In the past 24 hours, the story of the “fat-shamed local news anchor” has gone viral. Jennifer Livingston received a letter from a viewer criticizing her weight, and her passionate response has caught the attention of the nation.
Whereas many thousands of people are cheering Livingston on, there are thousands of others who have questioned whether or not she was actually bullied. Having done significant amounts of research in the area of bullying, here are my thoughts:
Bullying takes place on a continuum, ranging from verbal taunts and social exclusion all the way to physical violence and extreme cyberbullying. As such, there is a significant amount of variation in what constitutes bullying. But there is one thing that all bullying has in common: it is based on the belief that one person is entitled to make judgments about another, grounded in the assumption that the one doing the judging is superior to the one being judged.
If you look at the identified characteristics of bullying (repetitive unwanted attacks in the context of a power imbalance), then you might argue that this was a one-time event, in that the author of the mean letter has not sent her multiple letters or made multiple attacks.
But if you look at the motivation behind his letter, it falls into the type of thinking that defines bullies. A man who knows nothing about Jennifer Livingston made sweeping assumptions and critical judgments about her –solely based on her physical appearance –and that is classic behavior that we see in bullies. Even though the man has only written this one letter (that we know of) to Livingston, he has revealed that he harbors prejudices against her and that he sees overweight people as less valuable role models. He probably does not even think of himself as a bully, which is unfortunately the case with many people who subscribe to stereotypes about others.
Ultimately, it was brave of Jennifer to bring the issue to a public dialogue, because it is forcing people to confront their own thoughts and beliefs about what constitutes cruelty, and this furthers the anti-bullying discussion. I do always worry about mass backlash, which was the risk in naming the author of the letter, but he did take it upon himself to offer up his unsolicited unkind opinion, so now he will have to handle the response.”
Carrie Goldman, author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear