Thanks for the Food Guilt, Major Health Insurer! I Sure Feel Healthy Now.

Cake isn't evil, no matter what this commercial may tell you. Believe me, I am an expert on this.

Oct 28, 2011 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

A major health insurer is running a series of commercials in my area. Even though I watch very little television, somehow I keep seeing them.

The commercials are supposed to be funny reminders that living "healthy" is a process requiring constant vigilance. And most of them succeed; one ad features a series of excuses made by a couple chronically unable to go to the gym ("My mom called." "Well that's a whole day right there.") and it is straight-up hilarious.

And then, there is the ad I'm talking about today.

This 30-second commercial shows a series of women at some kind of picnic. The ladies are getting their cake on, but feel the need to make excuses to the person manning the cake table, played in this instance by you and I, as the audience. These ladies walked here, they assure us! They walk a lot! Further justifications involve the size of the piece of cake ("little"), and the intention to only eat one bite. Did they mention the hill they walked up, when they were walking here? It was a big freaking hill. Also it is "cheat day," whatever that means. And this cake isn't even FOR them, it's for someone else.

The final shot shows a woman talking around a mouthful of cake, plaintively telling the camera, "Don't look at me like that." Is this a PSA for eating disorders? No, it's meant to remind you, as the legend onscreen says, that "Every snack has its price," and in this case the price is your self-respect.

By the time the last woman begs the camera not to judge her, I felt like punching myself, and I'm not even the spectator they're imagining here, which is someone silently watching these women try to eat tasty food in spite of the enormous guilt they're obviously feeling. I find it troubling, to say the least, the way this 30-second ad so perfectly reproduces the way women are conditioned to worry that people are paying an extraordinary amount of attention to their eating habits. It portrays extreme food guilt like it's not only perfectly normal, but "healthy". 

I honestly don't see how the commercial above is all that different from the Yoplait commercial pulled earlier this year after the National Eating Disorders Association criticized it for normalizing EDs. In case you need a refresher, I wrote about that ordeal here.

Both ads feature women bargaining with themselves to justify their decision to eat something "bad." In the Yoplait example, the cheesecake-lustin' lady avoids guilt by eating some nasty-ass yogurt meant to evoke memories of real dessert foods. In the health insurance commercial, the cake-hungry broads eat their desires, but feel really terrible doing so.

In my opinion, the "Every snack has its price" commercial is far creepier, as it advertises in favor of guilt, denial and self-recrimination, in the name of our health. 

The commercial doesn't say, "Hey, enjoy some cake, but just do so in moderation, ladies!" which would be a reasonable compromise, and one that considers its subjects' mental health as well as any physical consequences that a single piece of cake might invoke. It doesn't say, "Maybe have an apple later!" which would also be good advice. It says, "DON'T EAT THE CAKE. EATING THE CAKE IS BAD AND WRONG AND EATING IT MEANS YOU ARE BAD AND WRONG, BAD AND WRONG, FATTY FATTY FATTY."

I'm paraphrasing.

Fact: Cake is not evil. There is no such thing as a bad food, nor is there such a thing as a good food. Foods have no inherent moral value. They are without cruelty, love or intention. Foods just exist. Our guilt about food is a fully manufactured phenomenon; we only experience it because we have assigned certain ideas to certain foods. If cake is "bad," then it becomes forbidden, and by denying ourselves what we want, we create more want for it. 

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In the cake commercial, there is one quick shot of a woman spraying whipped cream on something and smiling at her work. Under different circumstances, this could be a really great image of someone choosing to eat something they enjoy, without guilt and without regret. In context, it looks as though the commercial is saying, how dare this person look happy about eating something so bad? Doesn't she know she should be feeling awful about it? Shouldn't we tell her?

Women don't need help to feel guilty about pretty much everything they put in their mouths; women are so on top of that. This commercial may have intended to make fun of women's predilections for self-reproach, but if that is what it was trying to do, it has utterly failed. Instead, like the Yoplait ad, it reproduces and normalizes thinking that can lead to disordered eating; indeed, some of these women seem to be on the cusp of a straight-up binge. While this is behavior to which many women can relate, that doesn't make it "healthy."

Eat some cake if you want it, ladies. Eat it and enjoy it and go on with your awesome lives without giving it a second thought. The world won't end. Even if "every snack has its price," you still get to decide what you're willing to pay. And your self-esteem is worth more than this. Trust me.