Did the Pandemic Give a Bunch of Men "Dad Bods" Again?

Inside Hook

In late December 2019, the subway stop closest to my apartment reopened after a year of upgrades and repairs. It was the New York City equivalent of getting a car, and it also meant that I was out of excuses for not going to the gym. So, embracing the quick two-stop commute, I hit it hard: six days a week, 45 to 60 minutes per visit. Armed with a more disciplined diet, I proudly lost about 20 pounds in 12 weeks. 

By mid-March, however, “2020” had truly started, and the gym was replaced by bacon, pancakes, burgers and mac ‘n’ cheese. There was also ice cream — movies, Mad Men, and ice cream. To say I added “the COVID 19” would be a lie by five or 10 pounds in the wrong direction, though that puts me squarely in the company of average Americans, who gained 24 pounds over the course of the pandemic’s first year. 

Thanks to my boosted BMI, though, I slid into vaccine qualification earlier than I otherwise would have. (Yay for obesity!) I got the cherished second stab on March 31 and, as I write this, I’ve been back at the gym for three weeks, an am already a little trimmer. 

Still, as a 42-year-old single man, by the time “Slutty Summer” starts some time in the next couple months, I’ll be, at best, sporting a dad bod. But if I do choose to take part in the official “Whoring ’20s” kickoff, though, apparently my roundness is not something I should worry about too much. 

After surveying 2,000 users, the digital dating platform Dating.com revealed that nearly 75 percent of respondents are “a fan” of the dad bod. More than 20 percent of those surveyed shared that “body type doesn’t matter when it comes to finding a partner,” and instead, focus on “personality” over “looks.” And in perhaps a complete inversion of perceived social expectations, just 15 percent of Dating.com members prefer “a Barbie or Ken-like body type when it comes to a person of their desired gender.”

“Because everyone has a common understanding that quarantine and the pandemic have taken a toll on people across the world, people are beginning to embrace and prefer a more common body type than the fit and chiseled figure,” says Dating.com’s vice president Maria Sullivan. “Bodies come in all shapes and sizes and all of them are beautiful. It is really exciting for us to see that singles are turning more towards realistic bodies than the ones we see on TV.”

pizza work from home
A year of late nights and food delivery has taken its toll.
Moyo Studio/Getty Images

In spite of this good news, there’s bound to be many men who, like myself — after indulging in excessive calories and easing into a more bovine existence this past year — are dissatisfied with the current state of their bodies. In turn, this is sure to have an impact on our self esteem as we not only look to connect with romantic prospects, but reconnect with coworkers and family members as well. 

Studies show that, with the prevalence of traditional masculine norms, including an idealized, lean and muscular frame, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) affects about as many American males as it does females. If dad bods are in right now, in all likelihood, so is BDD. But there are ways to combat this mental health challenge, and it starts with empathy — for yourself

“Stress in the pandemic is not your fault,” says Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, a faculty member and clinician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, where she specializes in obesity medicine. She observes that, perhaps even more so than quarantine-compelled inactivity, stress has been “one of the most significant contributors” to Americans’ weight gain. With long-term stress comes an increase in inflammation, and a rise in cortisol levels that can have an outsized impact on the midsection, particularly in men. Dr. Cody Stanford attributes those changes to “the hormonal milieu” in male bodies. Understanding these facts can perhaps help men feel less down on themselves and more motivated to do all the well-documented things they can to lose those added pounds. 

That said, strict weight measurements, though symptomatic of health concerns, are not trusted indicators of good overall health, says Dr. Rebecca Busanich, an associate professor of exercise and sport studies at St. Catherine University. “I think it’s more important to focus on behavior,” Dr. Busanich says.

In her mind, “health” is always more holistic, including the physical aspects as well mental and cognitive health. “Culturally, we focus way too much on weight and, in doing so, we’ve made a lot of mistakes,” she says. “A lot of people now make decisions around their health with weight as the focus instead of health as the focus.”

More reliant indicators of healthy living, as opposed to “biometric” measurements, such as height-to-weight ratios, Dr. Busanich adds, include at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day. People should also have a well-balanced diet, practice sleep hygiene, and foster strong interpersonal relationships. She also says that managing stress, namely by practicing mindfulness, can contribute to better overall wellness.

dad bod measurement
According to medical professionals, men should put more stock in the circumference of their midsection, than the number they see on a scale.
Diana Polekhina/Unsplash

If there is one simple biometric measurement men should consider, though, it’s not strictly poundage, but the circumference of their midsection. Instead of the more popular waist measurement at the tailor, according to Dr. Cody Stanford, men should run a tape measure around their bodies at the belly button. If the measurement exceeds 40 inches, they’re at a much higher risk of heart disease, fatty liver disease, diabetes, and other serious health concerns. Also: They’re far more likely to encounter serious health problems if infected by COVID-19

Should you, a man, be upset about your figure, especially if those feelings are adversely affecting or disrupting your life, both Dr. Cody Stanford and Dr. Busanich recommend seeking help from obesity doctors or mental healthcare providers. This is a big ask of men, though, Dr. Busanich observes, because of the male stigma against such treatments, which are perceived as somehow feminine, in a “bad” way.

“This type of talk is normalized for women,” Dr. Busanich says, referencing general discussions about body image. “Women don’t find it to be a problem when they say, ‘I hate my body.’” One positive of these conversations being so typical among women, Dr. Busanich observes, is that “they do get some level of support by being able to talk about this.” But on the other hand, “men are very much silenced.” The only way they can reverse the stigma is by speaking up.

Being better informed about and engaging in an overall healthy lifestyle, regardless of how many ab muscles you count when you look in the mirror at the gym will undoubtedly help your confidence level when you find yourself in some social situations this summer. And on the dating front, generally feeling good about yourself — prompted in large part by improved, healthy behaviors — is what’s going to play best. 

“One of the most attractive things is to have a man who is confident and happy,” Busanich says. “Then that happiness radiates back to their partner and positively affects their life.”

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