October: Anti-Bullying Month

The video above is powerful, as overweight news anchor Jennifer Livingston responds to an e-mail she got criticizing her for her weight, implying that she is a poor role model as a public figure.   After all, obesity is a major problem in this country.

At first many people might decide to side with the sender of the e-mail.   Being fat is a choice, right?   She could just choose to eat a bit less, exercise more and be fit and trim!  And there are many people who go from being overweight to slender, so it is possible to do.

I’m skeptical of that whole “choice” argument.   Our culture and our food industry make it hard not to be overweight.   Foods are modified to the point of being addictive, with chemicals, flavors, fats and sugars added in such quantities as to make what appears to be a reasonably healthy snack a diet-killer.   Marketing augments that, showing happy thin people scarfing down pizza and ice cream, and don’t get me started on portion sizes!

A burger, fries and a drink can be more than 1500 calories

Beyond that, it’s hard to get exercise.   Go to a shopping center and you discover that it’s almost impossible to move from one group of stores to another on foot, at least not without risking life and limb.   Everything is designed for automobiles.  We’ve become used to comfort and convenience.  Many people have high stress sedentary jobs with demanding families.   Time to exercise and eat right takes a massive effort.    The cultural component of our “choices” is real.

But that’s not the powerful point.

As Livingston says in the video, her critic doesn’t know her.   She knows she’s fat, he’s not giving her some kind of special information.  We don’t know the struggles individuals have trying to stay in shape.   Not all metabolisms are alike and woman often have a tough task after giving birth.

She connects our penchant to criticize others to the bullying that takes place in the schools and on the internet.    As an adult she can take it, but there are many children and teens, often in very vulnerable spots in their lives, who have their entire sense of self-worth torn apart by constant attacks from others.

If this man watches TV with his kids present and says “geez, look at her, she’s fat…she shouldn’t be on TV like that, it’s disgusting,” he’s modeling a particular kind of behavior.   Those kids have been shown by their dad it’s OK to consider fat people disgusting and to ridicule them.

Bullying in schools is often the result of behavior learned at home.

That’s how bullying starts.   Children learn that if someone else doesn’t conform to a social norm of looks, behavior, or life style, it’s OK to ridicule them.   Parents who talk about those “mindless conservative idiots” or “liberals bent on destroying America” are telling their children that it’s OK to hate people because of their political views.   Parents who make fun of gays tell their kids is OK to do likewise.   Our intolerance is passed to our children.

I was overweight in junior high school.   In seventh grade I realized I stood out as heavier than the others.    I dreaded going to school.  I plotted my escape including where I parked my bike so I wouldn’t be attacked by a some of those who would smack me, kick me or ridicule me during the day.   I remember looking at my belly in 8th grade study hall wondering why I was cursed to be fat, doomed never to be liked by girls or be ‘normal.’

8th grade was the worst.   From day one when I walked into home room and a guy named Tony Hanson said “good, someone we can beat on,” I realized the year would be bad.   I escaped into my own world.   I didn’t do homework and my grades were horrible.  I flunked an easy photography class, was kicked off the student newspaper for not working and then never showed up to the study hall I was assigned to.   I read a lot and created huge fantasy worlds, but neglected bathing regularly or even caring about what was going on elsewhere.   I had a few friends and we hung out, all of us misfits of a sort, and that kept me going.

Ninth grade started on a similar note, but something clicked.  I decided I needed to lose weight.  I went on a bizarre diet where I ate only candy bars and hostess pastries under the theory that if I was going to limit what I eat, I’d only eat things I liked.   There were days when all I ate were two Suzy Q’s.    But it worked.  The pounds started coming off.   I lost 40 pounds, started running and at one point got too skinny so I started lifting weights.   But I succeeded.  By 10th grade the horrors of junior high had evaporated.   I gained new friends, was having fun, and even getting dates!

I still obsess with my weight and try to stay in shape.    I tend to gain weight and then go on a crash diet to lose it – I bounce within a 30 pound range.    I have exercise equipment and feel like people are judging me when I’m on the heavy end of my range (which I am now).   Looking at pictures of me in my twenties I was in shape, tan and attractive, but I never felt attractive – I always felt like I had to prove myself, that in any relationship others were sizing me up to see if I belonged.

Compared to what others have gone through in life I can’t complain about a couple bad years in junior high, and from 10th grade on I’ve been successful at work, academics and life.  Yet at the time I was vulnerable, and I know things could have turned out differently.

Still, I don’t want to embrace saying “you’re great you don’t have to change.”  I do want to motivate people to improve themselves — I try to keep improving myself in a variety of ways.    People will be healthier and happier if they are in shape.   But you don’t motivate by tearing others down.   Bullying might get someone to change, but it can also drive people to despair and even suicide.    We should model positive and respectful behavior in how we deal with others.

As adults we can do that by refusing to demean and ridicule others who are fat, gay, ugly, short, have a different ethnic background, hold a different political perspective or otherwise don’t fit what might seem “normal” to us.   Maybe if we model tolerance our children will learn to live that way, and the world get a little bit better.

  1. #1 by lbwoodgate on October 3, 2012 - 16:55

    Thanks for posting this Scott

    “Maybe if we model tolerance our children will learn to live that way, and the world get a little bit better.”

    It’s probably not unrealistic to presume that parents who are poor role models are victims themselves of abuse and bullying. Kids may see poor role modeling in their parents as the parents critique others but the kids are likely the victims of verbal and emotional abuse from those parents also, who pass on that low-self esteem.

    There were a couple of occasions where I was able to stand up to a few bullies (I was always short for my age until I was nearly 18). Standing up to them entailed fist fights and though I didn’t kick their butt, neither did I get my butt kicked and even got in a few licks. What resulted afterwards was indicative of someone who uses bullying to conceal their own low self-esteem. After these fights I got some respect from the bully, became friends with them and found out they were really just looking for someone who didn’t judge them so critically.

    Bullying, I believe, is often just a cruel means to conceal their bad feelings of their own self-worth.

  2. #2 by Dan Patterson on October 3, 2012 - 22:44

    I remember that atmosphere of namecalling directed at you, me and others at Patrick Henry, Scott. I was threatened at my locker, went to the office, and the principal, with my mother in the office, handled it directly and told the offender to never speak to me again. We were never in the same classes from that point, although attended the same high school as well. Ironically, he became much more “popular” than I, largely b/c of his physical prowess among his peers. I remember kids making fun of teachers who looked different or had easily alterable last names, or wore wigs, even though they may have been dealing with serious health problems. I was called all the usual names for being on stage in Tom Sawyer, for acting out Shakespeare skits in full costumes made by my dad, alongside Mrs. Ormseth and Mrs. Fye, for tap dancing, all while looking pretty homely I thought, reaching my peak of perceived misshapeness in 10th grade, with that year’s yearbook ironically entitled, “Cloudy Views!” With a rigorous schedule of theatre, debate, journalism and swimming, and a healthy growth spurt at the end, I persevered, but the browbeating that went on over the years unwittingly by some P.E. teachers, and others NOT involved in as well as ignorant of my activities is memorable.

    • #3 by Scott Erb on October 5, 2012 - 12:25

      Glad you made it through, Dan! I have friends who have children into acting and music who have experienced similar problems, the same thing still goes on, but I think schools take it a bit more seriously! As for the PE instructors. In 9th grade I really started to work to get in shape, and situps were a primary form of exercise. In PE I pushed myself to do some of the most situps in the class. When I reported my total I recall Mr. Brown snidely looking at me and saying, “yeah, right, sure you did that many.” The class laughed.

  3. #4 by Sarah on October 4, 2012 - 02:23

    Scott, I agree with you that modeling tolerance will help our children learn to live that way.

    I also think that modeling courage by standing up to bullies and bullying is just as important. Jennifer Livingston did just that, she displayed a model of courage for her own children. Shockingly, she is receiving great criticism for doing so!

  4. #5 by Linda Barry on October 4, 2012 - 12:07

    Scott, I saw that video, and I was so proud of that woman for taking a stand in such a positive way. It reached SO many people, and it’s another way to raise awareness and promote tolerance. It is incredible how many people feel that they have the right to ridicule another individual on any premise, and it is so frustrating. I hope to raise my children to be kind and compassionate and to motivate, instead of tear down. My sister is in a public speaking class, and I was so happy to hear that she is doing her speech on bullying and the impact it has on individuals. Working in a high school, I have a ZERO tolerance policy within my classroom, and wherever I am, and students are starting to see that when I’m around, it is something they do not do, and I hope that it will eventually stick with them.

  5. #6 by abichica on October 5, 2012 - 15:45

    when i saw this video i found it shocking that someone even tries to bully a tv personality!! people just dont have lives.. But im so glad that the lady took a stand and responded to that tool of a guy who even up until now says he will not take back what he said nor will he apologize.. :-/

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