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.
But we gotta get healthy! Yes, indeed. I'm almost always working on being healthier in ways big and small (I just did a shot of fish oil, for example), and my weight is absolutely part of that equation. But health is an equation, full of variables, many of which we can't see or don't understand. And I'm convinced that most people's reasons for wanting to lose weight have less to do with a commitment to health and more to do with stigma. Yale released a study in 2006 that reported a list of disturbing trade-offs people would make in order to not be fat:
- —46 percent of respondents reported that they would be willing to give up at least 1 year of life rather than be obese, and 15 percent said that they would be willing to give up 10 years or more of their life.
- —30 percent of respondents reported that they would rather be divorced than obese.
- —25 percent said that they would rather be unable to have children than be obese.
- —15 percent said that they would rather be severely depressed than be obese.
- —14 percent said that they would rather be alcoholic than be obese.
Read those statistics again.
I once had a woman at a park sit down next to me and say, "When people look at you, they want to throw up." She explained, "I know, I used to be fat."
The fear of fat is not the fear of death or even illness. It is the fear of life shadowed by the pity and contempt of one's neighbors. And we fear this pity and contempt because we know it. We harbor it for ourselves, which diminishes our capacity for generous and loving engagement with others. This is why God commands us multiple times to love others as ourselves (Lev. 19:18, 19:34; Matt. 7:12; Luke 6:31, 10:25-28). It's easy to dismiss self-love as permissive, easy, New Agey schlock, but it's actually countercultural and hard and absolutely vital to worshiping God.
"Tough love" is a popular concept among evangelicals—especially for those us of who grew up in the sub-cultural thrall of Dr. James Dobson—and some might argue that Krause's e-mail was loving in this vein. I contend his note is too ignorant to be loving. But we are bombarded by so many negative messages about fat bodies (remember, there's a lot of money riding on the idea that we're willing to avoid, or try to avoid, being fat at all costs) it's hard to blame Krause. He's certainly not alone in his bigotry. You have to really care about fat people—maybe even actually love some of them—to pay enough attention to see the red flags waving around the conventional wisdom on obesity.
While Livingston was calling Krause out for his ideas about who is and who is not a good role model, maybe she could have also schooled him on the complexity of the relationship between weight and health. As she said, she is more than a number on a scale. But she is also a number on a scale. And while she had the microphone, I wish she had also mentioned that people in the overweight category on the BMI chart actually live longer. Or that life expectancy in the United States has risen—along with the obesity rate—from 70.8 years in 1970 to 78.2 in 2005. Not only are we living longer than ever before, we're also healthier than ever and chronic disease is appearing later in life. That's hard to square with the dramatic quality and quantity of the stories we hear on the nightly news about a country with cankles on the verge of collapse due to obesity-related disease.
But hey, Livingston is a reporter, right? Maybe there's fodder here for a future expose. In the meantime, I for one am happy that Livingston is on televisions across the Greater Lacrosse area every day. And given that the vast majority of time we see fat women on screen their weight is the reason for their appearance—as a sight gag, as a warning, as a maudlin inspiration—I'll be glad when she's able to get back to the news.
Lisa Ann Cockrel is an editor for Brazos Press and Baker Academic. She writes regularly for CT Movies and is working on a book about obesity, community, and the ethics of incarnation.
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