Today, we dads find ourselves stuck between two fitness camps: those who believe that a six pack is of prime importance even in fatherhood and those content to keep their abdominal muscles well insulated while nurturing their young. And while the so-called 'dad bod' has become popular over the past few years, Western culture has long appreciated perfection in the human form, at least from an artistic perspective.
So is there still an ideal masculine body type, or is it every man for himself? And what does faith tell us about the pursuit of physical perfection?
The Artistic Ideal
In ancient Greece and Rome, classical sculptors dedicated years of their lives to enshrining the perfect human forms in bronze or marble. Later, during the Renaissance, artists such as Michelangelo resurrected the ancient fascination for bodily perfection with precisely shaped male figures as we see in The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel.
It may seem like this artistic trend hasn't changed much. You only need to look at the cover of Men's Health or any other magazine in the supermarket check out isle to see that the ideal male figure is alive and well in modern advertising.
That ideal, however, is being challenged in popular culture by the rise of the dad bod.
The Modern Situation
Like many other aspects of modern culture, I see the debate between proponents of the dad bod and those staunchly opposed (i.e. 5% body fat plus lean muscle) to be highly polarized. It's the same all or nothing mentality that infects American politics, dieting trends, the medical industry, and some religious circles.
On the one hand, we have claims by researchers such as anthropologist Richard Bribiescas (Yale) that the dad bod leads to better middle aged male health, lower rates of cancer, and higher levels of happiness.
From an evolutionary perspective, Bribiescas' argument deserves consideration. One of his most interesting hypotheses is that being slightly overweight encourages men to invest more time in their young (i.e. children) instead of trying to attract another mate (i.e. another woman). In other words, the dad bod is good for families and therefore the propagation of the human species. Sounds plausible, but it fails to account for factors other than natural instinct that influence the behavior of men (like the desire to pursue virtue).
On the other hand, the model of bodily perfection seems to be alive and well among younger guys.
When the show Jersey Shore first introduced Mike the Situation, so nicknamed because his 12-pack of abs is apparently a "serious situation," I considered the reality show a far cry from reality. But then one day in a rest stop parking lot off of the Connecticut turnpike while Nicole and I were driving home from Boston, I saw a dark bronzed muscular twenty-something lift up his shirt to check out his abs in the window of a neighboring vehicle before getting into his own car.
The egotistical gesture probably has some evolutionary merit, but all I could do in the moment was laugh, even though I myself was working hard on my own six-pack at the time. It made me ask whether the dad bod could be a legitimate alternative to the muscular ideal, if that ideal is actually just driven by narcissism.
So who's right? The short answer is: Both, I think.
The Theology of the Body Includes the Dad Bod
Not to give in to the festively rotund dad bod, but the debate comes full circle when viewed in light of the Theology of the Body. These principles from Saint John Paul the Great, arguably one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, about the human person help answer the question far better than mere evolutionary biology, art history, or modern advertising.
In the theology of the body, then Pope John Paul II taught that the human body is a reflection of the love of God. The body is capable of expressing supernatural love through its natural form. This is a fundamental philosophical departure from Darwin's ideal or the GQ images flooding the supermarket isles, both of which reduce the body of man to a vehicle for reproduction.
To me, the Renaissance ideal is more in line with JP II's vision of man.
Look again at Michelangelo's Adam, reaching out to God the Father's finger at the moment of his creation. Adam, who represents all of us, is the physical manifestation of God the Father's love. His body perfectly expresses the beauty of Creation, but also looks ahead to the bodily resurrection that Christians hold as a central part of our faith.
Body building, triathlons or CrossFit are great ways for guys to pursue godliness. This may sound like a spiritual principle, but how awesome would it be to look like Michelangelo's God the Father (who does not have a dad bod) at seventy?
On the other hand, the Theology of the Body hints that the dad bod can be an expression of love toward one's family. I've known lots of dads who sacrifice the sleep, diet, and time in the gym required maintaining washboard abs and chiseled delts in order to give themselves to their spouse and children. This is the embodiment of what St. John Paul described in the Theology of the Body whereby “the human body includes right from the beginning... the capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift – and by means of this gift – fulfills the meaning of his being and existence.”
All that said, I'm still personally in favor of setting and achieving aggressive fitness goals and staying in tip top shape. The outcome of these goals may be looking lean, cut, strong, attractive, or all of the above. But fitness goals, in light of the Theology of the Body, should be oriented toward love of God and love of others, rather than love of myself.
I love God with each rep. I love my spouse with each extra mile on the treadmill. I love my daughter with each Twinkie I don't eat.
No, the dad bod isn't for me. I may have to hack my way to a lean physique at forty, let alone seventy.
In the end though, when it comes to this personal choice, I think it's every man for himself. I just hope that, through my blog and the resources I share on social media, to give you the option to choose for yourself, equipped with more than just cultural buzz words and magazine covers.