Thirst trapping's integration into mainstream pop culture has brought us many great joys in this cruel world. Now we can freely tweet “Brad Pitt run me over with a car” or call their unproblematic faves “daddies” without consequences. We can, in essence, thirst without abandon. Thirst trapping has also facilitated a more precise labeling of body types. Take thicc, for instance—spelt with two C’s, no K. It’s one of the more popular nouveau physical identifiers, hand-in-hand with slim thicc, shredded, ripped, and cut. We're living in primetime for objectification.
Then there’s dad bod, a term that feels more relaxed in nature, more applicable to the “average” man among us. In March of 2015, a college student’s blog post—“Why Girls Love The Dad Bod”—quickly went viral for its praise of thic(c)ker men who, author Mackenzie Pearson wrote, occasionally hit the gym but “also drink heavily on the weekends and enjoy eating eight slices of pizza at a time.” The piece gained national attention. Outlets like the Washington Post, which published a flow chart allowing men to determine whether or not they possessed the dad bod, picked it up and had a field day.
Culturally, we accepted the dad bod quickly—praising men like Seth Rogen, Adam Devine and Chris Pratt pre-Guardians of the Galaxy. For once, society joined hands to celebrate what a real, average working man looks like; peace swept over the land. But in the four years since Pearson’s initial blog, the definition of the dad bod has grown clouded—largely because of an uptick in warped representations of our treasured onscreen dads.
Recently, TV shows have confused dads with, well, daddies. Though small screen patriarchs were once joyful, laid-back Average Joes, they’ve now transformed into ripped, muscular heartthrobs like Milo Ventimiglia on This Is Us, Mark Consuelos on Riverdale and Justin Baldoni on the recently concluded Jane the Virgin. The definition of the dad bod has strayed so far from its origins that, recently, many claimed photos of Jason Momoa showed he had a dad bod because his torso lacked the razor-sharp definition from his Aquaman days. Momoa in many ways fulfills the Standard Leading Man checklist—strong acting chops, meme-able red carpet moments, hair so wavy and flawless that it could star in its own Pantene commercial—but a dad bod he does not. Neither do Nick Jonas or Noah Centineo, both of whom were similarly falsely accused. Perhaps no one truly understands what the dad bod is anymore. And that’s a problem.
“I think when it first came out, [the dad bod] was really embraced by a lot of guys who didn’t feel like they were at their peak physical point, but they were comfortable with their body,” Pearson says, four years after coining the term. “Society’s going to sculpt and shape to what they want to sell, and the dad bod sold and now they’re trying to make it something different.”
The dad bod was always more than just physical, though. Pearson’s essay let all men know that, despite a lack of abs or chiseled shoulders, they could still be loved and found attractive, and that they shouldn’t feel any lesser for not being as defined as Instagram influencers with thighs so thicc they could suffocate you. It was a moment for body positivity among men that helped make the concept of the dad bod so popular; for a second, it told men they could enjoy life without the constant strain of having to hit the gym; that they need not reach for unrealistic ideals that might not even ever be attainable.
“I think that it puts forward an idea of an ‘unhealthy healthy’: Working to get abs all the time instead of just enjoying life,” Pearson says. “What the dad bod was set to do was to be that standard of normalcy. It’s your average guy: It’s your guy at the deli, it’s your guy that sits next to you at work, it’s the guy that you see at trivia nights on Tuesdays at the bar, it’s the guy you’re getting pizza with, it’s the guy who’s driving his kid to soccer practice. It’s a normalcy that’s almost been removed from it.”
“When you shape it into being something that isn’t normal,” she adds, “people start to view their normal as below average.”
The impact of that shift has ripple effects much more widespread than just isolated TV depictions. The ways in which we see ourselves (or don’t see ourselves) on our television screens are proven to have an effect on us and our self-esteem. And because men are much less likely to open up about topics like body image, mental health, and body dissatisfaction, they may begin to internalize their feelings of inadequacy when it comes to not looking like Justin Hartley or any one of the leading men from the rebooted Dynasty.
Pop culture's rippling depictions lead to headlines like “How to Get Buff Like Chris Pratt in 60 Days” or “How Mark Consuelos’ Abs Will Save Your Love Life.” Shows begin to incorporate scenes where physique and masculinity are measured through fitness, like that infamous homoerotic Riverdale wrestling scene that spurred a million GIFs on Twitter. When it comes to romantic storylines, men may use their bodies as justification for why they’re the better fit to win the girl (like in Jane the Virgin’s love triangle). There’s an intensifying pressure that builds because of this spiral that begins to play a role in real life men—those who, you know, can’t spend five hours a day lifting weights.
“[These depictions] set up an unrealistic standard that may promote that, in order to feel worthy or accepted, we need to conform to those ideals,” said Dr. Sarah Adler, a psychologist with the Stanford Eating Disorder and Weight Control Clinic. “Any time we label one body as ‘good,’ we’re doing a disservice because people naturally have different bodies. We should be normalizing many, many different types of bodies in order to promote body acceptance.”
Because it’s impossible to ignore these mens’ muscular—and often shirtless—bodies, real world fathers may forget that that’s not realistic, which can lead them down a path towards extreme dieting, exercise addiction, and generally toxic habits. Our pop culture often follows suit, with headlines and how-to guides that detail specific ways to look like these Hollywood hunks, setting average men with different DNA and life circumstances up for failure.
“Forget about even looking like those bodies on TV,” says Dr. Dan Azagury, bariatric surgeon with Stanford Health Care. “I think having that as a goal to strive to, that they’re never going to get to, makes that sense of failure even more pronounced. You can never win if that’s your goal.”
The shredding of the dad bod also works against the rising body positivity movement, which has made small yet mighty waves in women’s media in recent years. Whereas portrayals of women have become increasingly diverse, especially in terms of body types, men’s media has gone in the opposite direction. Valentis says the want to be wealthy has now switched to attaining #bodygoals because more men think that their physique may be more attractive than their bank accounts. “I think men are very confused about what the hell women want,” she says.
The dad bod, what was once a body positive message of acceptance, has become the opposite: 19 packs, bulbous biceps, skull-crushing calves, and thighs so thicc that they can’t be described properly without at least 17 c’s. Although these men may be charming to look at, they fail to represent what an American father actually looks like: beer belly, love handles, happy smile and all.
Originally Appeared on GQ