Once a person signs on to be in the public eye, it can be argued that they should expect direct feedback on their appearance, their performance, and even things that might seem irrelevant to the job they’re doing. Many choose to tune out the criticism to hold on to their sanity. But when Jennifer Livingston, a TV anchor and reporter in La Crosse, Wis., received a letter from a viewer chiding her for being overweight, she spoke out – right during her news segment.
The letter contained the following message: “It’s unusual that I see your morning show, but I did so for a very short time today. I was surprised indeed to witness that your physical condition hasn’t improved for many years.
Sure 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 four-minute response in her defense has made headlines around the world. In short, she said that this bully could call her anything he wanted, but to call her a bad role model could only damage the self-esteem of children who might already be struggling with issues of their own. “The truth is, I am overweight. You can call me fat — and yes, even obese on a doctor’s chart. But to the person who wrote me that letter, do you think I don’t know that?” She then went on, “That man’s words mean nothing to me, but what really angers me about this is there are children who don’t know better — who get emails as critical as the one I received or in many cases, even worse, each and every day.”
“To all of the children out there who feel lost, who are struggling with your weight, with the color of your skin, 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 to the shouts of many.”
Since the response, the viewer has sent an apology to Livingston, saying that he didn’t mean to offend her, could empathize with her situation (Livingston has a thyroid condition that makes it difficult to lose weight), had been overweight himself as a child, and would be happy to offer her advice or support so she could, as he said earlier, “take advantage of a rare and golden opportunity […] by transforming herself for all her viewers to see over the coming year.”
In an interview on Good Morning America, Livingston said that the possible problem was that the viewer didn’t recognize that there’s a line between being helpful, and being a bully. “He’s trying to shame me into losing weight. That’s not being helpful. That’s being a bully.”
What expectations should we have of public figures? Livingston has received an avalanche of support from viewers, friends and family, which is inspiring, to say the least. But are the critical words of a viewer to a person who is in the public domain necessarily bullying, or is that up for debate? Where would you draw the line?