Peloton Offends many with new Body-Shaming Advertisements

A Guest Article by By Janet Conroy-Quirk, MSW

I have asked for workout equipment/gym membership three times in my life. 

1.) Christmas 1994  (The Slide Reebok) 

 I was 14. I was a size 10, and about 5’7” and my chest had plans that did not factor in the leotard-under-jeans look that was popular amongst my fellow high school classmates. I wanted to be “skinny”- very skinny. I asked for the Slide Reebok and my parents bought it. They seemed a bit baffled by the device, but they assembled it, and watched me demonstrate it. Then, they  listened to me slam around my room while listening to the “Forrest Gump” soundtrack (because… 1994). The Slide Reebok wasn’t fun. To quote a wise 90’s philosopher, “Uhhh. It like, huhhuh, sucked. And stuff.” It was supposed to simulate cross-country skiing. The next year, I got cross-country skis and took up cross-country skiing. That was a bit better. I was on the ski team with my friends and I wasn’t there to win anything. I don’t think I ever DIDN’T come in almost last in a meet. Usually because my friend Ben & I preferred to stop along the woodsy trails and casually chat for a bit, while very intense people whizzed by screaming  “ON YOUR RIGHT!” at us. 

2.) Spring 2003 (Lucile Roberts)

If you’ve listened to my podcast, you’ve heard a story about a very mean friend I had in my 20’s. She hated herself and she hated to see confidence in anyone of a bigger size.  While out a bar with her one night, I was approached by a nice young man and gave him my number. As we headed home, she told me a story about a friend of hers who was “also big” and how she was the victim of a Pig Contest. She suggested that this was what had just happened to me. I went home, sad and humiliated, and I didn’t return the guy’s calls/voicemail asking me to go out. I let my “friend” get in my head and convince me of a humiliation that probably wasn’t happening. The next day, I asked my mom to help me financially with a Lucille Roberts membership. There was a location right near my job and I went. Mornings. Evenings. And then I didn’t go. Soon after, I got a new job, kinder friends and better priorities. I gave up the membership. I don’t like gyms and I’ve accepted that. 

3.) Sometime between 2004-2005 (The Treadmill)

 I worked full-time in direct social services from 2002-2015. In NYC, with some very difficult populations. It is not a typical career. I was verbally abused by clients on almost a daily basis, and comments about my  body were not off-limits. I was often told by coworkers that getting upset was a sign of weakness, being a “diva” or being bad at my job. That’s a lot to handle in your early 20’s, particularly when you’re in ED recovery, as well as a sexual trauma survivor. So at various points during that time,, I’d go home and internalize the  comments about how I “clearly never missed a meal” and start pricing treadmills online. I then mentioned to my parents that I wanted to get one for my apartment. They are both incredibly generous people and I recognize how privileged I was to be able to ask for such a thing. They gave me the money, acknowledging that I was an adult and could purchase the machine on my own. They were never the type of parents to ask for a receipt or “proof” of what I spent money on, because they respected my privacy and choices.

Sledding with friends… a physical activity that wasn’t shamed or forced.

I never bought the treadmill. The money went to life- a life spent in the greatest city in the world (and beyond).. Rather than exhaust myself  on a machine, performing a monotonous type of exercise that I never enjoyed, alone in an apartment, with the sad goal of avoiding cruel comments from very sick people, I chose another route to “health.” I was working in a sad industry, suffering vicarious trauma and personal attacks- and making very little money. So, with my treadmill cash, I snorkeled in Mexico with my friend Sarah. I hiked around castles with my friend Jess in Ireland. I took multiple train rides to Massachusetts to see my close circle of friends. I bought thoughtful birthday gifts, and saw Broadway shows and concerts. I ate and drank at wonderful places. I took cabs when it was cold or late, or because I felt like it. I got my hair and nails done. I spoiled my cat. I ordered in breakfast every Sunday. I loved my life, and I don’t regret not having bought the f*cking treadmill one bit. 

By now,  I assume you know what’s prompted this exploration of exercise/gifts/weight/social service work/my 20’s social life. The Peloton ad is problematic for so many reasons that have been discussed and dissected by people with far more impressive credentials than me. It’s been evaluated from the perspectives of experts in advertising; marketing; health (mental and physical); media; relationship dynamics; feminism; fat politics and more. 

I’m not here to judge anyone who thinks the ad is fine. I can understand some people interpreting it as a simple story about a gift that was requested and enjoyed. But I don’t believe that’s what it was, and I disagree that it’s fine. But the responses I’ve heard from those who defend it  are they even less “fine.”

“She’s so thin! She doesn’t need to lose weight! I could see if she were fat, then yeah, he’s trying to help her, but that girl is healthy!”

“She was happy to get it! She wanted it!” 

“It’s just an ad. Get over it!”

All of these reactions miss the point, and yet they all drive home a painful lesson. The majority of people in this country think thinness signifies health and larger bodies are automatically unhealthy. They also believe that fat bodies must be fixed. They believe “health” can only mean exercise. They believe exercise must be grueling to be effective. They dismiss the impact of advertising and media, as though it isn’t a painfully accurate reflection of our real prejudice and bias. 

Loving your body is okay without an exercise bike or regimen.

One aspect of the ad  really got me, particularly when I see how it’s been interpreted. At one point the wife states that she’s nervous to try the new bike for the first time. In her living room. But she does climb aboard the Magic Hot Wife Maker Machine and it’s life-changing or some shit. As someone who has done the Return To The Gym thing, only to get sideye and unsolicited “advice” or “encouragement” from other patrons, I will tell you that there is a huge difference between embarking on a new exercise regime at home, as a straight-sized  individual and showing up at a gym in a large body. I’m not saying discomfort with an exercise regime (and I’ll get to that) isn’t valid, but I have a hard time considering it as truly frightening when compared to the daily discrimination that fat people face in gyms, or even while taking walks in the park. 

I began this piece with my stroll down Fitness Memory  Lane because a common defense of the ad is, “The wife wanted it! You can tell! She probably asked for it!”  Now, those three sentences make me uncomfortable on a whole other level, but I’ll leave that alone for now- although I do think there’s a connection and it has to do with consent and what we say yes or no to when it comes to our bodies.  I am lucky not to have people in my life who offer exercise equipment or gym memberships as gifts unless they are asked for. And I believe that is a boundary that should be understood by everyone. I watched a video from a YouTuber who likes to scream about hating fat people and he commented, “She looks like she f***ing  asked for it! She knew the name of the brand!” What? This is the standard for wanting an item or service? Being aware of a brand means wanting it in your life or your living room? I know what a Harley-Davidson is, but I don’t want one under the tree on Christmas morning. I’m aware of Victoria’s Secret, but if there’s a gift card to one in my stocking, I’m gonna throw into the trash, where it belongs. Furthermore, I don’t think she  DID want it. There’s a fair amount of evidence that supports my theory. 

Look, I  understand that speculating about a fictional family in a horrible commercial is extremely stupid, but since it’s been brought up by The Defenders of Peloton, I’ll reply. My view? She doesn’t want it. She expresses discomfort with trying it, as previously discussed. She sarcastically jokes about rushing home at 5 p.m. to get on it. Then she looks miserable at 6 a.m. about the prospect of getting up and using it. Now, I can already hear the “Exercise has to hurt to work!” crowd banging at my door to explain to me that unless you’re in pain, uncomfortable, or inconvenienced, your movement/exercise is worthless. Well. You can call me lazy and reveal your fatphobia. But I believe that healthy movement shouldn’t require punishing your body, denying it sleep and rejuvenation, using machinery you don’t trust, or avoiding socialization.

Finally, I’m gonna address the elephant in the living room. Actually, it’s a child. It’s a little girl. It’s a little girl watching her father give her mother a device to shrink (oh, excuse me- “strengthen”) her body. That little girl then observes her mother getting on this device daily-unhappy, resisting  her discomfort, ignoring her need for rest, rejecting social interactions. And sadly filming her workouts to justify the gift. At the end of the year, that little girl learns that a woman should thank a significant other for “improving” her, even if it wasn’t what she wanted. She should smile and Selfie and suffer because THAT’S what love,  health and respect are all about. 

But hey. It’s just an ad, right?