Jennifer Livingston: Commenting on anchor’s weight is not bullying

Jennifer Livingston, a TV news anchor, got a viewer e-mail calling her obese, and questioning her body image. She called it bullying. It's not. It's simply rude, and an example of 'bully-creep' and the fight over the label rather than the content.

AP/Courtesy WKBT-TV
This frame grab provided by WKBT-TV in La Crosse, Wis., shows television anchorwoman Jennifer Livingston shown in a screen grab, during her WKBT-TV broadcast responding to a viewer who wrote her an e-mail criticizing her weight. Livingston called it bullying.

Watch out, there’s another bully out there getting national attention.

Not just a bully, but a body image bully, who has turned his bullying ways on Jennifer Livingston, a morning anchor with WKBT-TV in La Crosse, Wis. 

And Ms. Livingston is not going to take it.

That’s the story, at least, that’s making the rounds today, a day after Livingston, who admits to being overweight, responded on air to a letter she received from a viewer named Kenneth W. Krause.

"I was surprised indeed to witness that your physical condition hasn't improved for many years,” Livingston quoted Krause’s correspondence as saying. “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."

(Oh no, he didn’t say that did he?)

And in October, National Anti-Bullying Month, no less!

Livingston, a mom of three, took more than four minutes responding to Krause. She said that yes, she knew that she was overweight, but that it was unkind for him to write her those “cruel words” and that he was a bully.

“This was a personal attack,” Livingston said on “Good Morning America,” which she went on today to talk about the incident. (Of course she was on “Good Morning America.”)  “Calling me obese is one thing. Calling me a bad role model for our community that I’ve worked at for 15 years and especially for young girls when I have three girls was a low blow and I thought it was uncalled for and I wanted to call him out on it.”

Her husband, evening anchor Mike Thompson, posted his thoughts about the incident on his Facebook page, and has received more than 1,500 comments in response. Many of those were in support of Livingston, thanking her for her example in standing up to a bully. 

Right.

Here’s the thing, folks. I’m just going to come out and say it. Krause’s letter? Not bullying.

Obnoxious, sure. Calling it unsolicited or unnecessary “advice” would be kind. Despite the cordial tone, it is simply unacceptable – and rather sexist, I’ll add – to comment on a woman’s physical appearance as if that appearance was the substance of her work. Even with all that window dressing of the obesity epidemic. The fact that people feel entitled to these sorts of comments – and even feel helpful making them – says a lot about how far (or short, really) we’ve come in terms of accepting women as professional equals. 

But one rude e-mail does not a bullying act make.

Livingston made an effort to tie her hurt feelings to all the girls out there who might also be subject to nasty comments about their weight.  She was standing up against this bully for them, she said.

And sure. It’s good to have a role model call weight-based ridicule for what it is: unacceptable.

The problem is that we once again have bully-creep

As the fight against bullying in the US has gained momentum and attention, more and more acts of rudeness, incivility or conflict have been given the “bully” label.

This is problematic for a variety of reasons. Calling someone a “bully” has taken on the tone of calling someone a “racist” – it stops conversation and often leads to a fight over the label rather than the content. Some critics worry that the current bully trend is clamping down on free speech. And at a more basic level, the “everyone mean is a bully” phenomenon gums up the fight against the sort of “bullying” that academic researchers have identified as incredibly damaging – the sustained, cruel interactions between a powerful child or children and a less powerful child.

But these days, “bullying” gets the attention. 

The “let's just all be nice to each other" campaign, not so much.

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