The fat lady fights back

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October 4, 2013 by hollyhodgepodge

Originally published Oct. 5, 2012 in the Chattanooga Times Free Press


By now, you’ve probably heard about Jennifer Livingston.

She’s the Wisconsin television news anchor who has gained national attention for fighting back against inappropriate comments about her weight.

In an email titled “Community Responsibility,” a man who admits to not watching the show on a regular basis wrote to Ms. Livingston: “Surely you don’t consider yourself a suitable example for this community’s young people, girls in particular.”

Her husband, anchor Mike Thompson, posted the email on his Facebook page. More than 2,000 people have responded, leaving comments both supportive and less so.

This situation struck a couple of chords with me. First, the fact that this person was citing her as a poor role model based not on her work or her actions but on her looks alone.

Actually, she’s quite attractive — pretty, polished and put together. And yes, she also happens to be heavy. She also happens to be an award-winning journalist. If being thin is the primary criterion for being a role model, we have a problem, because there are a whole lot of skinny dumb girls out there.

The fact is, how we look matters. Whether it’s right or not, we draw conclusions about people based on their appearance. Attractive people are perceived as more trustworthy. Thinness is often synonymous with attractiveness. Slender people are seen as taking better care of themselves, being healthier, having more personal pride.

As a formerly fat girl, my instinct is to resent this notion. But then I have to be completely honest with myself. I like myself better when I’m thinner. Then again, when my weight is lower, it’s probably because I’m eating better and getting more sleep and exercise. I feel physically better when I’m at a lower weight. I have more energy. My joints hurt less. I don’t get sick as often.

Still, I can’t deny that the aesthetic plays a role. While I’m no longer overweight, I’m not exactly slim either, and sometimes I’m sensitive about this.

I’m also not proud of this fact. I believe we should fight the instinct to judge based on looks, but I judge myself pretty harshly on them. So this is an example of “do as I say, not as I do.”

Perhaps because I know how it feels to have “self-esteem issues,” I don’t wish that on others. Righteous or not, I get indignant when someone tries to prey on another woman’s self-esteem by criticizing her weight. As Ms. Livingston said, does this man think she is unaware of the fact that she’s overweight?

Obesity is a rampant and vital health issue that needs to be addressed, yes, but there is a way of doing so in a manner that takes a person’s emotional health into mind as much as physical health. Being concerned is not an excuse to be insulting.

And what this man wrote to Ms. Livingston was insulting. He wasn’t expressing his concern for her health. He expressed concern for the message she is sending by being overweight — no accounting for her work, which is not in the health-care field.

A friend of mine is a strong advocate of the Health at Every Size movement, the point of which is to break people of their habit of presuming upon someone’s health and lifestyle based solely on weight.

“I think there has to be a way to disconnect body size from health in people’s minds,” she said.

I do worry that being too eager to not insult anyone can lead to our overlooking and even indulging unhealthy behaviors. More than disconnecting body size from health, I think we need to break the inclination to connect size to worth, and especially to self-worth.

And sometimes, it’s no one else’s business.

“The only people who should be allowed to discuss the weight of an individual with that individual are their closest friends, family, and health-care professionals,” Frank posted on my Facebook page. “Strangers need not apply.”

Livingston used the email she received to segue into a statement on anti-bullying month.

“If you are at home and you are talking about the fat news lady,” she said, “your children are probably going to go to school and call someone fat.”

The question has arisen as to whether what happened to Jennifer Livingston actually constitutes bullying.

Honestly, I think the word “bullying” is being overused these days, but whether this was the action of a “bully” or simply someone being thoughtless, it was still inappropriate.

“We need to teach our kids how to be kind,” she said, “not critical, and we need to do that by example.”

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