Over the course of this month, we're hosting a series of public events that encourages civil conversations about the most difficult of topics — abortion and gay marriage included. We're asking ourselves how can we model better, kinder ways of communicating and disagreeing with each other. This morning, Jennifer Livingston, a television anchor at WKBT in La Crosse, Wisconsin, demonstrated this civility in spades.

A viewer emailed Ms. Livingston a note chastising her for her weight. She never named the author, but she did use it as an opportunity to talk about bullying and treating people more kindly. Here's what she said during this morning's broadcast:

I want to take a moment to address a situation that has become a talking point in this community over the past weekend — especially on Facebook — that centers around me. On Friday, I recieved the following e-mail from a La Crosse man with the subject line "Community responsibility." It reads as follows:

Hi Jennifer,

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. Surely 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.

Now those of us in the media get a healthy dose of critiques from our viewers throughout the year — and we realize it comes with having a job in the public eye. But this email was more than that. While I tried my best to laugh off the very hurtful attack on my appearance, my colleagues could not do the same. Especially my husband, our 6 and 10 anchor Mike Thompson.

Mike posted this email on his WKBT Facebook page — and what happened next has been truly inspiring. Hundreds and hundreds of people have taken the time out of their day to not only lift my spirits, but take a stand that attacks like this are not okay. More on that in a second.

But first, the truth is I am overweight. You could 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? That your cruel words are pointing out something I don't see? You don't know me. You are not a friend of mine. You are not a part of my family and you have admitted you don't watch this show. So you know nothing about me but what you see on the outside. I am so much more than a number on a scale.

And here's where I want us all to learn something from this. If you didn't already know, October is National Anti-Bullying month. And this is a problem that is growing everyday in our schools and on the Internet. It is a major issue in the lives of young people today, and, as the mother of three young girls, it scares me to death. Now I am a grown woman.

And lucky for me, I have a very thick skin — literally as that email pointed out — and otherwise. And that man's words mean nothing to me. But what really angers me about this? 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.

The Internet has become a weapon. Our schools a battleground. And this behavior is learned; it is passed down from people like the man who wrote me that email. If you are at home talking about the fat news lady, guess what? Your children are probably going to go to school and call someone fat. We need to teach our kids how to be kind — not critical — and we need to do that by example.

So many of you have come to my defense over the past four days. I am literally overwhelmed by your words.

To my colleagues and friends from today and from years ago, my family, my amazing husband, and so many of you out there that I will probably never have the opportunity to meet: I will never be able to thank you enough for you words of support. And for taking a stand against this bully. We are better than that email. We are better than the bullies that would try to take us down.

And I leave you with this. To all the children out there who feel lost, who are struggling with weight, 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 the cruel words of one are nothing compared to the shouts of many.

Share Your Reflection

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Reflections

Why do some think that they can judge who people really are, or what's going on in their life. Jennifer have presented an inspirational message to many and we thank you. Unfortunately there are those that can only hide behind the words of the internet and miss out on what life is really about.

May all our girls grow up to be just like you.

God Bless you you are beautiful !

Learn from my experience that the the cruel words of one are nothing compared to the shouts of many.

I am going to make a bulletin board out of that quote. I am especially this year struggling with 3 sets of "bullying" issues in my class of 22. I do agree however that the term "bullying" has been applied too loosely these days. However, whatever this type of behavior is called the fact remains that people are being disrespected and that is wrong. And you are right, it is perpetuated by people like this man who feel they are doing us some sort of service by pointing out our perceived deficiencies. God Bless You and I hope this national discussion does some good as it seems nothing else is.

So INCREDIBLY well said and I'm very glad she publicly spoke out about this. Some people can be incredibly quick to judge those of us who carry weight as not being a good influence or even worthy of the same respect as someone who is thin --and yet we are to somehow believe that these judgmental bullies are? I would so much prefer to be the weight that I am and be around people who love and respect me REGARDLESS of my size, color, hairstyle, the clothes that I wear ...whatever, than around people who can only accept those that fit into their narrow and ignorant view as "normal."

As Jennifer clearly demonstrated, beauty starts on the inside. Everything else is just window dressing. This is a woman of courage and integrity. And to the original emailer, yes, she is a role model that any young girl would do well to imitate. I applaud your reply to email.

Throughout life I have been overweight as well as very thin. What I found is my happiness and self worth as a person came from within and not from my outward appearance. I feel very sorry for the person who wrote the email. There must be something very significant missing in his life,

You are beautiful, successful, and wise... And your children are lucky to have you as their mother. Keep the faith, keep standing up for what is right, and keep being happy and cheerful. You are making a difference in so many lives. God bless!

Personally, I'm a ginger sling with a pineapple heart.

Wow. I am in tears at the confidence and self-assuredness that Ms. Livingston brings forth in this incredibly brave and honest piece. What a beautiful and powerful message to send as a local public personality to promote an emotionally healthy lifestyle! Thank you!

How courageous she is. What an inspiration . If my daughter grows up to b as beautiful and smart as this lady all my dreams will be fulfilled!

I don’t see Ms. Livingston’s response as civility. Quite the contrary. Seems to me that Ms. Livingston is spinning the writer's critique/commentary in such a way as to present herself as a victim, in this case a victim of bullying.

The note from the writer from La Crosse is not bullying by any stretch of the imagination. Certainly it is criticism of her appearance and the personal choices she makes that lead to her obesity (her word). Understandably, such remarks would sting any of us. Ms Livingston claims this is an “attack” (more victimization). Perhaps Ms Livingston feels "attacked", but her feelings don’t necessarily constitute objective reality. Looking at the totality of the La Crosse email, it’s neither an attack, nor is it bullying.

Perhaps Ms. Livingston suffers from a medical condition that causes her obesity, in which case she deserves our concern and support. But her own words suggest otherwise.

Seeking public sympathy as a victim of bullying, Ms. Livingston trivializes what bullying really is. She does a disservice to people who are in fact victims of actual bullying. Moreover, she seeks to equate her obesity – presumably a consequence of personal lifestyle choices she alone is responsible for --with people who are victimized because conditions completely beyond their control. This is an insult to people victimized for their race, gender, disability or other conditions completely beyond their control.

I think of the Civil Conversations project as a really valuable exercise in truly critical thinking and challenging mob mentality. Seems to me in your reporting of the Livingston story you’ve failed at critical thinking – and instead subscribed to victim-think. If it’s any comfort to you (and it shouldn’t be!), most of the popular media are reporting the Livingston story just as uncritically as you are....

Trent Gilliss's picture

John, you are not alone. The definition of bullying is one of those slippery terms that allows for some interpretation, depending upon who you are, what you've experienced, where you come from, and so on. The outpouring of support in her community is what struck me as germane to our civil discussion.

On our Facebook page, Stephen Parker asked a similar question:

She is quite composed and, yes, civil, but how is the viewer's email - even if hurtful to her - an example of bullying?

Here's the line of response to his question — and possibly yours:

Libby Nickel: "You're fat, therefore you are a bad example for 'the children' and should change your ways." -> Not bullying?

Renee Sharpless Bartovics: "So glad this is going viral- She is a newscaster in the big town not far from me- Keep on telling it like it is!"

Anna Johnson: "it's weight bias, the person implied she was unfit to be a role model because she was fat. It became bullying when the person sent the email."

Shelley Moore: "Commenting negatively on another person's weight is unacceptable, whether it's done the chickens*** way (by email) or to their face. It's uncivil, mean-spirited and is always meant to put the person down and make them feel badly. The most obnoxious thing about this man's nastiness is how he delivers it wrapped up in sanctimony and phony caring 'for the health of humanity.' There's something truly vile about someone pretending to do good when they're really intending to do damage."

John Peterson: "The coward who sent this hurtful email has propelled this articulate, confident, and heretofore local personality onto the national stage, where her message will inspire millions. Thank you Krista!"

Rob Jones: Bullying in the sense of using 'superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants' I'm not so sure so sure. Where's the superior strength or influence? Telling someone something they already know about themselves may be not productive or helpful but the "hurtful" concept is somewhat subjective...does it hurt because it's true? Is there a way to tell someone something unpleasant without being hurtful? Does perceiving something "hurtful" make it so? While I don't agree with the emailer's ideas about the newscaster and her weight, I didn't find his language offensive. He expressed his opinion in a relatively private forum in reasonably well toned language...there was no power imbalance, no use of fear for manipulation, no public humiliation. I'm no fan of bullying, nor am I fan of overuse of the concept either. Hurt feelings alone are not evidence of bullying."

Paivi Kristiina Salo Karna: What the e-mailer did was unacceptable because he does not have a relationship with the anchor that would give him the right to approach such a personal subject. What does he know of her struggles with weight? Does he have any idea how difficult it is for some to keep their weight at a reasonable level? Based on his e-mail I doubt it. Only those who are close to us, our family, our closest friends, our doctors, those with whom we have a relationship of love and/or trust have the right to approach us on such a personal level, and if the goal is to encourage then it needs to be done with care and understanding. He definitely crossed the line."

Lori J Statler: "Maybe it wasn't bullying, but it sure was a dick move."

Victoria Williams: "This is so awesome. However, the jackass who wrote the message responded with the same type of criticism. I guess some people just don't get it."

Renee French Eells: "Listen to this wisdom - amazing wisdom, beautiful lady!"

Mauricio Barriga: "Rob Jones, the writer intent was not to share an opinion, but to hurt and humiliate. Bullying is never acceptable, even if the tone is reasonable."

i agree with John Carrol's comment, and have not found satisfactory replies to it in this forum. To me the e-mail qualifies as 'rude' for being a blunt negative comment presented to a stranger; but does not meet a sensible definition of "bullying" - all the more since it appears that it was signed by the author, opening the possibility of conversation. A short version of the exchange would be:
- "Shame on you for being fat in public."
- "Shame on YOU for being a bully."
The first comment is rude; the reply is understandable but a bit overstated and pointless. I would have been more interested in a reply that addressed the issue of obesity alongside that of the hurtful effects rudeness and bullying. Ms. Livingson is certainly within her basic rights in sidestepping a rude, unsolicited and unwelcome comment with a "How dare you?" reply; it just doesn't strike me as an inspirational response. As things stand i personally have no clear sense of whether being overweight is a grave health concern, or a mostly aesthetic matter - it seems like the discussion hinges on that distinction.

Wow! What an inspiration to all-if only everyone would speak out about bullying in such an excellent manner. Kudos to you for a measured and intelligent response!

But the viewer NEVER called her "fat".
He also didn't say anything about her personality. Nor that she wasn't beautiful.
He only drew attention to whether it was appropriate for her to be a TV representative for health values when she is (and - according to the viewer - has been for a few years) clinically obese.
However harshly he expressed it, that WAS his one point and yet she never once refered to that ONE point of his.
So I agree with the other commentator here, John: she was not a victim of bullying and she has distorted what was actually said to her. I think she and the many who applaud her distortion are in denial.
And on a seperate but related issue, I wonder why so many people are supportive of this clear self-deception by the presenter. Plus what do we call the prevalence of 'obesity' in a world where people are starving? Isn't it an obscene immorality that we accept that as normal? Americans have the highest obesity per capita than any other nation. The relationship between food as a source of nutrition has been steadily corrupted. Our relationship to food, the environment and the world's dwindling resources has become quite perverse in its disregard of health issues both globally and personally.

Time to get real and see the deeper issues than just one person's personal sensitivity to the correct (though understandably unwelcome) observation that she IS and has been 'obese' and yet IS promoting a programme about health.

She never really addressed any of the points of the email. She even kind of spun it that he was attacking, when I took it as a misplaced ( of his ) concern about her impact on health matters in the community and how she could help people. It was a real chance at civility on both sides of the equation and missed by both parties. Probably her producer wrote it anyway...

Jennifer, bless you for this inspiration! (And - while it is none of my business because I do not watch TV news but am a radio fan - my impression of you is of an articulate, intelligent woman whose beauty glows from within.)
I will share your words with the teachers and parents at my school.

jennifer thank you for saying those word's to everyone. I wish more people would remember that everyone comes in many shapes and size because god intented us to be the way we are.

Bravo.

"Rude" and "inconsiderate" would certainly, to my mind, characterize the email to Ms. Livingston. Therefore I would agree with some of the posts here that "bullying" perhaps goes too far in describing the note's message. I understand bullying as the ugly twin to harassment, which is a more sustained kind of behavior that manifests itself over a period of time. In no way do I minimize the hurt and insult to which Ms. Livingston was subjected; women in particular continue to be placed under a microscope and subject to both subtle and explicit pressure to look and present in a particular way. At the same time, however, care must be taken in how and in what circumstances we apply very strong labels such as "bullying" wherein the label may in truth be misapplied.

apples