As Zac Efron explores new culture experiences, he also explores his inner self. (Image via Netflix)

Zac Efron Gets ‘Down to Earth’ About Social Expectations of the Male Body

The online discourse about the former ‘High School Musical’ star’s ‘dad bod’ shows that our society has created unhealthy and unrealistic standards for men as well.

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The online discourse about the former ‘High School Musical’ star’s ‘dad bod’ shows that our society has created unhealthy and unrealistic standards for men as well.

Actor Zac Efron’s new Netflix series, “Down to Earth with Zac Efron,” premiered on July 10. The series follows Efron as he travels the world and explores a variety of topics related to health, environmentalism and sustainability. He engages in self-growth and exploration while encouraging the audience to do the same. The show provides catharsis during the COVID-19 pandemic by showing Efron travel and engage with a variety of cultures while most of us are stuck at home.

Efron appears on screen shirtless during one episode of “Down to Earth with Zac Efron,” which sparked spirited discourse on the internet. Social media began to describe Efron’s body as a “dad bod,” or dad body. Dad bods are usually a little heavier set, with their name coming from dads who sometimes gain weight with fatherhood. In his new show, it is evident that Efron has gained some weight since his “Baywatch” role and has also stopped waxing/shaving his chest. 

However, he still has defined abs, huge biceps and is clearly in incredible shape. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a dad bod, but calling Efron’s toned and muscular body a dad bod creates unrealistic expectations for men’s bodies and can cause men to feel insufficient.

Efron even knows his body isn’t the norm. In his “Hot Ones” interview, Efron stated, “That was actually a really important time to do Baywatch because I realized that when I was done with that movie, I don’t ever want to be in that good of shape again. Really. It was so hard. 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. S— like that — it’s just not — it’s just stupid.” 

To remain perfectly defined, Efron had to worry about everything he put in his body, down to how much water he drank each day. That routine does not create a healthy mindset, which certainly took its toll on Efron.

Efron reiterates this in in Episode 4, titled “Sardinia,” when Efron and his costar, lifestyle guru Darin Olien, travel to Sardinia, Italy, to explore why so many of the region’s residents live to become centenarians. They find that one reason is because of the local diet. Locals eat far less protein than Americans and more whole, unprocessed carbs and vegetables. For example, pasta is a staple in their daily lives.

Efron got emotional, seeming to nearly cry, while eating the pasta he had cooked alongside the locals. “I’m so glad I’m eating carbs again. Like, I went years without eating carbs. When I was shooting Baywatch, I didn’t have a carb for like six months. I almost lost my mind. You-you need this,” he said. Carbs are an essential part of the human diet and avoiding them completely is considered a form of disordered eating. Limiting a vital piece of the human diet is far too restrictive. The path to a healthy diet is moderation, not excessive constraints.

In the car with Olien, Efron said, “Yeah, I gotta get out of Hollywood, dude. I’m done. It’s just not a place conducive to living a long, happy, uh, mentally sound life.” The pressure he faces from Hollywood to be a ripped action star wears on him and he is clearly done with those roles.

Other male celebrities face the same pressure. “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,” Priya Elan wrote in the Telegraph

Efron’s current body is healthy, more so than most. To label it a dad bod is both ridiculous and harmful to other men. Eating cottage cheese and working out excessively is not the key to “a long, happy, mentally sound life.” It’s an unhealthy prison.

“Baywatch” provides the perfect example of Efron’s fitness prison. “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… buffed up for the benefit of 1080p streaming,” Elan wrote. His body changed scarily fast, which was likely unhealthy for him and provides an unrealistic standard for other men.

This unrealistic standard damages the average American man. “A study last year found that American men are just as likely as women to feel unsatisfied with their physiques, while another study found adolescent boys who are dissatisfied with their body shape may be more likely than girls to self-criticize and feel distress” Markham Heid wrote in Time. Boys see the example of Efron and other muscular movie stars and think that is how they should look, even though it’s nearly impossible to attain.

Impossible body standards push some men into performance enhancing drugs that can have extreme negative health effects. “As more and more men hit the gym in the hopes of transforming themselves into the Rock, many are also turning to anabolic steroids to achieve the muscle mass they associate with masculinity,” Heid wrote. The normal man cannot bulk up to Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson levels, so they turn to drugs that can cause neurological issues or lead to premature death. 

The unrealistic standards of Hollywood masculinity are causing men to risk their lives to become more muscular. Even without anabolic steroids, overly restrictive diets and excessive exercise can harm men’s health and damage their psyche, as seen when Efron nearly cries over eating pasta again in “Down to Earth with Zac Efron.”

Outside of Hollywood, the media as a whole perpetuates an unhealthy body image for men. “It’s unsurprising men are feeling this way, given that my research has shown how most images in popular magazines and dating and porn websites are of muscular lean, young men — who pretty much always have a full head of hair. So anyone that doesn’t fit this notion of ‘attractiveness’ is going to feel like they’re not good enough,” Glen Jankowski wrote in Quartz. If unattainable perfection isn’t shoved down men’s throats in the movie theatre, magazines, advertisements, dating apps and even porn continue to make men feel inadequate. 

Even celebrities themselves are not immune from feelings of inadequacy and internet/media shaming. Here are some more examples of male celebrities who the media has body shamed:

Page Six called Leonardo DiCaprio “the Great Fatsby” when he was shirtless on vacation in Bora Bora in 2014.

Page Six called Jonah Hill “the whale of Wall Street” in 2015.

Social media called Vin Diesel’s physique a “dad bod” in 2015 while shirtless in Miami.

Social media referred to Jason Momoa’s body as a “dad bod” in 2019.

How can we as a society help men to feel better about themselves? It starts with reshaping Hollywood and media standards. We need to encourage men to not only love themselves, but also change the way Hollywood and the media portray the average American man. We need to show men as they are, not idealized muscular men. It’s not healthy for celebrities like Efron to restrict their food and water intake just to look “attractive” and it’s not healthy for men to view this as normal. Health and happiness are more important than looks and we must remind those in our lives to remember that.

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