October is upon us. If you can battle your way through the riptide of pink and back to shore, you may have noticed a large social preoccupation with costumes, and considerable discussion thereof. There’s the explosion of cultural appropriation that happens every Halloween, the endless debate over whether women are or aren’t allowed to wear skimpy/slutty/skanky costumes, the subsequent argument about whether fat women are allowed to wear them, and…oh, right.
The on-point marketing crew at Subway know how to sell a soggy, limp, tasteless sandwich on cardboard with a few slices of American cheese between leaves of wilted lettuce: By appealing to our universal cultural fear of being fat. In fact, “The Subway Diet” has become such a ubiquitous part of our culture (thanks, Jared Fogle) that the company has successfully convinced people that eating Subway sandwiches is totally a good way to get (and stay) slim, despite the fact that, actually, for calorie counters, its sandwiches may not necessarily be any better than the much-maligned Big Mac.
Now that summer is over and Subway can no longer market to people terrified at the prospect of not having a bikini body, they’re having to search further afield, and they landed upon a brilliant ploy: Convincing women that “costume season” is upon us and that their bodies are far too disgusting to be sandwiched into a skimpy costume. (Apparently they all put the weight they lost during bikini season back on during the intervening two months.)
The company did so with this charming ad:
It features three coworkers sitting at a table, two women and a man. One of the women exclaims: “You’re eating burgers?!” in shock and horror, and when the man looks skeptical, she explains that it’s COSTUME SEASON, don’t you know? She then proceeds to model a series of classic “attractive nurse,” “sexy devil,” “sexy viking princess warrior,” etc etc costumes, reminding the viewer that it’s critical to lose weight so she’ll fit in them properly.
There are a number of things that bother me about this ad. The first, obviously, is the constant cultural imperative to lose weight; do this, or you will be gross and unwanted. I dislike that Subway has built up an entire empire around shaming people into losing weight and promoting its products as a way to do this, though I have to admire the effectiveness of the marketing strategy nonetheless.
I am, of course, also bothered by this whole “costume season” thing and the idea that women (because the ad is very clearly aimed at women, not people in general) should lose weight in order to look their best at Halloween — that they wouldn’t be sexually appealing without being their thinnest. It’s just another iteration of the bikini season and one wonders how much mission creep we’re going to endure. What’s next, sweaterdress season?
It pisses me off to see an ad advancing not just the idea that women need to lose weight for Halloween, but that fat women in costumes are not okay. It’s another reminder that fatness is not welcome or acceptable in the public sphere, that fat women have an obligation to cover and hide their bodies lest they offend people. A fat women in a “skimpy” costume might have visible fat rolls or muffintop or bulges or other unsightly, unpleasant things, and as such, she needs to lose weight if she wants to don that kind of costume.
There’s also a deeper whiff of sexism here, a kind of underlying judgement about “slutty” costumes that reminds women they’re effectively screwed either way. You should lose weight so you can wear a sexy costume, but if you do, you’re a slut — and no one wants to be a slut. But, on the other hand, if you wear something that covers more of your body, you’re a prude (or, you know, a fat person sparing the world from Mt. Adipose). This ad is taking place within the context of a larger cultural conversation that shames women for wearing revealing costumes at Halloween, and thus, it leans on that conversation a lot.
If you’re going to be a slut, at least be a thin slut.
Notably, Subway has since taken the ad down, but the Internet never forgets (as evidenced above). Once you run an ad like this, it goes viral, spreading across the Internet to a variety of sometimes surprising locations. I expected to see it turning up on Jezebel, where Kara Brown rightly skewered it, but I was surprised to see it turn up on Consumerist, which is not normally where I go to find discussions about sexism (though chronicling badvertising is a long tradition on the site).
So congratulations, Subway. You managed to piss off a broad swath of the Internet with your gross, fatphobic, sexist, misogynistic ad. Thanks for reminding me that a) You exist and b) You are terrible.
S.E. Smith is a writer, agitator and commentator based in Northern California.