Myles Karp
Jul 9, 2015

The 'dad bod': A case study in hyperspeed trendspotting

What happens when our insatiable need for significant new trends collides with something that change on a slower timescale, such as the human body?

Myles Karp
Myles Karp

If you were on the Internet a couple weeks ago, you’re probably aware that FIT GUYS ARE OUT and DAD BODS ARE IN!

Dad bods are male bodies that are neither particularly fit nor aversively fat, just a little big and paunchy. You know, like a dad. Some find them sexy. Some find them sexist. Some think that they can be quantified in economic terms. Some say our reverence for them reveals eternal truths about our fear of death. A lot of people have said a lot of things about them. But the most important point about dad bods is that a couple months ago, nobody ever said anything about them.

It’s no secret that online journalism and social-media trendspotting are essentially rapid-fire and fickle shouting matches that push sensationalist claims in our faces to force clicks. Flavours of the week are now tried-and-true classics, and 15 minutes of fame constitutes a legendary career. In the current digital-media climate, trends and ideas are introduced, dissected a million times over, and then discarded at lightning speed, on to the next thing.

This model works just fine for sneakers (LeBrons are out! Oh, now KDs are out!), photos (What colour is that dress? Who cares anymore because look at this cat!), and songs (does anyone remember what the fox said?). But what happens when the ephemeral nature of online trendspotting collides with the human body?

I’m well aware that at different points in time, different body types have been “in fashion.” Archaeological remains of the more distant past—like the “Venus of Willendorf” statuette—supposedly reveal beauty standards even further removed from the ones we see displayed in (or enforced by?) today’s magazines. And although the dialogue around beauty standards and body image usually focuses on women, the ebb and flow of corporeal ideals has applied to men as well. George Washington, for example, was supposedly a colonial heartthrob because of his stately calves, which were essentially the six-pack of the day.

But examinations of body ideals through history track changes on the scale of decades, centuries, or millennia. The dad bod took off in a week.

What does it even mean for a body type to be “in?” Bodies are biological units—by definition—and sexual attraction is a biological process. Accordingly, the perception of certain body features as sexually attractive is hardwired by the very slow and stubborn mechanisms of biological evolution. Symmetrical faces, certain hip-to-waist ratios, skin clear of abscesses—it’s unlikely that society will suddenly forego these hallmarks of attractiveness. But there’s ample wiggle room for variation based on societal and environmental factors within broader constraints.

At least in the West, pale skin was considered ideal basically until the industrial revolution, before which only the wealthy could afford to spend their time inside instead of toiling in the fields. Fairness, then, signalled resources. Nowadays, wage-workers generally toil indoors, and those who have resources disproportionately have the leisure time necessary to foster a tan.

But it’s not just long-term cultural shifts over centuries that can shape perceptions of beauty. Sexual attraction is mediated also by immediate and acute concerns like mood and hunger. A team of psychologists, for example, conducted an experiment that involved surveying US college students’ preferences for ideal partner body types both before and after a trip to the dining hall. Hungry males prefer heavier females, among other effects. According to the authors of that study, this is consistent with the environmental-security hypothesis, which posits that subconscious factors cause humans to act in ways that maximise their survival and procreation especially in times of resource scarcity. So hormones having the effect of causing a body to be attracted to a fatter mate may be a mechanism for bonding that body with someone who can obtain food when it’s scant.

Now, I’m not saying we should attribute the sudden uptick in dad bod devotees to the environmental-security hypothesis. A lot of ink has been spilled over why dad bods are so popular, and some of these treatises do actually indirectly get at these sorts of ideas, although in generally unscientific manners. But that’s beside the point.

I believe that the explosion of interest in the dad bod is incompatible with either long-term or acute shifts in our collective lifestyles or hormones. What it says about our society and its mate preferences, I think, is absolutely nothing. It’s impossible that our lifestyles would have shifted so much in a week that our ideal mate types would follow just as quickly. On the other hand, it’s implausible that the whole world suddenly got hungry enough to effect an acute alteration of ideals. Nothing has changed.

What the dad bod phenomenon does say about us is that in today’s online media climate, nothing is off the table for the practice of rapidly introducing, dissecting, and discarding trendy ideas. The human body used to be conceived of as somewhat constant; no longer. There’s a natural tension between the slow mode of actually significant trends and the rapidity of the online media mechanisms; things can get carried away.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

And when one tweet garners 10,000 retweets, 20 think pieces, and 100 reactionary counter-think pieces, there can be immensely powerful snowball effects. Then those snowballs roll away after a few weeks. Insights or trends that aren’t significant or even real might find their way into this mechanism and end up picked apart and exhausted by all available media outlets until the next thing comes along. When the pace of trendspotting is this rapid, the demand for poignant observations about society outstrips supply.

Guys, don’t bother growing a dad bod, because they’ll be out of fashion next week (if not already). And make sure your religion, political beliefs, and blood type remain flexible, because none of those 'fads' are sacred either. By the way, type O-positive is so hot right now.

Myles Karp is research executive with Flamingo NY


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