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Bullied News Anchors and Our Fear of Fat

Bullied News Anchors and Our Fear of Fat

Oct 8 2012
What Jennifer Livingston's response to one ignorant reviewer gets right and wrong about obesity.

Jennifer Livingston is a news anchor at WKBT-TV in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and she's used to being in the public eye. But the critical gaze of one viewer was too much.

After channel surfing into Livingston's show, a man named Kenneth Krause wrote to her: "I was surprised indeed to witness that your physical condition hasn't improved for many years." And "Surely you don't consider yourself a suitable example for this community's young people, girls in particular." And "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."

Livingston went on air to call Krause a bully, and she thanked the public for their support after her husband (also an anchor at the station) posted the comment on the station's Facebook page. Livingston's response then went viral, prompting appearances on morning talk shows and several appearances on my own Facebook news feed last week.

But I have to confess, as a fat woman, I'm ambivalent about Livingston's rejoinder.

On one hand, kudos to Livingston for using her bully pulpit to denounce meanness. (I do think that calling a single e-mail "bullying" dilutes the concept, but I'll sidestep that issue for now.) On the other hand, her response seems to play into the fat-shaming substance of the offending e-mail. Oh no, he called me FAT! If being fat isn't a problem, then why the need to denounce the comment as mean? One could call the comment ignorant and prejudicial, but mean?

I wish Livingston had taken this opportunity to call out the hegemony of thin bodies that young people are presented with as visions of what it means to be successful. I attended a lecture last year during which cultural critic Naomi Wolf reported that daytime TV producers are not allowed to book guests who are larger than a size 10 because advertisers don't like it. The average American woman is a size 14, and if you never see women who look like you succeeding, it keeps you buying what advertisers are selling—diets, cosmetics, plastic surgery, personal trainers. And maybe also a package of bite-sized brownies that come in the refrigerated section because you're so tired and you deserve a little indulgence. It's a perverse treadmill with the Industrial Dieting Complex ($60 billion in annual revenues) and Agribusiness nipping at the heels of people who stay fat and never get happy.

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