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!
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.
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.