Earlier this year, Clemson University student Mackenzie Pearson wrote the commentary that launched a thousand thinkpieces: A meditation on the ‘dad bod,’ which is apparently ‘a nice balance between a beer gut and working out.’ She suggested that women find such men attractive for a variety of reasons, including the more casual approach to their bodies, and she definitely spoke to a pop culture trend. Yes, we love the Daniel Craigs of this world, but we also seem to love the Seth Rogens. There’s a world for all sorts of male bodies, and the image of sexy chubby men is a popular one.
Which is…kind of the problem with dad bod, as numerous people pointed out. There’s a clear sexist double standard here, because chubby women are most definitely not considered sexually appealing. Very few people are writing thinkpieces about the beauty of diverse female forms and how women who don’t constantly work out and starve themselves are attractive. Women who don’t invest substantial emotional, financial, and time resources in their bodies aren’t considered laid back and focused on enjoying life. They’re ‘letting themselves go’ and allowing their bodies to get all gross and fat.
We don’t see an equivalent mom bod, MILF aside — that’s a very specific and rather creepy fetish, and, notably, it’s based on the idea of the ‘hot mom,’ the woman who has, despite having borne a child, still ‘gotten in shape.’ The appeal of the MILF is not that she’s a woman with a body that shows signs of childbearing (which is a pretty significant event in a body’s lifetime), but that she’s a woman with a body that doesn’t show signs of childbearing, that is instead characterised by taut muscles and nice perky breasts and a firm bottom, with no stretch marks or other physical changes associated with carrying a child.
Chubby women aren’t celebrated, and if they are, it’s viewed fetishistically. It is not acceptable by mainstream standards to be attracted to chubby women. Men who are get the side eye, and fat women who date leaner, more muscular men very much get the ‘how is she with him?’ attitude — in contrast to Pearson’s claim about being the ‘prettier one.’ She claims that women enjoy the idea of dating less conventionally attractive men, but she also neatly skates over the fact that this is more widely accepted by society than the other way ’round. Pretty men are supposed to date pretty women. Pretty women, on the other hand, can date below their station and claim that they’re just so attracted to their partners on the basis of who they are that they can overlook their bodies. As long as their bodies aren’t, you know, too hideous.
Good luck trying to pass off your beloved fat girlfriend that way, my friends.
But there’s something else about the dad bod commentaries that flew around the internet that I didn’t see as much, and it troubled me. In most of the conversations about sexist double standards, the definition of gender was highly dichotomous and binarist, but the discussion about sexuality was also extremely rigid, with a focus specifically on heterosexuality. Commenters acted as though this whole concept — of the sexy chubby to fat guy — was a totally new and shocking thing that needed careful cultural deconstruction.
My friends, allow me to introduce you to the wide world of bears, and I am not talking about members of the genus Ursus. Bears and cubs are a lively part of the gay community, particularly in the leather community, and that’s been the case for decades — far longer than Ms. Pearson has been alive. The earliest references to the bear community appear to date to the 1970s, though likely they were a presence before then, and the foundation of Bear Magazine in the 1980s pretty much sealed the deal.
The relationship between bears, masculinity, and bodies is incredibly complex, but notably, the body type defined as ‘dad bod’ is very much echoed in the bear world, where obsessive gym visits aren’t necessarily a big thing. While many bears are incredibly stacked, it’s not the lean, ripped body type many people associate with frequent gym visits. Bears are weighty men with a great deal of presence, and cubs — as the name implies, young men aspiring to bear status — are equally weighty. Not necessarily in a literal sense, but take a gander at a few photos from bear conventions and competitions and you’re going to see a lot of ‘dad bod.’
The more or less complete erasure of bears and cubs from the ‘dad bod’ conversation is both interesting and troubling. Here’s a community with a rich cultural tradition that’s relatively mainstream, especially among youth and the media. Trust me, many of The Gays work in media and publishing, and are certainly employed at outfits that covered the phenomenon. Attraction to chubby men who work out but aren’t heavily invested in constructing very lean builds is not a strictly heterosexual thing, and I don’t want to be all ‘The Gays did it first!’ but, uh, we kind of did. And the bear community has been discussing relationships to the body and sexual attraction for a very long time.
Shifts in social expectations when it comes to heterosexual attraction are fascinating and important to talk about. And the conversation about ‘dad bod’ and how social standards surrounding heterosexual men’s bodies, especially those of young men, are changing, is definitely one worth having. At the same time, though, that conversation needs to include the history and experience of other social groups, cultures, and history. Bear culture exists. In many regions, it’s a very lively and very prominent part of the community: In San Francisco, for example, you have few excuses for not knowing what a bear is, even if you don’t know about the community in detail.
‘Dad bod’ isn’t just a heterosexual thing, and it’s interesting that so many people seem to think that it is.
Image: Dad, Max Khokhlov, Flickr