In Time “Healthland” this week, journalist Bonnie Rochman asks “Does Nike’s ‘Greatness’ Ad Exploit Fat People?“ As you may be able to guess by the title of this blog post, I think the answer just might be yes. But not only does it exploit fat people, it further stigmatises us, as does Ms Rochman in the way she writes her article.
Ok, I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps we should all watch the ad:
So this ad uses a 12 year old fat boy, Nathan Sorrell, and Nike had him run behind a Porsche. On the second take, he threw up in a ditch. In the boys own words:
“We’ll try to work with you,” Sorrell said, quoting the director. “They were lenient with me.”
As though Nike were doing this boy a huge favour, and that they were generous by allowing the boy time to recover from being sick.
The advert goes on about greatness, how anyone is capable of it, all of us. (Even the poor fatties!) All the while focusing on a fat, sweaty boy running slowly towards the camera.
Even Ms Rochman in her piece uses words like “lumbering” and “bulk” to describe Nathan, words that suggest he is somehow ungainly, unattractive and even pathetic.
The implication of this advert, and even the article, is that we should cheer on the poor fat kid, because he’s working hard to lose weight, even if it is a bit pathetic. This friends, is not an ad that is designed to celebrate fat people being active. This ad is telling us “well, at least you’ll be better than this sorry fat kid.”
Even Rebecca Puhl from Yale’s Rudd Centre, quoted in the article, misses the point. She refers to this advert as “featuring an overweight boy in their ad (and doing so in a respectful manner)”. How is this respectful? How is it respectful to have a 12 year old boy run repeatedly behind a Porsche (a fucking Porsche!) until he vomits? How respectful is it to show a fat person struggling and sweaty, even looking like he is unwell and in pain (which we know he was) and adding hushed tones about how “anyone can be great”, with the implication that “even this pathetic fat kid”. And let’s not get started on the fact that they used a twelve year old child for this, rather than an adult.
Also note, they have used a fat boy who is trying to lose weight, who is running because he doesn’t want to be fat any more. Nike are even dangling the carrot of perhaps returning if he is “successful” at doing so.
How is this not stigmatising towards fat people? There is nothing celebratory about this ad. The ad isn’t celebrating Nathan, it’s just saying that he has the potential for greatness if he loses weight. In fact, this ad is saying “Keep running fatty, until you’re not fat.”
If Nike, or anyone else, wanted to feature a fat person and do so in a respectful manner, they wouldn’t be using weight loss as a “greatness” metaphor. They wouldn’t be using some poor kid who clearly is only running because he thinks he has to be thin. They wouldn’t be featuring a struggling 12 year old boy who looks like the unhappiest kid in the world.
If they wanted to feature a fat person and do so in a respectful manner, which would be absolutely radical advertising, they would perhaps feature some fat people being active – running, playing sport, dancing etc in their Nike shoes and having a great time! They’d show fatties laughing and having fun. They’d show positive representations of fatties engaging in physical activity, not having some poor kid run behind a Porsche until he vomits.
Now I’m not expecting people to look pretty when they are physically active. It’s hard work and it’s sweaty. But instead of going on about how anyone has the potential to be great (which implies young Nathan only has the potential, he has to lose the weight first, he isn’t great yet), how about having some fats talk about how running makes them feel good? Or how they love getting better and better at [insert sport of choice here] by practicing hard? Or how working up a sweat makes them feel strong and alive?
Instead we are sold this lie that to achieve greatness (and do be worthy of wearing Nike’s gear), we must be working hard to shed the pounds, to reduce our fat bodies. Fat people are not required to engage in physical activity to get a pass in society, nor are we only allowed to be fat if we are trying desperately to not be fat. We are not potentially worthy (which is what this advert is really saying) unless we’re potentially thin. Not to mention that health is not a moral value, nobody has an obligation to be “healthy”, whatever that is. Running behind a Porsche until you puke is not healthy by my standards, that’s for sure.
Want to see some representations of fat people engaging in physical activity that are respectful and positive and non-exploitative? Check these out from Stocky Bodies*:
THAT’S how you feature fat people engaging in physical activity in a respectful manner. Not by focusing on their “lumbering bulk”, talking about how they have the “potential to be great” because they’re trying to lose weight (I think the three of us are already great up there in our photos!) And certainly not by using a child who is very clearly unhappy about his body and is willing to run behind a Porsche until he is sick, and call it leniency on behalf of the director.