On November 21, 2019, just in time for the national shopping spree known as “the holiday season,” the fitness company Peloton released “The Gift That Gives Back.” The 30-second commercial simulates a video diary, starting with a woman being gifted a Peloton and following her “fitness journey” through a full year — from 6am workouts to a total life transformation. As soon as the commercial aired, the internet exploded, with most responses making fun of its dystopian vision of fitness in an age of surveillance. As I also went down the Peloton spiral, I realized that this commercial, as well as responses to it, express a collective anxiety about bodies, what we buy, and who we are in American culture — anxieties that center around the bodies of women assumed to be white, cisgender, and upper-class.
We are all pushed in capitalism to think of our bodies as shameful, our selves as never enough, and to prove our worth through always working harder — for a promotion, a perfect body or a fully realized self-care routine. The commercial (like so many others for fitness products) implies that one can have a steady stream of external validation for an up-front fee and monthly payments. Both the ad and the backlash illuminate some subtle realities about perfectionism, body shame, self-objectification, class, gender and white supremacy that have been bugging me since I first saw the tweets tearing the ad down.
Even before the ad aired, Peloton was criticized for its product’s role in an age of increasing digital surveillance, body dysmorphia, and wealth gaps. When this ad was released, the video diary format and overt sexism added gas to the fire. Several critics who participated in the backlash to this specific ad cited the dystopian comparison with an episode of Black Mirror, in which citizens spin their lives away on stationary bikes, earning merits for permanent or temporary escape. Comedian Eva Victor skewered the ad’s gender politics, spoofing that the (imaginary) controlling partner/husband would be promptly served with divorce papers. Twitter user Amy Hoy argued that the ad’s format makes us the consumers of her consumption, so that the audience takes the role of the gift-giver (the husband), rather than the gift-receiver. Therefore, instead of imagining ourselves as the star of this story, we become creepy voyeurs enjoying the “show” of this woman’s athletic journey. We covet not the exercise, but the disciplinary regime of her experience.
One of my favorite responses is a commercial for Aviation gin, featuring Monica Ruiz (the star of the Peloton ad). It shows a girls’ night with cocktails that plays perfectly into the Peloton universe while creating a winking agency for the protagonist, who has made the first step to escaping her saucer-eyed entrapment. The joke is sealed with a throwaway “you look great, by the way” — cementing but also challenging the way that class and body status are accrued through often overly rigorous, even painful exercise experiences.
Amidst these amusing and insightful responses, there’s a somewhat troubling side to the backlash: several articles and individuals have commented on Ms. Ruiz’s slender figure or on the general “fit” body type of the Peloton ad participants. As a fat person, I’m weirded out by how much fun people are having as they mock this thin (light-skinned, wealthy) person’s body. I recognize the ridicule in the pit of my stomach, a somatic response that I’ve learned to trust. I was also struck by how I wanted to join the Peloton pile-on but didn’t want to share the responses that are just as much a part of the shaming and controlling that leads to body issues in our culture. In other words, while thin privilege is real, I didn’t want my thin friends to feel singled out because I know all too well what that feels like. Making fun of a thin person for exercising, or minimizing the need for exercise, is a part of the same logic as making fun of a fat person for being lazy: it compresses body size, fitness, and activity level into a single package.
In PopDust, Eden Arielle Gordon addresses this contradiction: “The argument that the husband in the commercial shouldn’t have bought his wife a Peloton because she’s slim is even more misguided…The idea that we should only be exercising to lose weight or to alter our appearances is a dangerous concept in and of itself, one that promotes unsustainable mindsets and unhealthy fatphobia.” The danger here is that, as we mock Ms. Ruiz’s size or shape, we use the same underlying logic as the Peloton commercial itself (and contemporary American body image problems): there is such a thing as a “normal” body type, one who should or shouldn’t be exercising, and we can pin it down by mocking whatever falls outside — a real holiday miracle!
The commercial sells the chance to discipline our bodies into tidy packages via spending money and denying ourselves rest (“6am again,” the Peloton woman groans). In feminist psychology, there’s an important concept called “self-objectification” — seeing ourselves as objects whose value is primarily based on appearance. The commercial just takes it to the next level, using self-objectification tools of the social media age. But the thread underneath the commercial and much of the backlash is that her body should be normal or it should be disciplined to become so. And normal is, of course, slim, light-skinned, conventionally attractive, wealthy, disciplined and self-controlled. This prototype dates back to earlier days of advertising and is a part of the long history of racist and sexist controlling images in American culture. Often, lighter-skinned women with slim body types and upper-class visual codes stand in for the American ideal. The Peloton commercial isn’t absurd because Ms. Ruiz is slim — it’s ridiculous because it makes visible the hidden dynamics of control and relentless consumption that are always already with us (a part of why the gin ad is so amusing to me: that commercial, with Ms. Ruiz’s vacant gaze and her friends’ wry asides, seems to me to skewer the social relationships that shore up the privileged life the Peloton ad represents).
Peloton issued a non-apology that gestured at the original intent of the commercial: to represent transformative “fitness journey” narratives. I think it’s especially sinister that, through a fitness ad that is also a video diary, we are invited to make ourselves into disciplined objects and surveilling subjects all at once. A Peloton becomes the in-home-fitness Elf on the Shelf, the absent daddy or husband who is watching all the time. It’s the gift that gives back because it invites us to engage self-objectification and surveillance at the same time, driving the push to consumption. It reminds me of the third-party gaze in 1950s ads prompting women to ask their husbands to purchase appliances that would improve their domestic servitude, or some kinds of social media usage that lead to increased self-objectification.
I’m definitely interested in how to spoof and enjoy these cultural moments, opportunities to revive and revise our collective stories about bodies, exercise, money, gender, intimacy and human transformation. And of course, buy a bike or don’t — I can see how an at-home group fitness experience could actually make activity more accessible to some folks (though the price tag gives me pause still). Please roll freely with the jokes about Black Mirror, dystopian body control, and the 21st century media apocalypse that don’t also involve subjecting a different kind of body to the same kind of ridicule. But never forget that sexism against white and lighter-skinned women is an important tool of anti-blackness and white supremacy. And remember that body ridicule is the real power play — a way to buy into a system that disciplines every body differently — from which, ultimately, we all suffer.
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