Dad bods and beer bellies are Australian national treasures. And it’s not just me that thinks so. In 2017, Budgy Smugglers conducted a competition to find ‘Australia’s Most Ordinary Rig’. This competition went absolutely viral, with Aussie men posting their dad bods and beer bellies all over Instagram. The comp’s first nominee, Dave Eddy, was showered in praise, likes and chilli emojis.
This demonstrates how Australia sees dad bods and beer bellies: they are ordinary and yet warrant celebration. These bodies are tied to our legends – David Boon, Jimmy Barnes and Alf Stewart. But why are these bodies seen as normal, even masculine, when other similar body shapes are not? Larger men who do not possess the coveted dad bod or celebrated beer belly are prone to fat-shaming everywhere from The Footy Show to our playgrounds.
Why are some large men accepted in Australia, when others are still ridiculed?
1. Why are beer bellies seen as masculine?
According to my dad-bodded Dad, some pub blokes and my good friend Mathew, the beer belly being accepted as masculine is pretty unanimously to do with the drinking. “It’s a sign you’re a big drinker,” pondered my father. “And so you’re one of the guys. You must spend a fair bit of time down at the pub or around the barbie. Drinking a fair few.”
This sentiment can also be seen in academic research papers. In Simone Pettigrew’s An Ethnography of Beer Consumption in Australia, a ten-year-old girl describes the typical Australian man as follows: “Undies and thongs, singlets, and he’s got a great big podge because he’s been eating lots of sausages and goes to footy matches and drinks beer.”
Masculinity and alcohol have long been linked, whether through war or coming of age rituals. In the 1978 book Waltzing Materialism, Jonathan King wrote, ‘For it is only by drinking that you can prove your manhood in Australia … If you are not man enough to drink with the boys until you are drunk then in Australian terms you are probably a “bloody poofta.”’
The beer belly is therefore a symbol of engaging with a particular and familiar brand of masculinity, which precludes queerness and femininity. It insinuates that a man regularly binge-drank in spaces that historically banned women and LGBT+ people. Despite its warm and friendly appearance, it carries connotations of strength, self-destructiveness and engaging with a drinking culture that values masculinity above other types of identity. To wear the badge that is the beer belly there is an assumption that you drank your skinny youth under the table. And what could possibly be more Aussie than that?
2. But what about the dad bod?
For all their familiarity with the beer belly, most of the men I interviewed didn’t know exactly what the dad bod was all about. The idea of the dad bod was created in 2015 by a woman named Mackenzie Pearson. In Pearson’s seminal essay, Why Girls Love The Dad Bod, she writes, ‘The dad bod is a nice balance between a beer gut and working out. The dad bod says, “I go to the gym occasionally, but I also drink heavily on the weekends and enjoy eating eight slices of pizza at a time.”’
The dad bod is therefore an extension of our iconic beer belly. The dad bod is read as masculine because of the gut. Nevertheless, Pearson also mentions that this body type is created through exercising and spending time at the gym. Having a fit and muscular body is another avenue men use to be viewed as masculine. As Ashley Thomson wrote here on Homer, ‘The normalisation of muscular physiques as a hallmark of desirable masculinities is impossible to deny. It’s in our magazines, movies, [and] sports.’
However, a beer belly and a gym bod are worlds apart in terms of physical attributes. It would be almost impossible to have a gut and a six-pack at the same time. It’s as if the dad bod has repackaged classic masculine norms for men that dabble in exercise and dabble in heavy drinking. It communicates that you engage in a breadth of masculine activities, that you’re just one of the guys, and that your body too can be read as desirable.
3. Fat kids don’t drink beer or work out
“I moved schools because I was fat,” said my friend Mathew over the phone. “I initially went to Mount Austin Primary. I was pretty badly bullied there. I think I was in year three. I remember, like, being super depressed. I think every now and then I would threaten to kill myself.”
Why was Mat’s weight an issue when so many Aussie men have large builds? Well, that is because Mat’s weight wasn’t put on by drinking copious amounts of alcohol. That would be illegal. Mat was a child. “There were a lot of stresses in my life at the time that made me kind of rely on food as a comfort,” Mat told me. Because Mathew’s weight wasn’t linked to a masculine activity, it was read as the opposite. This is the case for many overweight boys: there are no possible avenues for their weight to be viewed as masculine or ‘normal’, let alone desirable.
There is no child body type akin to the dad bod. The way that society views children is binary: you’re either fat or you’re thin. As sociologist of medicine Professor Deborah Lupton noted, ‘Fat children are subjected to greater harassment and prejudice than other children … Remarkably, even their own parents may favour their thinner children over their bigger ones.’ Even the idea of a fat kid going to a gym to attain Pearson’s ‘nice balance’ would be an absurd form of cruelty.
“I feel like if you’re a young kid, and you’re fat, and you had the equivalent of a dad bod, there’d probably be some bullying from it,” Mathew remarked. “If there was more of a culture of acceptance … I feel like it would have been a bit easier.”
4. The artificial line between beer belly and fat
So, what exactly is the difference between being fat and having a beer belly? Why is one the butt of societal jokes whilst the other is celebrated? Nobody I interviewed felt like they had the right answer.
“I don’t know actually,” said a pub bloke called Muddy as he scratched at his beard. “I suppose because your generic beer belly is often a guy with skinny legs. When you’re thinking of normal obesity, it’s large all over.”
Unfortunately, in the most juvenile way, I don’t think it’s much more complex than what Muddy suggested. A fat man’s weight is everywhere, therefore it isn’t linked to drinking and isn’t read as masculine. As Professor Lupton writes in the aforementioned article, ‘Fat bodies are culturally represented as inferior, deficient, ugly and disgusting.’ Beer bellies are therefore read differently than bodies that possess fat elsewhere. This small and arbitrary line excludes some fat men from ‘manliness’.It can even prevent fat men from receiving basic human respect. For some blokes, if their weight was distributed just slightly differently, they would be celebrated like Dave Eddy.
This idea of body composition has further implications. As Professor Lupton writes, ‘Fat people are viewed as deserving of their fate because of their apparent lack of self-control.’ This directly contrasts with the experience that most beer-bellied and dad-bodded men have. If you have a beer belly, you may have once been skinny or fit. Men with dad bods have the option of a couple more gym days. These bodies are read as if they were previously slender or could become stereotypically attractive again with relative ease.
Fat men, on the other hand, are read as if they’re stuck. In fact, Muddy proposed at one point that “A lot of obese people have often been big their whole life.” This, we know, might not be factually correct, but it is still perceived as truth. Society considers that fat people must have been unfit and lazy for a long time. Their bodies are seen as unyielding, bodies that can only be saved through the power of The Biggest Loser, Weight Watchers or just sheer hard work. There’s an illusion they must find extreme self-control and exercise if they want to escape their fate. In order to be viewed as masculine or normal, fat men must transform.
5. So what exactly does this all mean?
Am I saying that beer bellies and dad bods shouldn’t be celebrated? No, of course not. However, it is important to recognise that these body types are often read as ‘normal’ because they engage in traditional, and sometimes toxic, forms of masculinity. We often assume that these men drink to excess, eat meat, and possess physical strength. These body types are usually accepted by society because they aren’t read as feminine. All this has real fallout for the men who don’t or can’t conform.
It is important to remember that the line between fat and dad bod and beer belly is arbitrary. And it’s crucial to recognise that the drawing of these lines is not always motivated by happy-go-lucky bloggers wanting to coin a new term. Ultimately, we should let men be celebrated without asking them to binge drink, work out or lose weight. All bodies have a right to feel masculine. Every body type, if we let it, can be an Australian national treasure.