The dad bod dad is not so much a person as an organizational principle of patriarchy
As #LoveWins trended around the world earlier this year and people were pictured holding “full equality at last” banners outside the historic Stonewall inn, it was clear that for some, human intimacy achieves its highest realization through state-endorsed coupledom. Everyone irrespective of sexuality deserves a shot at unhappiness, but what exactly love has won is unclear. When love becomes law, the appeal of marriage has to be understood through its monopoly over entry to an array of legal, economic and social privileges.
In her essay “Why Girls Love The Dad Bod,” Mackenzie Pearson lays out an ethnography of desire in which dadhood redeems the male body from the rock hard abs that haunt it. In terms of purely physical descriptors, the dad bod knows very well what it isn’t: it does not have muscles so defined you could break dreams on them, nor will it stand out on a crowded beach, nor still will it be able to lift you up without getting faintly winded. Pearson’s essay champions a body whose desirability lies in both what it is and what its image negates: “the dad bod is a nice balance between a beer gut and working out.” The dad bod isn’t ripped, but it’s not a million miles away from it either. For Pearson, the dad bod represents the impossible notion of physical normalcy, the aesthetic middle ground. If the dad bod could speak, according to Pearson, it would say: “I go to the gym occasionally, but I also drink heavily on the weekends.” It’s not too muscular, not too fat, it’s just right.
The dad bod exists through the life the body exists in. Who epitomises the dad bod? MSN says Simon Cowell, Jason Segel, Leonardo DiCaprio. New York magazine’s dad bod lives off orange Gatorade and frozen burritos from Trader Joe’s. The visual aesthetic of dad bod is a white picket fence, ashtrays filled with empty pistachio nut shells, the rim of a NASCAR-branded baseball cap. Dad bod is a self-assembly garden shed with a fraternity crest embossed on the door. You sit close to dad bod and tremble at the possibility that not only might it play you a Gotye song, it might also pump its fist out of time with the beat. Although the dad bod advertises its failure to conform to masculine beauty standards, it remains conventionally white and able-bodied, rather than joining with other forms of non-conformity. This is because dad bod is not primarily defined through the body, but by the insistence that intimacy is synonymous with coupledom and love is synonymous with marriage, by the office cubicle you lose the individuation of days in.
Of course, an idea can’t truly exist until someone finds a way to extract value from it. CJ Cardenas, Los Angeles-based talent manager for Bear Grylls, has been so moved by the revolutionary potential of dad bod that he is in the process of trademarking a lifestyle brand around it. In an interview with New York magazine, Cardenas reveals how little dad bod has to do with the physical properties of the body it describes:
There’s a misconception that dadbods are lazy, eating pizza, playing video games. That’s not it at all. A lot of men who fit in the category are active guys with families. Dads who enjoy a beer on the weekend, dads who hit the gym a few times a week, dads with friends, colleagues and kids. Dads, in other words, with bodies shaped by their full, fulfilling lives.
Champions of the dad bod talk as if advocating for a defiant new invention. At the same time, Cardenas and Pearson emphasize that the dad bod isn’t an attempt at embracing traditionally non-valorized body types. Pearson outright states, “It’s not an overweight guy,” whereas Cardenas more tentatively says, “The idea is that it is okay to have a little bit of extra fat in certain areas.” It is fitting that dad bod will become a lifestyle brand, because it asks those who desire it to aspire to the most readily available ideas. Its sensuality is a wedding, dates are homeowner mortgage schemes, sucking dick is Christmas cards with photos of family on them, and when it lies in bed it is the overwrought silence of running out of things to say to each other that courses between its legs.
In written accounts of the dad bod, the dad of reference is always a cis man, invariably straight, painfully white, suburban, commercial: a golden ticket to a social position where lawn grass is always freshly mown and faith in cops can still exist. The dad of the dad bod is never poor and certainly never of color. Dad bod is an entirely conservative attractiveness that cannot extricate itself from the power structures that have chewed up momentary desire and repurposed it as a means of keeping capital in the right hands. In heteronormcore, the dad figure is at the vanguard of social conservatism. The dad bod dad is not so much a person as a organizational principle of patriarchy. He occupies the exact middle distance of conventional desire, where bodies are means for long-term planning. Pearson argues that the dad bod “makes boys seem more human, natural, and attractive.” Part of the appeal of dad bod lies in knowing “what you are getting into when he’s got the exact body type at 22 that he’s going to have at 45.” Dad bod is a safe investment strategy, frozen in the lifeless capture of monogamy.
Marina Adshade, author of Dollars & Sex: How Economics Influences Sex And Love, describes an intimate form of economic rationality deployed to minimize monogamy’s inherent risks. In Adshade’s account, a potential partner’s attractiveness, income, and willingness to leave you are a finite balancing act; improvements in one area leads to diminishments in another. She argues that desire for the dad bod is a security measure: if a man has a dad bod, not only is he less likely to leave you, but you are more likely to be able to, in Adshade’s words, exert your own “household bargaining power” in the relationship. According to this logic, the dad bod’s inverse is the alluring body that will leave you vulnerable to betrayal and heartbreak if you submit to its powers. The dad bod’s other is those racialized, differently abled, or otherwise unimaginable bodies that dad bod lovers don’t even bother considering. And there is the dad bod itself: a sexy pillow of safety and fidelity. On these terms, the dad bod promises to soften or alleviate the susceptibility of romantic attachments to disappointment, by virtue of its intense normality.
But the insistence on dad bod’s humanizing quality is far less benign than Pearson’s dreamlike account. The image is put forward as sweet, docile and warming like a fireplace in a Christmas movie. But at the heart of the abstracted dad image is the dad as an oriflamme of power. The appeal of fucking a dad is the prospect of receiving the violence of domination and the claustrophobia of the suburbs as special blessings.
The dad in these accounts exists as patriarchal power, and the repetition of its attractiveness implicates desire in the reproduction of domination. Desire is formed in relation to social power structures, and in turn upholds them. And yet a widespread belief in the innateness and immutability of desire somehow reigns. People write “not into blacks/Asians, not racist just a preference” in dating app bios with the same lack of self-critique as academics who use e-fits to generate the most scientifically attractive face and end up with research papers that could be Abercrombie & Fitch campaigns. Lee Edelman writes in his book No Future: “Politics is a name for the temporalization of desire, for its translation into a narrative, for its teleological determination.” Far from desire being apolitical, politics is a means of organizing desire, and vice versa.
Perhaps the only way to become liberated from the violent structures embedded in desire is to turn away from it and unlearn the value of being considered physically desirable. But the longing for love and safety are hard to unlearn. The dad bod’s form, though ill-defined, is the sum of the values that we are already forced to navigate. With the dad bod, you can imagine a future: a future that perpetually serves those it was built by and for. You look upon the dad bod as it picks up a golf club and you could drown in the whiteness of its trousers forever.