[Content Note: Fat hatred, body policing, food policing, and bullying.]
I was watching Hulu the other night when, with no warning, something disgusting happened all over my monitor.
It was a Geico commercial, part of their "easier way to save" series. Perhaps you've been subjected to it, too. The premise is: A middle-class, middle-aged white man hires a trio of thin teenaged girls to fat-shame him, supposedly as a cheap alternative to a weight-loss program.
White middle-aged man in button-down shirt and tie, sitting alone on a couch as if for an interview. He says, "Weight-loss programs can be expensive, so to save some money I just got the popular girls from the local middle school to follow me around." Cut to the man in his home at night, wearing a t-shirt, opening refrigerator in darkened kitchen. He pulls a sandwich on plate from the fridge and sniffs it. At the sound of voices, he turns around; we see the trio of "popular girls" standing there.This commercial inspires me with many impulses. Among them is the desire to buy my insurance anywhere besides Geico.
Girls: Ew. Seriously? So gross.
He gives the food another look, as if guiltily reconsidering, and puts the plate back in the fridge. Cut to a scene in a brightly lit diner. A plate of waffles with whipped cream and strawberries is delivered to his table. As the plate is set before the man, the girls lean over from the adjacent booth.
Girls: Ew. Seriously? That is so gross.
His shoulders slump dejectedly and he reaches for the menu. Cut to a scene in a parking lot at night. The man is alone in his car, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt over a t-shirt, eating a burger, with an open fast food bag at his side. Through the car windows, the fast food establishment is visible. A flash pops; the girls are at his car window and one has just taken a photograph of him biting into the burger. Mustard and ketchup are smeared on his cheek.
Girls: Ew. Seriously? Dude, that is so totally gross.
The man sighs and tosses the burger back into the bag. "Gross, I know," he says.
Male voiceover, over Geico logo: There's an easier way to save. Geico. Fifteen minutes could save you 15% or more.
Stacy Bias has done a good job of teasing out some of the nuances of the bullshit on parade here.
Main dude's a moderately chubby white guy, clearly a professional, but made to be a schlubby one as he's wearing a button-up shirt and tie, but no jacket. This gives the impression straight-away of mediocrity. He sits submissively, with his hands folded in his lap and his expression is alternately eager and dull. He's the underdog 'everyman', likable but visibly flawed, a little bit lonely (he's never shown with anyone else, save the tormenting triad), intelligent but lacking in common sense and self-control. He's passive, approval-seeking, malleable and clearly unsatisfied with himself.This commercial suggests not only that it's funny to fat-shame people, but that it's effective. That by fat-shaming and food-shaming people, you're helping them. And that when people shame you, you should immediately change your behaviors and make different choices, lest they do it again.
The teen girls are not just any teens. They are the "popular girls" and, for the purpose of this ad, that detail is important. This guy could have been a family man; he could have hired his daughter and her friends or the girls from next door. Instead, he is pictured as single and the iconic 'unattainables' of male adolescent fantasy are called in to provide a metaphor for his lack of sexual currency and respect from self and others. He is transported by his lack of will-power from his agency and authority as an adult male back into the role of the bullied and rejected youth.
Note the secret eating (in his car, alone, in a parking lot, late at night – the paparazzi-flash of the teen girls' camera phone capturing his mustard-stained cheek and indicating this as a humiliating moment that risks his social exposure), the seeming 'childishness' of his food choices (the strawberry waffles, thick with whipped cream and covered in sprinkles), slovenliness (an uncovered sandwich, bread half-off, pulled from the fridge in an old t-shirt, indicating inactivity.) Each of these stereotypical representations further naturalizes the myth of the fat individual as a byproduct of weak-will, poor food choices, excessive consumption and inactivity. They also reinforce the hierarchy of thin vs. fat wherein it is socially acceptable to critique others bodies and/or eating habits providing they appear to be less healthy than yours.
The commercial also posits that fat-shaming should include both food- and behavior-policing. In one scenario, the man is eating fast food, which can be high in fat and sodium, and overly processed, and may not be a good nutritional choice for the individual character in this commercial, which people apparently no longer need a professional nutritionist who's aware of one's budget, everyday eating habits, etc. to assess, because judgmental teenaged girls are a sufficient alternative. (Ah, the summer job opportunities I missed in my youth!) But he's eating it alone, in his car, at night, as if it's something secret, something shameful, and he's eating so quickly and greedily that he's smearing it on his face, which is exactly how those gluttonous fatties eat, amirite? Self-control and napkins are for thin people!
The girls comment on his food, but then one of them additionally takes a picture of him. Since we all know that fat people are constantly stuffing food into their faces, seeing a fat person eat shouldn't be all that remarkable, but of course the point isn't that what he's doing is so extraordinary it warrants a snapshot, but that his shameful behavior must be documented and exposed.
In another scenario, he's eating leftovers. I don't know how he even has access to leftovers, because he apparently lives alone and everyone knows that fat people are so goddamned greedy that they never leave a crumb behind, but let's suspend disbelief for the sake of selling insurance and pretend that he'd been gorging himself in a food-smearing frenzy earlier and a morsel of food had escaped unscathed. So he's eating leftovers. He's alone again, at night again, and once more the scene has the sense of him sneaking food, of him engaging in shameful behavior. There's the implication, as in the car-eating scenario, that the girls are policing both the food itself and his behavior.
In the other scenario, he's eating in public in a diner during daylight, not sneaking food secretively at night. Presumably, he's going to eat it right at that table, not squirrel it away in shame. But who does he think he is to indulge in such a delicious and beautiful meal right out in the daylight like that? Fat people eating openly in the daylight without guilt is almost as terrible as fat people eating secretively in the nighttime wracked with shame! Plus, waffles with whipped cream are self-indulgent (and a little feminine). Gross!
(Who calls waffles gross? These girls are not from Pawnee!)
What are we to take from this? That the food is gross; that the man's behavior is gross; that the simple sight of this man eating is objectively gross; that this man himself is gross, as all fat people most certainly are.
What's clearly not gross, though, is shaming other people. Shaming other people is a good thing! Bullying is helpful! It's totally a valid problem-solving approach! And being fat is definitely a problem; you should definitely get to work on that immediately. Even if you're not fat yourself (and our definition of "fat" absolutely extends to include this guy, because he's as fat as we can safely portray on television without endangering children), you should feel very good about policing other people's behavior. We encourage you to examine and comment on what other people put into their own bodies. It's for their own good, you know. They'll be grateful for it! Trust us! We sell insurance!
It was especially smart of him, don't you think, to hire teenaged popular girls to shame him. Mean girls, as we all know, are ubiquitous and can be found at any school in the USA. It would've been ineffective to hire boys, who aren't as adept at bullying behavior, what with girls being so much more uniquely cruel. And more vocal about their opinions! I know that many of the middle-aged white men I know are very quick to change their behavior based on the opinions of teenaged girls. So that's certainly accurate.
Except that it's not accurate at all, and it suggests that something's wrong with him to be so affected by the words of teenaged girls (who, when they're not strutting around like sadistic hyenas, are frivolous and silly and don't understand how the world works, according to pop culture and conventional wisdom). He's a loser, you see. And a fat loser is certainly something new and different on my TV screen.
Also, bullying is funny. We've all definitely learned that by now.
Maybe, instead of investing in a trio of popular girls, he could invest in a meeting with a nutritionist. Or buy a HAES book.
And maybe, instead of buying my insurance from Geico, I'll choose another company. I don't want Geico putting "mean girls" in my backseat to mutter derogatory comments about my driving habits! If waffles are gross, how do they feel about a left turn signal? Disgusted, I'll bet!
There's so much to discuss here, we really should praise Geico for packing all of that garbage into a short thirty seconds. And by "praise," of course I mean "send contemptuous letters of disgust."