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Viewpoint: Sizeism not an acceptable prejudice

A few weeks ago, a video of a Wisconsin news anchor went viral, and it wasn’t for one of those regular news-anchor-gone-viral reasons, like an accidental gaffe or for passing out on air.

Jennifer Livingston, a local TV anchor for CBS affiliate WKBT-TV in La Crosse, Wis., took time to respond on air to criticisms she received in a letter. This letter blamed the anchor for her absence of “community responsibility” because she is overweight. An excerpt from the letter reads as follows:

“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, like other folks in the media business, said she is used to receiving e-mails about the stories she covers, but never personal attacks.

“That e-mail was well-written; it was articulate,” said Livingston in an interview with CBS This Morning in response to her on-air editorial going viral. “But make no mistake, it was meant to hurt my feelings. It was meant to shame me into losing weight, and in my opinion, that’s a bully.”

Livingston’s situation brings up an interesting point, however. Is sizeism the last acceptable American prejudice?

Think about what we’re shown on TV or in movies from people who are overweight or obese: They are always hilariously pointing out their own weight problems (e.g., the lead characters in Mike and Molly, “Fat Amy” from Pitch Perfect, or “Chunk” from The Goonies), or they hate themselves for what they’ve become and want nothing more than to change their own sorry states (e.g., The Biggest Loser).

That’s the tricky thing about being overweight: It is, technically, a problem. Or, more accurately, a health concern.

So, when Livingston gets criticized for her size and the example she’s setting, there are people who feel justified in making that criticism. Some of them even feel a moral obligation to help others reach a healthier weight. Rising rates in obesity are also a burden on the community, because (1) obesity can lead to heart problems, diabetes and other very serious diseases, and (2) because of ever-changing health legislation, American citizens might be paying for the health problems of others with their taxes. Many of these concerned citizens see weight as a choice, or at least as something people can control.

But weight gain is spurred by a complex variety of causes. Some people are genetically predisposed to weight gain. Many medications can provide a catalyst in gaining weight. Others eat because of emotional or psychological issues.

Size is a tricky thing. There are tables and charts which tell us what our healthy weight should be, and no one is arguing the fact that a healthier lifestyle leads to a longer life. But people who are overweight know they’re overweight, and they don’t really need other folks pointing this out to them. Many of them would control this if they could, and many others are attempting to.

A person’s size, just like their race, religion, sexual orientation or political affiliation, does not make them any more or less of a role model, nor does it make them any less or more of a success in their field of work. Sizeism is not an acceptable prejudice.

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