Sometime in my early twenties, I had a startling epiphany concerning my similarity, culturally speaking, to a cheeseburger. Here’s how it happened:
I was watching a commercial in which a gorgeous, thin brunette was wending her way toward the camera as she held a humongous, juicy cheeseburger. I was suddenly hungry. Downright ravenous. And the woman holding the burger—oh, how I wished I had a body like hers. Despite her apparent familiarity with cheeseburgers, she looked like she couldn’t possibly have consumed one anytime in the last ten years. She was curvy, but not too curvy. She definitely didn’t have the belly I did—a belly acquired, in part, by eating delicious cheeseburgers when I craved them.
Sometime in the middle of the commercial, I had a moment of real angst—a second or two of existential pain. I wanted the cheeseburger. I wanted to be like the woman. The commercial said I could have both—the body and the food—so why oh why couldn’t I?
And then it hit me.
This commercial wasn’t for me. The people who wrote this commercial didn’t give a flying….well, they didn’t care how I felt about cheeseburgers, or if I ever bought one. They wanted a man to want their cheeseburgers. And a man, any heterosexual man on the planet, would want that woman. So if she was holding a burger…you can do the math. And the woman? She, as a person with hunger and desires of her own, was totally superfluous. And I, as a member of her admiring audience, was just like her. Superfluous.
I could be the cheeseburger, or I could have the cheeseburger. Either way, it was of no consequence to the purveyors of cheeseburgers. Someone—some man—would buy their product. How could he not?
This epiphany has stayed with me, somewhere deep in my marrow, ever since I experienced it. I think “the cheeseburger realization,” whether it ever reaches a woman’s conscious thinking or not, is so ingrained that it is almost like a rite of passage. Somewhere along the line, from a commercial or a TV show or a movie or a magazine or all of them put together, we learn that our bodies are food for male desire. And we learn that our own desires—especially our physical ones—are either of no consequence or are celebrated only insofar as they feed and satisfy male desire. The thing about this message is that it is so insidious—it slinks its way into a woman’s subconscious and coils itself around her self-perception so that, regardless of her body type, level of fitness, or love of cheeseburgers, she is sure to understand just what her body—and, by extension, her self—is for.
Oh, there are messages that contradict this notion, to be sure. There are commercials that show a woman desiring a man, or chocolate. There are many positive, powerful female role models in our government, our towns, our homes. Women of my generation know how far we’ve come, how much easier it is for us to get a job, have a child, or do both at once, than it has been for any previous generation. And I am grateful—deeply grateful—for all of the work women before me have done, and for women today who hold positions of power, on either a small or a grand scale, and serve as models for each of us that yes, what we want can and does matter. But all of these role models must exist in a culture in which the female body is equated with food.
Nearly twenty years after I had my epiphany, the cheeseburger message has become more blatant. Honestly, there are so many examples to choose from that it was hard to pick one to link to—and you should be warned that ALL of them, on YouTube anyway, are followed by the predictably offensive comments from a real-life Beavis or Butthead watching at home and chuckling. But, just in case you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s an example.
I chose this particular commercial, rather than the ones I have dubbed The (Further) Degradation of Paris Hilton or The Supermodel Dripping Sauce On Herself or any of the other perfectly viable choices, because this one has a particularly relevant voice-over. The young actress (Audrina Patridge, who is turning 26 on the day that I write this, but looks much younger) tells the audience that she must give up everything to “look this hot in a bikini.” And the burger she’s eating–the one thing she just can’t give up?–it’s her “bikini burger.”
How would I change this message, if I could?
While part of me is tempted to just flip the whole thing on its head and see how a man would like to be a cheeseburger (or perhaps a burrito?), that isn’t really the solution. I don’t want my boy growing up food any more than I want my girl growing up food.
I think the solution is to stop the nonsense.
Of course, to some extent, the female body satisfies male desire; the reverse is also true. In an entirely heterosexual world, anyway. In the world in which we actually live, however, any human body can provide comfort and release to any other human body, so long as both humans are adults and fine with the whole thing. But none of us is, or should be, food for another. And we shouldn’t be equating someone’s body with a hunk of dead cow. Whether that means we make laws against certain kinds of commercials (I can just hear the free speech vs. the FCC debates now, can’t you?), or we all massively boycott any boob-as-burger joints, I don’t know. But I’d like to hear some discussion on the topic—some ideas about how to get real, get over ourselves, and stop allowing a consumer-driven culture to dictate how we think and feel about our bodies.