A comment on the “dad bod” (and why out-of-shape men should not see this trend as a positive)

As a sports economist I do research on the athletic exploits of others.  To date, I do not think I have ever spoken much about sports I play.  At 45 years of age, I have stopped playing sports like basketball of football; since I sense injuries at my age can be permanent life conditions (older people don’t heal so well).  So my athletic endeavors today focus on biking riding, weight lifting, and working on my rowing machine in my garage.  Bike riding is a daily event, since I bike to work every day. And the other activities also happen many days each week.  In sum, I like exercising!

However, apparently all this exercise is actually making me unattractive.  At least, that is the story told by those who claim the “dad bod” is what women really want.

This story seemed to begin with Mackenzie Pearson, a Clemson University student who declared that young women like guys who won’t make women look bad at the beach (by looking too good).   After Person’s declaration, men who are out of shape suddenly believed they were the truly what women everywhere was looking for.

When I heard this story, I was immediately skeptical.  And of course, given that I am a person who is in shape, I have a reason to be skeptical.

However, ultimately this story is about what women find attractive in men.  And although men are often inclined to think they are experts on any thought that wanders into their heads, it seems likely that men should be careful forming strong opinions on what women find attractive.

Fortunately for me, Dr. Marina Adshade — author of Dollars and Sex — has written about this story (you may recall that she and I wrote about the Super Bowl and porn earlier in the year).  And I think if you read Marina’s story, she has bad news for guys who think a “dad bod” is actually attractive.

This is the paragraph from Marina’s story that I find most interesting:

The general conclusion… is that a woman who is afraid that her mate will not be faithful will avoid men whom she believes will attract other women. This could be because she thinks they will cheat, but it could also be that mate-guarding is exhausting, and she would rather not incur the cost of being in a relationship with a man who is constantly being pursued by other women.

Let me repeat Marina’s argument (in a way that will make me feel good about myself :)

There are two states a male can be in:  In shape (i.e. attractive) or out-of-shape (i.e. less attractive).

For a woman there is an obvious benefit to having an attractive mate.  But there is a cost.  A woman has to guard the mate from other women who also prefer to be with him.  And mate guarding for women is — as Marina argues — can be exhausting.  Given all this, a women would prefer the “dad bod” if the cost of mate guarding exceeds the benefits of being with an attractive man.  And if the benefit of being with the attractive man increased or the man could convince her that mate guarding was less necessary, then the women would likely be less inclined to prefer the “dad bod” (Note:  I ran this story by Marina and she says I am essentially getting this right :)

All of this leads to a rather unhappy conclusion for older men who are not in shape.  According to Marina’s argument, women are not preferring the “dad bod” because they actually find it attractive.  They are preferring an out-of-shape body because they think other women DO NOT find this to be attractive. So if you are proudly displaying pictures of your “dad bod”, you are probably exaggerating how much people actually want to see this!

I should close by noting that obviously there is a long list of factors people consider in choosing a mate.  And tastes and preferences in this area likely have a large variance.  So it is very possible that some women truly like the “dad bod.”  But as I am about to go work out, I take comfort in Marina’s argument that this is not likely what is happening for many women who state such a preference.

– DJ