Does a Bear Shit in the Woods?

Published August 18, 2012 by Fat Heffalump

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*:

Frances stretching

Sonya swimming

Even me! On my bike!

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.

*Images by Isaac Brown for Stocky Bodies.

32 comments on “Does a Bear Shit in the Woods?

  • Amen, Kath. This is disgusting & degrading. It reinforces stereotypes & only makes this boy feel worse about himself. NIke should be ashamed of themselves, as should his parents for permitting this to happen. He is doing exercise which is painful to him & makes him ill, which will not do him much good in the long run & will make him hate exercise & himself even more. He could walk around his neighborhood for 30 minutes every day, maybe go to a park & play, play ball with his friends in a non-competitive way, & gain all the health benefits of exercise. He can be great & as healthy as his body has the ability to be & he is likely, at 12 years old, in excellent organic health anyway, without losing a pound.

    I have not worn Nike’s in many years because my feet are too wide for Nikes, but I will never wear them again for any reason. I have had more than enough of fat people being made to look awkward, unathletic, unattractive, unhealthy & of being told that we are only good enough if we change our bodies to conform to societal expectations. For a large corporation to do this to a child is unforgivable. He may not be old enough to know better, but they are.

    • I have read more about this poor kid that suggests that he wasn’t intending to aim for weight loss until Nike came along… which makes the situation all the more worrying. After all, if this kid doesn’t lose weight, which statistically he is unlikely to, Nike will just toss him aside like a used shoe.

  • I am horrified. Not surprised at all, not that Nike would do this, not that commercial directors would do this, and not that people would claim that that was a respectful portrayal, but I am horrified.

  • I had seen that advert in passing, during Olympic coverage of course. Now I spend some time thinking about it, their attempt to portray this kid as the ‘Before’ state is more nasty than I had thought. It’s quite a crude and blunt attempt to position fat people at one end of a scale, the end that has ‘lazy’ and ‘unfit’ and ‘wrong’ on it. Couldn’t they have chosen some thin unfit person? Oh, wait, that doesn’t portray the correct ‘so far to go’ idea, does it? Sigh.

    • Pretty much Halla.

      I keep seeing people say this is “inspirational”. What is inspirational about watching a fat kid running down a street with a voiceover of how he has “potential for greatness”. For all we know, Nathan might be bloody awesome right now. And fitness is no barometer for greatness. It doesn’t have any measure of a person. Just a measure of their motor skills – woop de do!

      • I would argue that fitness, motor skills, and athleticism are a form of greatness in their own right, and even a form of intelligence. I know when most people say a person is intelligent, they mean that the person possesses linguistic, spatial, and logical-mathematical intelligence. The psychologist Howard Gardner has theorized that eight or nine different types of intelligences exist, and that they develop somewhat independently (google “theory of multiple intelligences”). While fitness isn’t the same as bodily skill or coordination, I think that exercise/becoming fit DOES increase bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. I know many intellectuals scoff at sports, saying that people (non-intellectuals?) place too much of an emphasis on them, but the types of abilities that athletes display were very important to our ancestors, who needed bodily-kinesthetic intelligence to hunt and fight. Even though athleticism isn’t necessarily vital for survival now, it’s still culturally important and marketable, as are music and art.

          • The child in that advert looked so sad and lonely though. He didn’t look (to me, this is) like he was developing skills or any kinds of intelligence or whatever, he looked tired and alone and sore. Apart from their choice of model I didn’t find this inspiring for those reasons. He didn’t look like he was hopeful of improving his health, fitness, physical prowess, whatever. He looked like he wanted to sit down with a nice cool drink and spend time with his friends or something, not run down a country road on his own. For me it was just a terrible advert altogether.

            • Yes, I agree that the kid looked miserable. I don’t like the ad either. I’m just saying, I don’t think bodily-kinesthetic intelligence should be discounted.

              • No, that is a good point. Would be so lovely if we could do exercise for the joy of exercise, not because of some fabled weight-loss side effect. 😐

                • The first comment on that Time article is, ‘I think anyone that runs understands that running is often “miserably uncomfortable”. ‘

                  I have this to say to that commenter: you’re doing it wrong. Hmm, maybe I will say that…

        • Nope, it’s not. It’s a blessing that some people have, and can hone, but that does not make them more valuable than those who do not. The same goes with health. For people who are blessed with robust health and fitness, they have a set of skills and abilities that others do not. Big deal. There is nothing great about that.

          Because to suggest health and fitness are measures of greatness is horribly ableist and stigmatising of those who are not gifted with that privilege.

          It’s time we stopped privileging those with health and fitness. Healthism is just another tool of oppression.

          • So, is being very intelligent in the traditional sense (logical/mathematical, linguistic, spatial) great? Was Einstein great? How about Shakespeare, or Picasso? Not everyone is gifted with the privileges of traditional intelligence, and yet people who are traditionally intelligent are held in high esteem. THIS is stigmatising to people who are “learning disabled,” UNLESS we also appreciate and value non-traditional forms of intelligence. SOME people are not traditionally intelligent, but were gifted with great athletic ability. Perhaps Jordyn Wieber isn’t Einstein, but watching her perform gymnastics is awe-inspiring (I’m not saying she’s not traditionally intelligent; I don’t know anything about that). Others were gifted with great interpersonal intelligence; ever watch Oprah conduct an interview with someone who does not typically open up during interviews? Again, she might not be a scientist or a great writer, but she’s great in her own right.

            • You’re completely and utterly missing the point. Does physical fitness or health contribute anything to the world? Does Tiger Woods being able to hit a ball further and more accurately than anyone else give us any real benefit, or make him better than any other person? Other than it’s entertaining to look at, no. Does intelligence contribute anything to the world? Yes – everything from science and technology, philosophy, medicine, you name the discipline, it is furthered by intelligence. We ALL benefit from intelligence, but who benefits from someone being able to hit a ball or run fast or do a triple flip?

              So are you telling me that Stephen Hawking’s greatness is diminished because of his appearance, health or physical ability? What about Helen Keller? Or Christy Brown?

              That doesn’t mean a sports person can’t be great, but it’s not greatness because they live in a fit and healthy body. It’s greatness for who they are as a person.

              So long as we are putting people on pedestals for their physical ability, we are creating false greatness, and stigmatising those who are not gifted with the same privilege. Bodies have no real measure of value in humanity, except for what we have created to make money by selling products.

              • This is why people value traditional intelligence; because it is USEFUL, while supposedly, other kinds of intelligences aren’t. Fine paintings, musical compositions, dance, athletics etc. aren’t NECESSARY for human survival, but they DO contribute to culture, which is a very important part of being a human! No one would suggest that Stephen Hawking’s greatness (his brilliance at physics) is diminished by his physical disability. Neither are Karen Gaffney’s swimming accomplishments diminished because she is NOT very intelligent in the traditional sense (she has Down Syndrome).

                And speaking of “false greatness,” why the heck do we need to know about wormholes, or understand how the universe started? Why should we spend so many resources finding the Higgs boson, and who cares if the Standard Model is wrong or incomplete? How is that “useful”? (As Richard Feynman said, “Physics is like sex. Sometimes, something useful comes out of it, but that’s not the main reason we do it”.) And if we put Stephen Hawking or Einstein on a pedestal, are we stigmatising people who are bad at math and physics?

                • Ugh, take your pointless semantics elsewhere. You’re just arguing for argument’s sake and I have better things to do. This is not the first time you’ve carried on like this either. I don’t know if you’re trying to prove you’re clever or you just like being annoying, either way, stop wasting my damn time.

                  I won’t repeat myself because you’ll still argue pointless semantics and continue to glorify fitness and health, which is frankly, fucking offensive.

                  Take that shit elsewhere, I’m over it.

                  • I am not arguing for argument’s sake. This is something I feel strongly about. I also used to be an intellectual (physics student) who thought that other pursuits (including athletics) were useless or somehow less important. However, I have a learning disabled sister (I know IQ isn’t a perfect gauge of intelligence, but hers is about 85-90), and seeing her pain–how she feels worthless, and how society treats her as if she is worthless–has changed me. When I was a freshman in college, she BROKE DOWN in my arms after I had been telling her that I was suicidal and couldn’t figure out why. She said, “How can you want to kill yourself? You’re smart and everyone thinks you’re important. I can’t do ANYTHING.” Which isn’t true. She CAN do stuff. Just not anything that will earn her a wage she can live on. My entire extended family is disrespectful towards her, and ignores her when she tries to talk. Not everyone is blessed with intelligence, and those who aren’t suffer GREATLY for it. That doesn’t mean we can’t value traditional intelligence…but PERHAPS the world would be a better place if we valued all of the different unique strengths that people possess.

                    I’m sorry for wasting your time, and it definitely wasn’t my intention to be annoying. I also didn’t realize that in past posts, when I thought we were having a good discussion, you weren’t enjoying it. Just SAY something. I promise, all you have to say is, “let’s agree to disagree,” or, “I don’t want to discuss this,” or even nothing at all, and the discussion stops. You don’t need to write things that could make someone with even a mild level of sensitivity cry.

                    • I am not going to “agree to disagree” when you are being ableist and healthist. That shit is not welcome here. Don’t try to justify it as “just your opinion” or a “disagreement”. And it is certainly not a “good discussion”. If you think you can make statements that are based in clearly deep-seated bigotry, and call that “good discussion”, then you need to take a long hard look at your own attitudes.

                      And I will respond however I damn well like on MY blog to bullshit ableism and healthism, and certainly don’t try to guilt me into being “nice”. If you don’t like it, then nobody is forcing you to be here.

                      Any further comment on this matter will have you blocked and permanently banned. Same goes for EVERYONE – ableism and healthism are not acceptable EVER.

  • When I first saw this add my thought was “what’s the FA community going to say about this?” I figured it would be negative, but I didn’t know why. I still don’t. I don’t see a porche or him being sick. If we wanted to get into behind the scenes of every commercial ever I’m sure many of them would be unsatisfactory. The “greatness” them does covet getting better at sports and the other things you mentioned. Nothing in this add mentions weight loss. It’s about waking up early and working towards your goals. It would be presumptuous to assume he wants to lose weight. We all know the meany benefits of running.

    • But running isn’t great. It’s picking up your feet and putting one in front at a faster pace than you’d usually go. Our healthistic culture uses exercise as a means to ordain people who have the time and ability and resources to become athletic with superior status, which greatly reinforces the idea that running is something ‘great.’ I can think of a lot of great things. What Gandhi did was pretty good. Dr. King, too. I think Salman Rushdie is a great writer. And I think there’s a lot of great architecture in Florence, Italy. Running is not great. I can be fun. It can be rewarding. But it’s not great.

      If running is just a symbol of getting up and moving towards a goal like you say, then why not just get up and move towards a literal goal that’s something other than the ableistic and status-conferred sport of trotting? Not to mention the thinly veiled presumption that this fat twelve year old boy doesn’t get up and move towards other goals that have nothing to do with an activity highly correlated with weight loss in common-wisdom logic.

      If this commercial wasn’t intended to be fat-negative, why didn’t Nike use an out-of-shape thin kid? No. Fatness is essential to Nike’s message. Fat bodies are being framed as bad and out-of-control, and fat people as without discernible goals (the implication being that the uber-important goal of every fat person should be to become thinner). Further, Nike wants to be seen as combating the unpopular ‘childhood obesity epidemic,’ as condemned from every media mountaintop (and the First Lady of the US).

      Nike is objectifying and scapegoating fat bodies in this commercial. Doubly worse, they’re objectifying and scapegoating a fat child.

    • You don’t see it Zena, but we know from the interview it was there. We are not inferring these things, we have the information to tell us how they treated him, and how unhappy he was while doing the commercial. We KNOW he wants to lose weight because he said so. I didn’t presume it, I heard it from the child in question. Did you even read my piece, or did you just skim it?

      Running might have benefits for some people (you are erroneous to think that EVERYONE would benefit from it), but that doesn’t mean people necessarily do it because they enjoy it, because it is good for them or because they want to get faster or stronger. When I used to run, I did it to punish myself for being fat. That is NOT healthy, nor is it good for me. There is no benefit in doing that to your body.

      And I think Big Liberty has answered this even better than I could.

  • This commercial made me uncomfortable when I saw it, but I couldn’t pinpoint why, but you nailed it, the kid just looked so lonely and miserable. The coloring of the whole ad was was just so drab, if it had been more vibrant or if he’d been running with friends or even had a smile on his face, then maybe the commercial would have been more inspirational.

    • Yeah – “Never mind that you’ll hate the dream you’re supposedly chasing and that it will make you miserable to begin with, run on through that barrier and one day you might make it!” It’s kind of the epitome of ‘no pain, no gain’, isn’t it?

    • Or even if the message had been “I run because I want to.” But instead it is “I run because I don’t want to be fat any more”. The “potential” Nike refers to does not lie in his skill, his ability or his future success. It lies in him becoming thin.

  • At first this commercial made me kind of happy – like oh look! A fat kid who isn’t stereotypical – running and not sitting at home eating bon bon flavored cake with cheeseburger icing and using pizza as a napkin. But I soon realized that Nike was trying to be sensational. Comparing this overweight kid to all the sleek toned Olympians with the snarky caption “Even this fat ass loser can be worth something to society while wearing our shoes (yes, that was heavily paraphrased/ implied).

    And of course he isn’t running for fun or to blow off steam. He’s running to become hot, thin, and acceptable *cough cough* I mean for his health.

    If they wanted to show an athlete with an a-typical athletic body size WHY NOT PICK ONE OF THE HEAVY OLYMPIANS? Why not show them doing their thing without the stigma of becoming thin attached to it?

    • Absolutely Clara – how about a potential Olympian? How about just any kid – after all, don’t all kids have potential for greatness? No, they had to use a fat kid, and in this case the greatness he has potential for equals thinness.

  • The whole thing makes me sick. I’d heard about it but hadn’t watched the commercial as I find things like this, the putting down/exploitation of fat kids bodies, incredibly infuriating and I can’t fe flying off into a rage right at this second. Thanks for the excellent take-down.

  • Here’s something I would like to see in a commercial or movie: a fat person doing something athletic while a thin, but out-of-shape person struggles to keep up.

    Or better yet: people of different sizes engaging in physical activity and ALL of them enjoying it.

    • Totes – I’d love to see some “fit” person by societal standards (ie thin and “hot”) attempting to do some of the sports the fat Olympians do. Or even just some of their exercise routines! Along side them, showing how the fat person can do all these things that other bodies can’t. Now THAT would be a showcase of greatness!

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