Rejoice, fellow owners of dad bods. Throw your gourmet burgers in the air and puff out your squishy chests with pride. Proof has finally arrived that we make better fathers than our gym-buffed brethren.
Well, sort of. New research shows that while people might rate a man with a muscular body as more attractive, we’re also likely to take a dim view of their child-rearing skills – not to mention their monogamy. Meanwhile, we perceive fathers carrying a little excess weight to be warmer and more committed.
It’s some small consolation for those of us whose six-pack has been replaced by an entire barrel. We might have swapped cardio and ab crunches for takeaways and TV, but we’re at least winning the fatherhood fight. Put that in your protein shake and drink it, gym bores.
For a University of Southern Mississippi study, 800 people were shown photographs of men with different combinations of body fat and muscle, ranging from lithe ‘n’ lean to overweight ‘n’ wobbly. Participants were then asked to judge how likely each was to demonstrate different parenting behaviours. It was the man with a textbook ‘dad bod’ who came out on top (go us!) with his muscle-rippling rival faring the worst (in your chiselled face, loser!).
"Muscularity could implicate them as not possessing the requisite warmth for parenting," researchers concluded. "Such interpersonally dominant men also prefer pluralistic mating strategies that could undermine perceptions of them providing for partners and offspring."
Well, someone’s swallowed a thesaurus. Yet it confirms what us love-handled fathers have secretly long suspected: we’re the World’s Best Dads, like it says on that novelty mug we got for Father’s Day. The word ‘cuddly’ is often used euphemistically. Here, it applies literally.
For a start, there’s the issue of time. That pesky work/life balance is hard to strike and parenting takes up plenty of hours per week. In some ways, it’s a 24/7 job. Maintaining a super-fit physique also takes hours of work. Something’s got to give. In most right-thinking cases, it’s our waistline.
On a Friday morning, we’d rather take the little tykes to the park than train for a triathlon. Our partners need a break, for a start. You’re hardly lightening her load by lacing up your Dh400 sneakers and disappearing for hours while she shoulders the parenting load yet again.
Male fitness hobbies happen to be solitary and take up vast swathes of time, usually at weekends. There’s often a suspicion this is no coincidence. My friend Ruth recently divorced her husband, and the last straw was his newfound obsession with cycling.
Every Friday, this mamil (middle-aged man in Lycra) would squeeze into eye-wateringly tight clothing, much to his cringing family’s horror, and pedal off for the day, leaving eye-rolling Ruth to entertain their three children alone. On Saturday, he would either lie around ‘recovering’ or he’d do it all over again. Ruth ended up feeling like a single mother. Now she is one.
Fatherhood is often followed swiftly by a midlife crisis and newfound fixation with fitness. The maxim used to be that when a married man suddenly starts doing press-ups, he’s having an affair. Or at least thinking about it. Nowadays, the motivating factor is equally likely to be a desperate desire to avoid his own offspring.
Meanwhile, 50 press-ups on the bedroom carpet have been upgraded into a Tough Mudder miles away or one of those desert ultramarathons. Basically, anywhere that isn’t the local soft play centre. In my experience, men who demand ‘time off’ to indulge such interests make a song and dance when asked to solo-parent in return. They might even refer to ‘babysitting’ their own children, which is always a red flag.
Being a regular guy rather than a gym addict tends to signal that you’re less absorbed in yourself and busy looking after others. Hands-on parents are too tired to be vain. We’ve got crumbs in our hair (from carrying a snacking child on our shoulders) and stains on our shirt (from when said child hugged us with a sticky face), but we’re either too frazzled or having too much fun to care.
My old PE teacher used to berate us if we came back in after rugby or football without muddy knees, because it meant we hadn’t got stuck in. It’s similar with parenting. Never trust a neatly turned-out father without grass-stains on his trousers or milky sick on his shoulder.
Smugly perfect dads are often preening show-offs. Resembling a snooker player rather than an Olympic swimmer indicates a balanced role model, an easy-going family man, not an uptight macho throwback. I love to cook for my own children – barbecues, roasts, pasta or something with chips in between – and it’s great for them to see a man doing domestic labour.
I should probably stop grazing on their leftovers, though.