It is ironic and somehow fitting that Jennifer Livingston, the news anchorwoman who made national headlines after confronting criticisms about her weight, received those harsh comments during National Weight Stigma Awareness Week. The La Crosse, Wis. anchor received an email from a viewer who urged her to lose weight, implied that her obesity was a “choice,” and portrayed her as a poor role model for young girls because of her size. Women, in particular, are frequently judged more for their size than for their accomplishments. Ms. Livingston’s brave, on-air response to the accusations was necessary to set the record straight.
One would assume that Ms. Livingston, both articulate in her speech and well-groomed in standard “anchor” attire, can successfully report the news regardless of her weight. She does not need to be a Size 2 to perform her job. The viewer’s claim that, as a role model, she is somehow endorsing obesity for young girls is a veiled attempt to chastise and shame her. Adolescent girls and young women in Western society should be encouraged and supported in seeking good health, but it is not necessary to include weight loss in this goal. Further, a competent, successful, self-confident woman such as Ms. Livingston is an inspiration for girls who struggle with body image, have aspired to achieve an unattainable low weight, or are comfortable with their bodies.
The assertion that Ms. Livingston can easily make a “choice” to lose weight is equally false. Weight-loss attempts are fraught with difficulty, and 90% of dieters regain the weight they lost. The viewer knows nothing about the reasons for Ms. Livingston’s weight gain, whether she has tried to lose weight, desires to lose weight or if she is comfortable with her current size. Misconceptions abound regarding obesity, and many who have never been challenged by weight issues assume they are simply the result of overeating, inactivity, or a lack of “willpower.”
These false assumptions can lead to stigma and discrimination. A 2009 review of research on weight stigma conducted by Rebecca Puhl and Chelsea Heuer found widespread bias and discrimination against overweight men and women in areas related to employment, health care, education, the media, and interpersonal relationships. Another study by Puhl and colleagues found that women were more likely to experience weight-based discrimination than men.
It is critical that women such as Ms. Livingston continue to voice their outrage when weight bias occurs, educate others about weight discrimination, and promote self-acceptance at any size. Eating disorders and body-image disparagement are rampant among so many women, no matter their shape or size. People come in all shapes, colors, and sizes, and the more we can do to promote acceptance and appreciation of differences, the healthier we will be as individuals and as a society.
Helpful links about weight stigma:
- Puhl, R., Andreyeva, T., & Brownell, K. (2008). Perceptions of weight discrimination: Prevalence and comparison to race and gender discrimination in America. International Journal of Obesity, 32, 992-1000.
- Puhl, R. & Heuer, C. (2009). The stigma of obesity: A review and update. Obesity, 17, 941-964.
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