What does “being fit” mean? Go to the gym on any given day and it’s clear that fitness comes in many body shapes and sizes. To a body builder, it means spending hours upon hours in the gym, perfecting lifts and poses for competition. For a cyclist, it’s being on the bike six days a week. A dancer may view fitness as a matter of perfecting jumps and movements before a big performance. To a new father, well, being fit might just mean getting to the gym a few times a week and maintaining the “dad bod” look — a softer look with a bit of a belly that has become socially acceptable for men.
We can thank Leonardo DiCaprio for starting the craze. Since a photo was captured of him on the beach, looking a bit pudgier around the midsection, he became something of a paragon of “dad bod” — and the look became both media fodder and call to action for guys everywhere to let themselves go a little. Since then, depending on who you ask, the dad bod has either had its moment or become a permanent cultural fixture.
“I think it’s one of those terms that comes from people who don’t have kids,” says Sarah H., 43, of Walnut Creek, California, married with a three-year-old daughter. “Just as my husband and I used to talk about ‘messy mommies’ who let themselves go post-baby, we had no idea how hard it is to take care of yourself once baby comes along. But I think the dad bod results from sympathy weight, less time for fitness, and a general settling into lower physical expectations.”
The public’s seemingly lax fitness standard for men with children has a fairly clear logic to it. Working out for hours in the gym isn’t feasible once kids come into the picture, and women don’t want a husband who is overly obsessed with physique. They’d rather a present father figure: “I think in general more people need to make family fitness a priority, and if not having the perfect body makes any parent more involved with his children, that’s positive,” says Katie S., 29, of Lansing, Michigan, married with one 14-month-old.
Holly Presely, 28, of New Bern, North Carolina, a mom of two girls aged three and five months, agrees that any dad valuing family over weight training is a good thing. “If dads are putting their children and families before themselves, that’s a good thing — as long as they’re not endangering their health,” she says. “If dad is happy, healthy, and spending time with his children, I don’t care how he looks. An attractive dad is one that adores his children and is a huge part of their lives.”
Then there’s the general consensus that it becomes more socially acceptable for men to have a gut as they age; we forgive them for it. “There’s no time for personal care,” says Sara H. “You have to have exceptional motivation or feel intense pressure to get in shape, which I think women are more likely than men to feel.”
So why isn’t “mom bod” a thing? After all, women are the ones who gain weight naturally, from carrying a baby — and it takes a lot to get rid of the baby weight, especially as women age. But the pressure is put on them immediately after birth to get fit. Think back to the criticism of celebrities like Jessica Simpson and Kelly Clarkson got for hanging onto extra pounds longer than society thought they should have. We have to ask: Why is there no equivalent, for women, of a man’s beer belly?
“You don’t see posters of a ripped dad holding three kids with a sign that says ‘What’s your excuse?’” says Katie S., referring to a meme of a fit mom with her three children that went viral a few years back. She refused to give into the pressure from the outside world and promised not to look at a scale for exactly one year after giving birth, instead giving herself the chance to heal and focus on her baby. Today, she weighs 10 pounds less than she did before the baby, but still agrees mom bod will never be an accepted thing.
“Look at all the glorification of dads in our culture versus how moms are treated,” she says. “Dad braids hair and he is the father of the year; dad sends kid to daycare mismatched and ‘at least he tried.’ Moms do these things and either no one notices or it reflects that somehow she doesn’t care or try hard enough. Obviously, no one is parenting for the recognition, but being more harshly judged makes a lot of mothers doubt themselves.”
Men who aren’t fathers (like DiCaprio) seem to get a break as well. Nancy Pritzker, 27, of New York, New York, will be married for two years this August, and while she and her husband don’t have kids, he sports a dad bod physique. “My husband is extremely strong and generally in good shape, but he still has a bit of a belly,” she says. “I think having a dad bod is a sign of a man who is more laid back and chill. Plus, his dad bod makes him very cuddly!”
Alisha, 28, of Salt Lake City, Utah, has been married for seven years with no children, but says her husband embodies dad bod as well. “My husband is active, works in the yard, plays on a softball team and many other outdoor sports but he has never stepped foot in a gym in all of our marriage,” she says. “I’m fine with that and I love the way he looks.”
If we all agree that there seems to be a double standard for men and women, the conversation we should really be having is about what a healthy body is — not a fit or good-looking one. According to Dr. Nadya Swedan, MD, FAAPMR, a physical medicine specialist in New York City, a healthy body is one with good posture, proper upper body movements and spine alignment, a natural lumbar curve and an abdomen that doesn’t protrude. “While a standard of a magazine-cover body is never realistic, nor required for health, there is no reason to have a ‘dad bod’ in its extreme form,” says Swedan. “Simply exercising twenty to thirty minutes a day, including walking, and five to ten minutes of abdominal strengthening can prevent it, along with not going to extremes with alcohol or food.”
So yes, dad bod is in fact a double standard. Even with all sizes and shapes of women’s bodies being celebrated more recently, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever really be having a conversation about mom bod. And maybe that’s okay. Health-wise, it’s preferable for all of us to be in the best shape possible. But hopefully the embrace of dad bod will help do away with any weight shaming more generally — especially mothers.
New father Peter Koch explains how he struggled with keeping fit after he had his first child. Read the Story