'Dad bods' have been accepted for years. Are mom bods next?
In a world that typically glamorizes muscularity and the "buff body type," "dad bods" aren't just accepted. They're even considered "sexy" to some women.
Starting as a viral trend in the early 2010s, "dad bods" refer to a less-toned body type on a middle-aged man; instead of biceps or a six pack, he may have a slight beer belly.
One 2021 study found that 75% of single respondents preferred "dad bods" to the traditionally toned male body type. But are "mom bods" next? Not so fast. Experts say mom bods aren't likely to trend in the same way – at least not anytime soon.
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Men are praised if they don't conform to beauty standards, but women are expected to
Men have long been able to get away with having less than perfect bodies.
"A dad bod is not only tolerated, it’s lauded in society… but from the moment a mom gives birth, there is a plethora of messaging out there indicating that in order to recover well, she has to 'bounce back' to her pre-baby weight," says Jennifer Wolkin, a licensed psychologist based in New York. "So instead of being put on a pedestal for birthing an actual human being, a mom is shamed about her body."
Experts say this double standard stems from the idea that, unlike femininity, masculinity is not predominantly defined by beauty.
"Our society values physical attractiveness, but our cultural construction of femininity in the U.S. places a premium on beauty, which is considered an integral aspect of womanhood and girlhood," says Samantha Kwan, an associate professor in sociology at the University of Houston.
Past research has shown that beauty is more essential to feminine than masculine gender roles, and body size is a more relevant factor of self-worth in women.
In contrast, we tend to be more forgiving toward men who deviate from dominant beauty standards of muscularity "because there is less emphasis on the way he looks, and perhaps more so on how smart he is, how athletic he is, or if he is a good 'breadwinner' for his family," Kwan says.
Though someone with a "dad bod" may not have biceps or a six-pack, Wolkin says it can still be attractive to some because it implies he "is wholly and unequivocally devoted to his family. That he doesn't have time to work at a chiseled physique and has pursuits outside of the gym."
Wolkin says this starkly contrasts with the pervasive attitude toward "mom bods" because "when men see a woman with a 'mom bod,' they think, 'she's lazy and still hasn't lost the baby weight."
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Women judge themselves harshly
This isn't to say that women are the only victims of today's unrealistic beauty standards. Men, too, deal with the pressure to sport six-packs and biceps – as seen by People's Sexiest Men Alive, like Michael B. Jordan and Chris Hemsworth.
But research has shown that compared to men, women judge themselves more harshly: They idealize even thinner bodies from what men prefer and internalize more negative messages about their weight.
"The need to 'snap back' to pre-baby weight might not be generated by men, but by women who have been impacted by messaging the health and beauty world continues to impose," Wolkin says.
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However, these dominant feminine ideals of thinness (but not too thin) are difficult to challenge in a society that rewards women for conforming and punishes women for deviating. Past research has shown that clinically obese women are at higher risk for employment discrimination, verbal and social abuse and anti-fat disdain.
"We live in a makeover society, where we expect women to spend time and money to conform to this ideal. And those who do are rewarded with financial and social successes, while those who don't suffer the converse," Kwan says.
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We need to 'turn away from damaging body-image tropes'
Experts say the only way to normalize "mom bods" is to topple the rigid beauty standards that women hold themselves up to.
Fortunately, the body positivity and body neutrality movements have exemplified this need for change. Many influencers like Sarah Komers have used their platforms to display honest looks at their postpartum bodies while clapping back at body shamers who suggest tummy tucks.
"Social media has given a platform to those who are outspoken against fatphobia, thin privilege and other harmful messages… and I hope this continues," Wolkin says. "The messaging needs to focus on staying mentally healthy and vital, and not on needing to look a certain way to feel worthy."
"The more, we, as a society, can turn away from damaging body-image tropes, and turn toward body acceptance, combined with continued visibility of role models who both denounce 'thin as better,' and who themselves have bodies of different shapes and sizes, the healthier we will all become."