A recent Peloton commercial drew criticism. Video screengrab via Peloton

The sin and self-care of Peloton

(RNS) — One of the holiday season’s biggest ad campaigns has spectacularly backfired. The commercial for Peloton, which sells $2,200 indoor exercise bikes that can interface with the company’s studio-based spin classes, went viral for all the wrong reasons.

In the ad, which premiered Nov. 5, a husband buys a Peloton bike for his (incredibly slender) wife. We then witness her “fitness journey” over the course of the year in a video montage that turns out to be the wife's dewy thank you to her husband.

The general drift of the online response was that it's a mistake to “gift” one's wife with a present that suggests her body is anything but perfect as it is. Others got darker. “Absolutely 100% chance that the husband in the Peloton ad is abusive,” wrote the blogger Allahpundit on Twitter.

Peloton spokespeople have lamented viewers’ “misinterpretation” of the ad’s message.

What the ad says about the relationship between the sexes is less interesting, for me, than what it says about wellness culture. The very fact that a piece of exercise equipment could be presented as a romantic and luxurious option for a marital holiday gift — the equivalent of a diamond necklace, say — shows how deeply wellness culture is intertwined with our economic aspirations.

Exercise, after all, is a luxury. From $220 a month (and rising) Equinox memberships to $40 classes at boutique fitness chains like SLT and SoulCycle to high-end “athleisure” gear like that sold by Outdoor Voices and Lululemon, the most successful fitness brands are those that have managed to position themselves not only as the conduit to a better body, but to a better way of life. It's a path that presumes, however, that the seeker has the luxury to pursue one’s own perfection, which has come to be our culture's idea of the good.

Women participate in an outdoor SoulCycle class. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons


 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

To be your best self is both something we are (believed to be) called to do, as human beings, and something that we can only do in fullness once we have already succeeded. In this case, it's not clear whether the wife earns her own money or if her leisure depends on a wealthy husband. What he gives her in either case is a status symbol of both expense and the free time to acquire the healthiest body she can.

In a sense, the Peloton is an ouroboros: at once proof of, and possibility for, human perfectibility.

The first turn toward this conflation of health and wealth came in the 1920s and '30s when tanning became fashionable under the influence of Coco Chanel. The luxury fashion pioneer presented sun-kissed skin not as a result of grueling outdoor labor but rather of sunbathing on the French Riviera.

As more and more of us across the economic spectrum take jobs that require us to be relatively sedentary and indoors, working on computers rather than in fields, physical labor becomes, if not a holiday, then nevertheless something to aspire to: a chiseled embodiment of disposable income and disposable hours.

Within that paradigm, the husband's gift of the Peloton is not a critique based on an expectation of his wife's perfect weight. It merely recognizes what he's already given her or she's brought upon them both: the leisure hours to perfect the body and the physical space in their large and well-appointed (and expensive) home to put it in. It's no less romantic than giving her a fur coat.

If it is the husband who has the cash, her perfectly formed body is not the end result — she’s not getting Peloton so she can be hot for him. Rather her body, for her as much as him, represents more complex, more aesthetic pleasures: space, time and money.

To blame the Peloton ad for being “sexist,” therefore, is to miss the point. Peloton isn’t to blame if our culture is obsessed with self-improvement or for the quasi-eroticization of “decadent” self-care. It's just riding alongside.