Today on Jezebel, Dodai Smith posted a video of Jennifer Livingston, a news anchor in La Crosse, Wisconsin. In the video she addresses an email entitled "Community Responsibility" from someone who wrote that she shouldn't consider herself a "suitable example for this community's young people, girls in particular" because her "obesity" is a terrible personal choice. Jennifer's words to the author of this email are personal and poignant. She talks about this email - and fatphobia - as a political issue and a reprehensible act that affects many. She talks about the outpouring of support she received. She ends the video by saying that the "cruel words of one are nothing compared to the shouts of many."
I love that Livingston took a stand on public television, and I love her analysis of this email. And I want to interrogate it one step further. Yes, this email is absolutely a personal attack on a person's body. However, the author of the email is deploying the same kind of rhetoric that is supported by the nationally known, federally-funded War on Obesity. This War on Obesity takes the stand that fat/obesity is a public issue and a personal responsibility. Just last week while in Los Angeles I saw dozens of ads that toted sentiments like "eat less, weigh less," displaying images of super sized fast food meals next to meals with a medium drink and medium fries. These ads simplistically cast fatness as a matter of personal choice, and they were no doubt at least partially subsidized by federal/state public health money.
While Livingston's friends, family and viewers were sending in words of support, I wondered if they were angry at the act of bullying (as a display of interpersonal aggression) or at the fatphobia (system-wide oppression) itself. If some of the responses to the video are any indication, they were angry at the display of aggression more than the sentiment that Livingston is setting a bad example. "JasperApollonia" wrote, "Obesity is an epidemic in this country... I don't agree with the wording of this man's letter and I think it was poorly done, but I agree with his overall point. It is not ok to be fat unless you have a legitimate medical condition that prevents you from losing weight."
Personal sentiments of fatphobia that are publicly expressed are often met with quick censure, but the seemingly innocuous rhetoric of anti-obesity that pervades our public health conversation - what I read as the actual "shouts of many" - parades around as common sense. We are still mired in a frenzied politic that casts fat people as taxes on the economy who should just "cover up" and "eat less"
I see a man who sends a vitriolic email to an anchorwoman as part of the same continuum that hosts the current fatphobic US discussion of fat people. I see this personal act of bullying as a manifestation of a nationwide belief that fat people deserve to be the target of a war.
Virgie Tovar, MA is one of the nation's leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp (a 4 week online course focused on helping people break up with diet culture) and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, 2012). She writes about the intersections of size, identity, sexuality and politics. See more updates on Facebook.