If you’ve been living under a rock, you might be the only person who hasn’t heard about anti-weight-bullying hero Jennifer Livingston. Here’s the short version: La Crosse, WI resident Kenneth Krause emailed Livingston, an anchor on WKBT’s News 8 This Morning, to criticize her for being overweight and thus a poor role model for the community. The anchor struck back on her show, calling Krause a bully and admonishing him for critiquing her appearance without knowing her or anything about her lifestyle. The whole controversy resonated with me for a few reasons. First, it reminded me that fitness isn’t always obvious from the outside, and there’s more than one way to measure health. I have no idea how Livingston eats, drinks, or exercises, but neither did Krause when he decided to write to her. Second, it made me realize that “fitspiration” (aka idealizing a sculpted physique as the perfect model of health) is often just plain old bullying, disguised by fake concern.
Since the blow-up, Krause has apologized to the news anchor, saying he “never meant to hurt Jennifer” and that he intended his message to be taken as advice. I can’t accept this explanation, because making assumptions based on looks isn’t only cruel, it’s often inaccurate. Just because someone appears “fat” doesn’t mean they’re lazy, undisciplined, or blasé about their health. In the same vein, a thin person isn’t always “fit” or “health-conscious.” I spoke to Greatist Expert Katherine Simmons, who said “fitness” is all about being a good fit for a specific environment. (For example, a desk worker should have strong static core support for sitting all day, but doesn’t really need to be able to deadlift hundreds of pounds.) Health is much more than a size 0 or a low BMI, and involves factors like cholesterol, body fat percentage, and hormone levels — none of which Krause knew about when he wrote his email. As Livingston eloquently pointed out, we are all much more than a number on a scale.
The second reason I loved Livingston’s moment in the sun is because it called attention to one of my biggest pet peeves — meanness masquerading as advice. Maybe Krause really thought his unsolicited remarks would help push Livingston down a healthier path, like what happened when a 12-year-old boy from Oklahoma lost 85 pounds so he wouldn’t be teased in school anymore. But regardless of Krause’s intentions, his email was a clear instance of bullying, a harmful behavior that can lead to low self-esteem, poor health, anxiety, depression, and loneliness in children and adults Do bullied children become anxious and depressed adults?: A cross-sectional investigation of the correlates of bullying and anxious depression. Gladstone GL, Parker GB, Malhi GS. School of Psychiatry, University of New South Wales and Mood Disorders Unit, Black Dog Institute, Prince of Wales Hospital, Randwick, Australia. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2006 Mar; 194(3): 201-8.. Studies show kids are more likely to be bullied because of their weight than because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, or economic status Weight status as a predictor of being bullied in third through sixth grades. Lumeng JC, Forrest P, Appugliese DP, Kaciroti N, Corwyn RF, Bradley RH. Center for Human Growth and Development, 300 North Ingalls St, 10th Floor, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA. Pediatrics. 2010 Jun; 125(6):e1301-7. Epub 2010 May 3.
Grown-ups are affected, too: In fact 35 percent of adults report being bullied at work. Greatist Expert Sherry Pagoto, a psychologist who specializes in obesity, says adults often don’t refer to undermining or sabotaging behavior as “bullying,” but they can still be negatively affected by it. Grown-up meanies may be subtler with their criticism than children, but overweight individuals, especially women, are still affected by cruel words and gestures.
I know I’m not the only person who knows that there’s more than one way to think of health. I’m certainly not alone in hating weight bullying, intentional or otherwise. The important takeaway from Livingston’s story is that a healthy body is much more than what meets the eye, and that no one should have to accept someone else’s idea of health. As a real woman who probably does struggle with her weight (like over half of all American adults), Livingston is actally a much better example for young girls than a super-thin supermodel or skinny Reporter Barbie. Hopefully, Livingston’s public response to her bully will teach people of all ages and sizes that it’s never okay for someone else to define your body.
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