Fat-shaming. Discrimination? Or is it just simple bullying?
It’s now acceptable to call people fat and tell them they should lose weight. You are just concerned about their health, after all. Right? Let’s try it: For the next overweight woman you see on the street, let her know she’s overweight. More points for using the medical term obese. Better yet, you see someone with more pounds than you like on TV, write them an e-mail and tell them they are only worth their weight. Period.
Kenneth Krause of Wisconsin did just that to a local TV newswoman. And, thanks to an on-air response from the recipient — WKBT news anchor Jennifer Livingston — La Crosse, Wis., has become de facto Ground Zero in the debate over fat-shaming, one of the few remaining publicly approved forms of overt discrimination.
In his e-mail, Krause wrote: “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.”
Livingston’s husband, Mike Thompson, an evening news anchor at the station, posted the e-mail to his WKBT Facebook page. The response, while probably not as sweet as frosted chocolate-chip brownies, was touching. Hundreds of supportive e-mails and social media messages poured forth, and local Wisconsin radio stations began talking about the incident.
Livingston took to the air to address the note and the ensuing buzz, as it became apparent to her that silence wouldn’t be as effective as her voice. She never named Krause; the Associated Press did that. But Livingston didn’t mince words as she called out the bully.
Listing her accomplishments, Livingston declared, “I am much more than a number on a scale!” And she spoke up for more than just herself.
It’s already a flavorless trope: the female body as object belonging to the public domain. Every woman who runs for public office is taught to be steeled against the attacks that will come because of her gender. Every public figure is subject to the scrutiny of anyone with an opinion who feels it’s appropriate to weigh in on the appearance of the celebrity.
But, famous or not, calling a person fat is a pejorative. No, more than that. It’s rude, an insult and advances what should be socially unacceptable — that we should be allowed to discriminate based on the way people look. Sound familiar? There are so many forms of prejudice that we have spent decades stamping out, yet, prejudice against fat people is unfortunately all too acceptable. Our media portray overweight folks as being lazy, less intelligent, unhappy or — my least favorite overused descriptor, which is most often aimed at heavy black women — “sassy.” (Clever, the use of “sassy:” You can discriminate against a person twice with just one word!)
But let’s get to the meat of the matter here. Krause’s e-mail was a textbook example of an anti-woman rant. Levying insult poorly veiled as concern for Livingston’s health, Krause asserts that the anchorwoman’s weight could be setting a poor example and could potentially make young girls in their community believe that there’s nothing wrong with being fat and, more likely, not attractive to his personal standard. The horror! Couching body-size prejudice in terms of caring about the health of a stranger is ridiculous. It’s doubtful that Krause has ever sidled up to a slender person to inquire how long it’s been since her last blood test or eye exam. It’s equally doubtful he sent a similar e-mail of “concern” to actor John Goodman or radio host Rush Limbaugh.
Total health is far more complex than what meets the eye. And for one so concerned with the health of a news anchor whom he admitted he rarely watches on air, what might be the effect of devaluing her as a person? What could be the emotional impact of abusive language and judgment hurled toward her like slop to hogs?
Cases of discrimination toward heavy people in the workplace, in schools and even within the health-care system that works to treat obesity, is rising, according to a number of organizations. But unlike race or religion, there are no federal laws making it illegal to discriminate against a person based on his or her weight. Michigan stands alone as the only state in the Union in which discrimination on the basis of a person’s weight is illegal.
Discrimination doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It comes about because of opinions and prejudices, often taught while a person is young. Disliking people because of the size of their bodies is no different than disliking someone because of the color of her skin.
Livingston said that she spoke up because she feels the obligation to model good behavior for her daughters, that calling out bullies is the appropriate response to unfairness. When Livingston faced up to this bully, she showed that it’s not acceptable to judge people because of what they look like. She told viewers, “To all of the children out there who feel lost, who are struggling with your weight, with the color of your skin, with your sexual preference, your disability, even the acne on your face, listen to me right now: Do not let your self-worth be defined by bullies. Learn from my experience that the cruel words of one are nothing compared with the shouts of many.”
Fat-shaming is not acceptable. Shout that from a rooftop.