Friday, October 5, 2012

Thank you Jennifer Livingston

Few topics lend themselves to a "Lighten Up" theme as obviously as weight.  Body weight.  That thing we all measure on a little square box - otherwise known as the bathroom scale.  While some people profess to have not a single care about body image and express no concerns or anxieties about what or how they eat, what they weigh, or how their jeans fit, the reality is, for a lot of us, body weight and body image are heavy issues, and it doesn't help that we live in a world that prioritizes physical appearance over physical (and mental) health and wellness.

When the video of Wisconsin new anchor Jennifer Livingston went viral this week, the collective reaction seemed to be one of praise and gratitude. Yet a few days later, it became clear that there were just as many negative feelings about Ms. Livingston's response as there were positive ones.  After a viewer sent Ms. Livingston an email in which he referred to her as "fat" and "obese" and "a poor role model" -- an assessment he based purely on her physical appearance, with no regard to her profession or her status as a mother, wife, and professional --  Ms. Livingston used her on-air access to the public audience to respond to what she defined (and correctly so) as bullying.  And, more specifically, cyberbullying. On a personal level, I was grateful that she turned a discriminatory and disparaging email into a lesson - for her own young daughters, and for anyone who was watching.  And hopefully listening.  Ms. Livingston herself was the first to admit that though she is overweight, and that on a doctor's chart she would likely even fall into the "obese" category, this unsolicited email did nothing but state the obvious and seemed motivated by nothing more than an intent to harass and harm.  

Yet her response to it all was inspiring.  Rather than stay self-focused, she turned this moment into an opportunity to remind us all that October in the United States is both National Anti-Bullying Awareness Month and National Cyber Security Awareness Month. Finally, it seemed that someone - and a strong, articulate woman, at that  - was standing up not only to bullying, but to weight discrimination which, as someone recently pointed out to me, "is the last acceptable bigotry."  I would even argue that if "Fatism" isn't yet an accepted (though certainly not acceptable!) term, it should be.  Because it exists in ways that oppress and victimize millions of people every year, regardless of the numbers on their bathtoom scales or sewn into their clothing tags.  Fatism is at the root of many forms of violence and abuse, and even employers have admitted to hiring thin people more often than their overweight counterparts. What's more, shows like The Biggest Loser, while they seem well-intentioned, are so poorly titled, as if word play could somehow erase that deeply engrained societal message that fat = loser. And I don't buy arguments about "taking the word back to make it less damaging."  The day Oprah tried to do that with the word "Bitch" I vowed to never watch her show again. In the same way,  I believe that the word "loser" is always negative, no matter how much money you attach to the biggest loser of all at the end of the season.

Yet with all this talk about weight and speaking up and bullying and fighting the bully, I think the most disappointing thing to come out of this story has been the criticism of other media outlets and countless viewers who believe that Ms. Livingston blew this man's email out of proportion, misused her position as a public figure, and/or is simply in denial about the reality of her size.  When I hear comments like this, I often wonder if I am even watching and reading the same versions of things that other people appear to be referencing.  But clearly, we are all reading the same page, we just don't happen to all be on the same page

But here's the deal:  This woman is in a position of power.  And yes, she used that position to shed light on a serious issue that is neither about her nor about "fat" per se.  It is as much about the destructive power of words as it is about their empowerment. It is also about the fact that we live in a world often dictated by fears - some of which we can't even identify or define.  We are just fearful, on a global scale, of anything we do no understand or anything that feels personally threatening, either because it is so different from our own lives, or because it is too close for comfort and is forcing us to confront what we judge in ourselves.

But my ultimate question is this:  How many people, when given the chance, use their access and their power to speak about issues - whether or not they, themselves, are directly impacted - and how many of them choose the politically safe, non-boat-ricking alternative of silence and complacency instead?

So my only response to Ms. Livingston, after all this, is a very simple "Thank you."

Just something to think about until next time -

~~ Hasky

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