Some dads do Crossfit, some are just, you know, skinny. But the image of the stereotypical dad with a set of uncool aesthetics and tastes—dadcore, dadrock—has been on the rise lately, summed up by The Toast's fake and hilarious Dad Magazine covers. This, too, marks a turn away from men as the cultural default, perpetual subjects instead of objects; and interprets them instead as just another group of people to be scrutinized. There’s something faintly mocking about #dadbod and other forms of dad terminology: an understanding of fathers not as authority figures but as soft, lovable doofuses. It's fair play—with men still wielding most of the cultural and economic power, nobody's actually hurt by some chuckling about Steely Dan and un-taut stomachs.
In fact, a lot of men feel liberated. Check Twitter to see all the guys hailing the new terminology as a hall pass; praise for something that they came by naturally.
I don't feel so ashamed of my body anymore. I got one of the best #dadbod's around...— Kyle Aguilar (@TheKyleAguilar) April 30, 2015
But it’s probably a mistake to take too much satisfaction from having a dadbod. A certain amount of paunch has always been attractive to a certain number of people, and a certain number of people still prefer the tighter types, while still others want the rollier and pollier. The rise of dadbod probably marks not shifting tastes but rather shifting ways of talking about tastes, where straight women get to use the same taxonomies straight men and queer people already employ, for better and worse. Gay guys have long fetishized “daddies,” though that label is age-dependent and "dadbod" probably has more in common with the gay “cub”; lesbians talk in terms of high and low, femme and butch; straight guys sling bra sizes, “BBW,” “butterface,” and all manner of terms heard in rap songs and frat houses. So take note, dadbods: A catchy name for your physique doesn't mean you're special; it means that finally, you’re just like everyone else.