About five years ago, “dad-” became a funky, lovable prefix to describe the delightfully out of touch. The lexicon grew from “dad rock” (anything on a High Fidelity-like list of best albums, compiled by the grey-haired 50 Quid Man) to “dad jokes” (lots of puns, very “budget Christmas cracker” vibes). The fashion umbrella term “dadcore” grew out of normcore, the trend for consciously “unfashioning” and dressing down, and the presidency of Barack Obama shifted the dial, style-wise, for men of a certain age. Indeed the key elements of the imagined “dadcore” wardrobe were modelled on him. High-waisted, shapeless denim trousers (dad jeans), wide-brimmed caps (dad hats) and old-school, chunky trainers (dad shoes) became a look.
Although it ultimately always semaphored loose-fitting sportswear, “dadcore” went on to encompass trends such as bumbags, tie-dye T-shirts, sandals worn with socks. At his 2018 Balenciaga show, the designer Demna Gvasalia took this to its logical extreme: shapeless silhouettes (leather jackets with unrepentant tassels, Hawaiian shirts, boxy suit jackets) worn by bald models accessorised with actual children.
In the same timeline, we saw the emergence of a different variation: the “dad bod”. This came to describe a male body that refused to walk the line to a six-pack and instead happily embraced looking like a “before” photo. In 2015, the writer Mackenzie Pearson put it like this : “The dad bod says, ‘I go to the gym occasionally but I also drink heavily on the weekend and enjoy eight slices of pizza at a time’.”
Last week, however, the dad bod suffered a curious, and perhaps fatal, blow. A topless photo of the actor Zac Efron – currently appearing in Netflix’s self-help odyssey Down to Earth – made a splash on social media. The former teen heart-throb was looking a bit hairier, sporting a four-pack rather than a six. This led to commenters on Twitter simultaneously lusting after him but also claiming that he now had a dad bod. An article in the New York Post, with the headline, “Zac Efron’s ‘dad bod’ transformation on Netflix show shocks fans”, observed that Efron had “an upper body that is decidedly broader than his Baywatch days”. The actor Chris O’Dowd joked that Efron had hijacked his identity. “To myself and fellow members of the legitimate ‘dad-bod’ community,” he wrote, “this is cultural appropriation.”
Of course, Efron didn’t actually have anything approaching a dad bod – he still looks like a human Hercules – but this all points to a bigger issue with male body ideals.
Culturally we love a physical transformation story like Efron’s, in cinematic terms think of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, Christian Bale in The Machinist or Brad Pitt in Fight Club. We are equally inspired and repelled by these tales of eating cottage cheese alone, doing dumbbell curls at 3am and willing ourselves into the required body shape. But apparently it’s no longer enough to look super-fit, you have to look like you are in training for an upcoming Marvel film. And so we have ended up in a position where Efron’s ridiculously healthy body is somehow deemed a dad bod.
Since 2006’s High School Musical, Efron’s body has been a sort of compass indicating how to assess what it means to look fit and healthy, from his tween indie hair look to his more hench phase in The Paperboy and Bad Neighbours. His “Baywatch days” transformation in 2017 was different though. It was … mildly alarming. He looked pumped to bursting point; he wasn’t just jacked, he was shredded (this is the problematic practice, in the bodybuilding community, of minimising body fat while maintaining muscle size and tone with the end result of the muscles “popping” out from beneath the skin), buffed up for the benefit of 1080p streaming.
If Efron’s chiselled body is now enough to be designated a “dad bod” then the age of dad prefixes has surely run its course. And perhaps not a moment too soon. The cultural icon of the father, particularly in the US, has suffered a fall: think of Bill Cosby, that archetypal sitcom dad, or that ultimate creepy boomer father, Donald Trump. Who, in this age, wants to be seen as the patriarchal head of the household? It’s no wonder we’ve pivoted one level up the family tree – it’s all about grandad now.