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Weighing in: My response to Jennifer Livingston

Like many people, every now and then, I’ll see or read something I find interesting and will post it on my Facebook page. Sometimes I’ll post the article, video, etc., straight with no commentary. Other times, I’ll add a comment about how amusing or interesting I found it — usually no more than a sentence or two.

This is what I did when I posted this editorial by Thanh Tan from the Seattle Times. My two-word commentary was “Love this!” Little did I know that it would spark a lengthy, in-depth conversation among a few of my friends (beyond posting the editorial, I have stayed out of the discussion) on the topics of role models, obesity in America, living healthy, bullying and parenting. All within 24 hours.

After reading my friends’ comments, I felt compelled to comment further on the topic. I don’t want to go too deep into the aforementioned topics, but I do have two things to say.

First, as a journalist, I have to say I greatly admire Jennifer Livingston, the WKBT anchor from La Crosse, Wisc. who received an email from a viewer criticizing her for being overweight. She confronts the viewer head on but is professional about it and doesn’t lose her cool.

While I have received letters, emails and phone calls from readers about stories I’ve written or should write, these comments from readers have always been directed toward me as a journalist, not me as a person. Although the WKBT viewer touches a bit about Livingston being a public figure (as a result of her job), his comments are about her as a person — and in this case, her appearance.

As a print journalist, my appearance doesn’t factor much into my job other than the fact that I should dress decently and professionally for whatever assignments I have for that day. Broadcast journalists, unfortunately, are more subject to be judged by their appearance so I’m sure this may not have been the first time Livingston has received feedback like this. She straight out asks the email writer, “Do you think I don’t know that?”

In an interview she gave after her editorial was aired, Livingston says, “We’re so used to getting these kinds of emails, not to this extent, but to talk about our appearance, to talk about the way we cover a story. And there is a line, I believe, that cannot be crossed and when you cross the line, you need to be called out on it. Whether you’re an adult, whether you’re a teenager, whether you’re in junior high, there needs to be people that can take a stand and say it’s not right. I know it’s easy to hide behind the email. Doesn’t make it okay.”

Livingston goes on to say she corresponded with the viewer and informed him that she was considering posting the information. He gave her permission to do so. Livingston said “it’s easy to hide behind the email” and this showed that she had enough journalistic integrity to not be a hypocrite. She could’ve just done the editorial and kept the viewer anonymous (he is mentioned by name in the story on the station’s website), so I respect the fact that she asked permission.

The second thing I wanted to say about this issue is that weight is a big issue for most women — no matter what their size. I don’t want to lump us all together but I think I can name on one hand all of my female friends and relatives who I have never heard discuss their weight. I think, whether we want to admit it or not, we all have body-image issues concerning our weight at one point or another, myself included.

As I’ve mentioned before, I was a gymnast for seven years. Now here’s a sport in which being lighter and thinner tends gives you the advantage: Smaller bodies fly higher and can perform some of the more difficult skills more easily (although, being heavier often gives a gymnast more power when it comes to tumbling). Unfortunately, this mindset can lead to eating disorders and teams lying about athletes’ ages to allow younger, thinner (pre-puberty) girls to compete.

Fortunately, I never went to a gym where the gymnasts were weighed on a regular basis and/or told what they could or could not eat (trust me, they’re out there) but I was given a “talking to” concerning my weight a couple times during my gymnastics career. I left the sport at the end of my freshman year of high school, so keep in mind that these conversations occurred before I turned 15 — an age when you’re already insecure about yourself in more ways than one.

Before this, I was already aware that I had a little more meat on my bones compared to my teammates. So you can imagine how hard I took this. Although the words uttered were gentle and came from a place of concern, I was no less upset. Here I was, a teenager of 13 or 14 years old, training upwards of 25-30 hours a week during the school year, and being told I was “out of shape.” Obviously, the body of a competitive athlete is different from that of a non-athlete, but it’s hard to not be at least a little hurt in this situation.

Livingston’s job as a journalist doesn’t hinge on her weight and while it can be said she has a responsibility as a role model, I don’t think her weight should be part of it. As she said, she is aware of the “issue,” so it wouldn’t be difficult to assume that she has tried “addressing” it. Maybe she has and has struggled or maybe she is happy with who she is. Either way, I don’t think it’s our place to judge. We don’t know her.

The comments I received about my weight were from a person who knew me and spent almost as much time with me as my family. They were not bullying, but meant to show concern. Having spent about half of my life at that point in gymnastics, I already knew the importance of being in shape to succeed at the sport. So I understood this person’s concerns, even back then. It still sucked.

I don’t know where the viewer who emailed Livingston was coming from when he sent her that message, but even if it came from a place of concern, I can bet you his words hurt no less.

It’s been more than 10 years and I got over what that person said before I even left gymnastics, but I can still remember where and when this happened and my reaction. Those moments stick with you no matter how happy you may be with how you look.

They just do.

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