by: J.N. Reyna
By now, many of you have seen the video of La Crosse, Wisconsin’s WKBT News anchor Jennifer Livingston responding on air to an email she received from a viewer. In an email with the subject line, “Community Responsibility” (eye roll already) the viewer wrote:
“It’s unusual that I see your morning show, but I did so for a very short time today. I was surprised indeed to witness that your physical condition hasn’t improved for many years. Surely you don’t consider yourself a suitable example for this community’s young people, girls in particular. Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain. I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.”
Many people have posted and reposted the video, along with blog posts about the video, like the piece from Jezebel titled “The Best Thing You’ll See All Day.” (P. fucking S. It certainly was NOT the best thing I saw all day. Quit lying to me, Jezebel. You’ve been warned.) I’ve read comments on these posts describing Livingston as awesome, badass, exemplary, etc. But in listening to her response, I did not see a strong woman taking a stand against bullying. I saw a hurt and conflicted person trying to defend her emotional response. Additionally, I found her seriously unconvincing in her attempt to make this about bullying prevention. Let’s explore these two issues separately.
The Hurt and Pain
First, Livingston calls the email hurtful and cruel. Why she would is a bit strange to me considering: a) she admitted “yes, I am overweight”; b) the writer of the email clearly doesn’t know shit about shit; and 3) the tone of the email wasn’t particularly foul.
Now, people can be somewhat overweight and healthy. People can be thin and unhealthy. That this writer of the email confounds weight with health and calls obesity a “dangerous habit” fills us in on the level of ignorance we are working with. That the writer would think young people should be looking up to people based on their body type as opposed to, I don’t know, ANYTHING else, is a reflection of how poorly he judges a person’s worth. That the writer thinks “young girls in particular” let alone, um, ANYONE would look up to local TV morning news anchor people for lifestyle guidance really drives home what anyone paying attention to the text should be thinking after reading the first few lines: the writer of the email doesn’t know what he is talking about.
Still, the email itself is not hurtful. It’s just ignorant. Real fucking ignorant. Ignorant comments are not inherently hurtful. The hurt is something the recipient perceives because of beliefs she holds about the situation she is interpreting. The anchor claims these words are hurtful and cruel most likely because, on an implicit level, she shares the same mentality of her ignorant emailer. That is, implicitly, she shares the belief that fat is bad. How else could someone calling you fat be hurtful? It’s the difference between an observation and an insult. Or, alternatively, she has the expectation that no one should ever criticize her appearance. Either way, these expectations are flawed, unrealistic and contributing to her hurt.
Let me tell you something: I am overweight myself. Last time I checked, I had a BMI in the upper 40s. For real. Statistically speaking, I am half fat. Might as well call me Half and Half. If you were to call me fat, I would probably wouldn’t even stop and acknowledge your comment. It’s such a dull and obvious observation, truly not worth my time. I have been overweight since I was a child. Was I called fat when I was a kid? Yep. My response back then was usually something like a sarcastic clap in the bully’s face along with a snarky “So your eyes work. Congratulations. I am fat. AND you [insert anything I could find here: e.g., are short, smell like shit, have lice, don’t know who your father is ]. Now what?” (DISCLAIMER: I do not think bullying back is always the correct approach. Sometimes it is the best approach, though. Like when I was a fat, nerdy, clearly homosexual kid who hit puberty at like 9, holding my own on the playground. Pick your battles wisely.) But, back to the story, did it hurt me that people called me fat when I was a kid? Not that I can remember. I had family and loved ones that taught me from a young age that people are different. Some are fat, some are small. Some act mean more than they play nice. This is the world. Deal with it. Also, what you see isn’t all that exists. You can see a person’s body with your eyes but you cannot see his or her character or personality. To say someone is fat is really just an observation. When someone tries to use it as an insult, it does take on a deeper meaning. It means the people using the term as an insult are socially nearsighted; all they see is what is there before them. They think appearances are everything and that being fat is bad. It’s a sad existence for them. Why be hurt by some sad, nearsighted motherfucker’s opinion?
I am thankful for the big fat wise people who taught me to think this way. I think it’s a message Livingston, too, should try to internalize. Besides, there are better ways to use valuable airtime—like by, say, ACTUALLY talking about ways in which we can address bullying. You know, you could interview youth being bullied, adults who have been bullied in the past, school officials, psychologists, experts, and parents. Or, yeah, I guess you could just talk about some dumb email you received from some clueless, random individual who doesn’t even watch your show regularly (who also doesn’t even sound like he’s TRYING to bully you or even hurt you really). Ahem.
In a sense, the correct response to ignorant comments that you perceive to be hurtful isn’t “You hurt my feelings with your cruel words.” In my book, (the book of “How To Never Get Bullied in 3 Simple Steps” due out soon, like, once I write the shit) the correct response is a hardy and healthy, “Who the fuck asked you for your worthless motherfuckin input?” Livingston is upset and hurt because she has unrealistic expectations about what it means to be in the public eye. Mainly, it’s as if she doesn’t realize there are droves of fools out there in TV land with shit else better to do than to sit their dumbasses down and write you an email, writing to you as if you were supposed to give a half a shit. In Livingston’s world, some fool writing her a letter pointing out her weight issues is unacceptable. She fails to realize that, yes, some of those fools are going to watch you do your thing on TV and not be able to comprehend shit you say. You can be informative and smart and they will only see your roundness. But, so the fuck what? We can’t stop and cry over everything and anything any one of them fools says.
Bullying Prevention Month My (Fat) Ass
Livingston’s drive to promote Bullying Prevention Month is expertly timed with this email she felt compelled to address on television. Hmmmm. Could it be that she’s using bullying awareness as a cover to justify her venting?
When I think of bullying awareness, I think of the young souls among us that are made to suffer, often daily, by sadistic, deeply troubled offenders. These bullied youth are ignored by adults responsible for their care and often do not receive the help they need. They are not big time anchor people with husbands who can start media campaigns on their behalf.
There are things that are central to our human experience: socializing, belonging, feeling loved, loving others, sexuality. When people are bullied about not fitting in, about being gay, about being different, when they are ostracized, bad things happen. Depression. Self mutilation. Lowered self esteem. Sometimes even suicide happens. There is an important difference between bullying and someone writing a stupid email. Bullying is a serious problem that should not be trivialized.
I believe there are two fronts on which we need to attack bullying. One, we need to get bullies to stop bullying. Two, we need to help the bullied cope with being bullied. I would argue that getting bullies to stop bullying is more important than the second objective but less likely to happen considering how much value our culture places on popularity, superiority, perfectionism and general assholery. In the absence of serious advancement on the first front, we need to redouble our efforts on the second front. We need to teach people that their beliefs control their emotions more than they realize. Words hurt you to the extent you let them.
That Livingston invokes Bullying Awareness month in her response and compares some twit’s comments on her weight with the detrimental, sometimes fatal, effects of being ostracized and being made to feel less than human is completely offensive. I almost want to write her a shitty email about that. But I won’t because I have better things to do.
Like log off and go to sleep.
Note: This piece was originally published on the author’s blog and reposted with permission. You can find the original here.
J.N. Reyna is a queer Chicana born and raised in Chicago. She is a
writer and researcher currently working toward obtaining her doctorate
in social psychology. Broadly, her academic research interests
include the self, social identity, and consumer psychology. To stay
current with her daily musings, you can find her on Twitter @reynabot
and at her blog, http://www.SoDamnTired.com.