• Sarah Mullaney

Why the obsession with Zac Efron’s ‘dad bod’ needs to stop

There’s no denying that Zac Efron has come a long way since his floppy-haired High School Musical days (12-year-old me still swoons). But the question begs to be answered – when will people stop talking about his body?

Image source: Netflix

Boy-next-door turned Hollywood heartthrob, Efron quickly dropped his Disney image with roles in Bad Neighbours, Baywatch and of course, when he played Ted Bundy in 2019’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. He’s won Movie Awards and Teen Choice Awards, as well as being in films nominated for Golden Globes.

His latest project is the Netflix docuseries, Down to Earth with Zac Efron, where he travels around the world to find healthy and sustainable ways of living. The launch couldn’t have been timed better, with over one in five adults saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has made them more concerned about climate change (ONS).

I’m yet to watch the series and have no doubt it’ll be amazing, however I can’t help but feel like it’s being overshadowed by the one thing the world can’t stop talking about. Efron’s body – or specifically to this show, his ‘dad bod’.

An unhealthy obsession

Now I love Zac Efron as much as the next twenty-something and I’m not going to lie, I’ve ogled over his body from time to time. While we all know there's more to Efron than his physique, media outlets continue to spew headlines like:

Twitter is divided about Zac Efron’s Dad bod

Zac Efron’s ‘dad bod’ transformation on Netflix show shocks fans

People baffled as Down to Earth viewers say Zac Efron has ‘Dad Bod’

Here’s the thing. A ‘dad bod’ typically refers to the body shape of a middle aged man who is somewhere between muscular and overweight. It’s often used to describe men that give off that cuddly but still sexy vibe.

Zac Efron is neither in the right age bracket for this, nor is he even vaguely overweight. Just a few years ago, he took on a gruelling training regime and diet for his starring role in Baywatch that nearly cost him his mental health. Efron admitted that he “nearly lost [his] mind” and “didn’t have a carb for six months”.

Fast-forward to 2020 and granted, most of the commentary about Efron’s body is positive (let’s just say some of the thirst-trap tweets are NSFW) and people love Efron’s happier and healthier appearance.

But however complimentary people may be, suggesting Efron’s gone from being ‘shredded’ to having a ‘dad bod’, having that before versus after moment, is still body shaming. This all feels very ironic considering just a few months ago, people were calling for celebrity gossip magazines to stop printing stories about women’s weight and appearance.

Divide of the sexes

The double standards of all this got me thinking. Is it socially acceptable to comment on a man’s body over a woman’s because men are traditionally seen as being stronger and more resilient? This is known as toxic masculinity and is part of the reason why men feel they can’t speak about matters related to their mental health.

Award-winning author and Ted Talk speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it perfectly: “By far the worst thing we do to males — by making them feel they have to be hard — is that we leave them with very fragile egos.”

Having said that, when men do speak out about their mental health and body image, they aren’t always taken seriously. Last year, Efron appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show where he was surprised with a Madame Tussauds waxwork of himself from Baywatch.

He made it clear that the body type was unrealistic and said, “I don’t want people to think that’s the best way to be. Be your size.” Yet DeGeneres still felt the need to lift Efron’s shirt up, without asking for his consent, and compared his abs to when he was in Baywatch. Really? I’d say read the room, but then again the screaming audience made it clear they preferred seeing Efron’s abs to hearing about his struggles.

It reminded me of recent footage that emerged of Victoria Beckham on TFI Friday in 1999, where host Chris Evans actually made her step up onto the scales to see if she’d got back to her pre-baby weight, which he’d made a note of prior to filming. Like the Millennials and Gen Z’ers who had only just seen this for the first time, I was positively seething with anger. A few weeks on and one 'dad bod' phenomenon later, and I've come to think that not a lot has changed since that incident. The unnecessary commentary and body objectification is still there, but this time it's directed towards men.

Body dysmorphia

It’s not like men don’t suffer from eating disorders – they just masquerade in different ways to those of women. The ideal body type for men is often conveyed as being lean and muscular, something that’s pushed heavily by sexual objectification (see my reference to the Zac Efron ‘thirst tweets’). It’s through increased exposure to unattainable images of this body type that men become dissatisfied with their own appearance.

Research from the National Eating Disorders Association found that 25% of normal weight males perceive themselves to be underweight and 90% of teenage boys exercised with the goal of bulking up.

These notions about 'bulking' and 'getting shredded' can lead to muscle dysmorphia, a sub-type of body dysmorphia where individuals obsess with being overly muscular. This results in compulsions like spending hours in the gym, spending a fortune on supplements, abnormal eating patterns and the use of steroids.

According to a 2019 study by USCF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco, 22% of men aged 18-24 reported ‘disordered eating’ to gain muscle – the highest this figure has ever been.

Zac Efron spoke of his own insecurities as a result of his training for Baywatch and said: “I realised that when I was done with that movie, I don’t ever want to be in that good of shape again. You’re working with almost no wiggle room, right? You’ve got things like water under your skin that you’re worrying about, making your six-pack into a four-pack. It’s stupid.”

A self-esteem boost

There's a clear disparity between what people believe the ideal male body type is. If the supposed preference is muscularity, why then is the ‘dad bod’ so fetishised? Some could argue it’s for selfish reasons. I’ve seen blogs from women’s magazines suggesting that a man with a ‘dad bod’ will have less of an ego and be less likely to choose the gym over you. But wait, it gets worse.

In researching this piece, I watched a 2019 YouTube video titled ‘Dad Bod or 6 Pack’, where American women listed reasons for preferring the Dad Bod such as:

I like something to grab onto

I don’t want to feel inferior

You always look a little bit better than them

A six-pack is, like, trying too hard

It’s clear that some women like a 'dad bod' because it makes them feel better about themselves, which speaks volumes about their own insecurities. And, like with everything in life, there are people who will criticise no matter what. Someone could have given everything to have their dream body, but they will be told they've gone overboard and need to get their priorities straight. Ok, so this person reevaluates and takes time for other areas in their life, developing a more natural look. They do all this just to be told that their look isn't enough and doesn't meet the beauty standards that society deems as acceptable.

These aren't the only reasons these mini interviews are problematic – they're also incredibly biased and dated. It seemed that all interviews were conducted with cisgender white women only, and I'd love to know how a more diverse range of people, including those from LGBTQ+ community, feel about the 'dad bod'.

Where next?

I’m in no way saying we should cancel the people who comment on Efron’s body, or even that these comments can’t be made. What I’d like to see is a more considered approach, where people remember that this is a man who has spent his teenage and adult life being heavily sexualised, and as I have said before, there’s more to him than his abs.

In the same way that people are able to separate the art from the artist, I’d love to think people could judge Efron’s work for what it is, rather than by his latest transformation or how many times they see him shirtless.

To some Efron may have a Greek God-like status, but we need to remember that he is human like the rest of us and will feel the sting of having his body being under constant scrutiny.

How do you feel about the way Zac Efron is idolised for his body? Let me know in the comments below!