Role-modeling begins at home

In a previous post, I waded into the lives of Wisconsin news reader Jennifer Livingston and the unkind words addressed to her by a viewer, Kenneth Krause. As I said then, my inclination was to skip by it because I am constitutionally averse to the predictable, and my impression was that this was that.

But the more I considered, I realized that Livingston’s on-air retort, and the groundswell of support for her, were obscuring issues that are better off aired.

My first point was that no matter how loutish Krause’s comments were, it is not good to be fat. Not because of what other people think — which is the focus of the reaction — but because it’s much harder to go through life in a fat body. Yes, it is harshly judged, and that sucks, but removing the judgment part (which, at least for today, isn’t possible anyway) wouldn’t make it OK.

In her response, Livingston said, “that man’s words mean nothing to me.” But seeing her repeatedly punctuate her points with pointed finger, it was impossible to believe her.

I believe the truth is that she was very hurt by it. They were hurtful comments, and hurtful comments hurt. And, significantly, they hurt more when the recipient already believes the criticism, which we know Livingston does because she told us. “Do you think I don’t know that, that your cruel words are pointing out something I don’t see?” She copped not only to overweight, but to obesity, if denyingly, when she added “even on a doctor’s chart.” No, actually, that’s on your body. (As they say in libel law, truth is a defense. My experience is that before I could change, I had to accept.)

Meanwhile, I thought it was interesting that both framed the issue as role-modeling for the children. Krause expressed worry at how a fat person on TV influences young women, and Livingston expressed concern about how bullying affects young people. And indeed, the Net is now referring to the “Jennifer Livingston bully video.”

I buy into neither completely. Krause’s, I reject because I don’t think people who read the news on TV are role models, any more than athletes are, by virtue of their jobs. If others model themselves after such people, that’s their doing. And as I wrote previously, framing this only as a bullying issue obscures that the comments, no matter how uncool, at least touch on issues we are better off talking about.

It isn’t Jennifer Livingston’s fault that two of three American adults, and one out of three American kids, are obese or overweight. And I would hate to have become as symbol of fatness, as she has. (The “Today” Show invited her on.)

But those overweightness stats are still true, and we need to address the problem they illustrate. The reason I said that I don’t completely buy into the role-modeling arguments is that I do think we are all role models in our families, and Livingston told us she has three young girls. What about that modeling that she’s handing down to them?

Around obesity, we are a pretty broken lot. Seventy-four percent of the 600,000 food products sold in America have added sugar in them. Whole networks focus only on food. Fast-food and junk-food behemoths spend tens of billions of dollars annually to convince us to buy their wares, while arguing that the effect of those sales — rampant obesity — is solely the responsibility of the buyer. We sometimes complain about the unhealthfulness of school-cafeteria food, but almost universally, it’s the only school function that is expected to pay for itself. We think junk food is fun and nutrition is for sissies.

That’s an awful lot to combat, perhaps too much. But when parents are obese, are they not modeling obesity for their children? Very few parents would want obesity — or excessive drinking, or smoking, or drug-taking — for their kids, but from that list, which is the one far most likely to be accepted?

To me, they’re all harmful, and deserve a parent’s strenuous efforts to overcome, if only for sake of “the children.”

Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
make investments in employee wellbeing that pay off in corporate success.
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