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Op-Ed: Why Weight Bullying Is the Worst
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 . Studies show kids are more likely to be bullied because of their weight than because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, or economic status 
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.
Want to contribute to the conversation? Tell us your opinion in the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene.
- 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.⤴
- 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.⤴
Comments Leave a comment
Thank you for posting the actual definitions for "fitness" and "health". People need to know this. I don't know if it's the general anti-intellectualism that's hitting everyone these days, that people actually think "skinny" = "fitness" and " health, or that selling personal training and fitness products is more important than actual getting people "fit" and "healthy".
Words have meaning. They mean something. I wish people would stop taking everyone's word for it and just go look things up for once.
"But regardless of Krause’s intentions, his email was a clear instance of bullying, ..." No, it's not a clear instance. He was mean, obnoxious, ill-informed, dumb, ignorant, douchey, rude, etc. But this isn't a case of bullying, by definition. And it does matter because it minimizes true acts of bullying, which is "commonly characterized as aggressive behavior that is intended to cause distress or harm, involves an imbalance of power or strength, between the aggressor and the victim, and commonly occurs repeatedly over time." (Pulling that from the 2004 APA resolution on bullying. But all major groups agree it's repeated, constant acts.) He wrote one email. He's a stupid jerk, but not a bully (in this case, from what we know. Although he could be a bully to other people around him). I know I'm overly sensitive about words. And I'm not trying to take away from what she did or the conversation she created. It's awesome. But we're moving into a place where any small disagreement or negative comment is being called bullying. And that's not good.
Sophia brings up good points. Except this: "But regardless of Krause’s intentions, his email was a clear instance of bullying, ..." No, it's not a clear instance.
There are many ways to describe the viewer-writer: mean, obnoxious, ill-informed, dumb, ignorant, douchey, rude, a jerk. But this isn't a case of bullying, by definition. The American Psychological Association defines it as "commonly characterized as aggressive behavior that is intended to cause distress or harm, involves an imbalance of power or strength, between the aggressor and the victim, and commonly occurs repeatedly over time." (2004 resolution.) Most major organizations agree that bullying is repetitive.
He wrote one email. She responded.
I'm not trying to take away from what she did or the conversation she created. It's awesome. And the points made by many showing their support, including in this op-ed, are great. But we're moving into a place where any small disagreement, criticism or negative comment is being called bullying. The word is being misused and overused. If people are serious about tackling the bullying problem, the word needs to be used in its correct context.
@angelb Honestly, we've moved to the point where anytime someone is made fun of because of their weight, it's bullying. "Weight acceptance" is the new social justice cause. What about when I get made fun of because I'm balding? Or when my sister is made fun of because she's pigeon-toed?
We suck it up and either laugh it off or tell the person to STFU. Which, honestly, is what Livingston did. So, I'm cool with how it ended up. But, I agree, she wasn't bullied. Getting criticized != bullying.
Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."