Jennifer Livingston, the morning anchor with WKBT-TV in La Crosse, Wisconsin, who started a national conversation by calling out a viewer on the air after he wrote her an email criticizing her weight, touched a nerve that launched a national conversation about bullying, weight and body norms.
Now, the mother of three writes an exclusive personal essay for Parenting.com in which she reflects on the experience of going viral—the YouTube clip of her editorial has been viewed more than 10 million times in less than a month—and why it was important for her, as a parent, "to take the lead." In the end she set an example not just for her own daughters, but impressed a nation with what it looks like to stand up for yourself. Here, in her own words, is what she took away from the entire episode.
I was waiting at a stoplight the other day when I saw a friend of mine crossing the street. I rolled the window down and jokingly said, “Hey lady—get out of the way!” She laughed and waved as I drove away. It wasn’t until later that day when my three-year-old yelled, “Hey lady—get out of the way,” to a complete stranger in the checkout line at the grocery store that I realized I needed to do some damage control.
We’ve all done that, right? Said something or done something that our children have inevitably repeated that doesn’t exactly shine the best light on us as parents. That’s the power we have over these young, impressionable minds. They follow our lead.
That was the thought that kept crossing my mind when I was at home on my computer on October 1st, trying to ?gure out how to address a particularly cruel e-mail I received from a viewer regarding my weight. It had become a major talking point in my small city after my husband shared the post on Facebook. In the e-mail the man said, in part, “Surely you don't consider yourself a suitable example for this community's young people, girls in particular.”
Wait, what? Why does my size have anything to do with my ability to be a good role model?
My husband and I shared the e-mail with our 10-year-old daughter. She nearly cried when she said, “that is so mean.”
She was right. It was mean. It was meant to try and make me feel ashamed of myself, of the way I look. As a mom, I have talked to my daughter about standing up for herself—standing up for her friends when she witnesses cruel behavior. Now it was her mom’s turn. I needed to take the lead. To be the person I want her to be.
I spent four minutes talking to people about the power words can have. That we as parents need to teach kindness by example. We need to instill con?dence in our children to be proud of who they are and stand up for what’s right.
Since it ?rst aired, I have heard from people literally all over the world. Children who have been inspired to ?nally speak up for themselves. A 13-year-old from Indiana just wrote me to say he had always been the bully, but my editorial made him realize how hurtful he’d been. I’m happy to say, he has since apologized to those he’d been cruel to.
I’ve also heard from thousands of adults. Many of their stories are the same. They were bullied years ago and it still hurts today.
I never could have imagined how widespread my message would reach. I'm still trying to ?gure out why my words resonated with so many people. I think partly because I took a stand, partly because so many overweight people felt I was speaking for them. But mostly I think they were words that just needed to be said. We have a serious problem and we as parents need to part of the solution.
I encourage you to share your own experiences with your children. To let them know you were in their shoes once. That you did it right, or wish you could have done it better.
And acknowledge their struggles and challenges. Help them to love who they are no matter what the critics think. For instance, I am trying to lose weight and it’s hard. Like so many people, adults and children, I struggle with this issue every day. But just because I hope to be a smaller size in the future, doesn’t mean I’m going to be ashamed of the size I am today.
No one is perfect. And some of us wear our ?aws a little more prominently than others. Am I overweight? Yes. But I am also a brunette. I’m a scrapbooker. I’m an athlete. I love The Hunger Games. I’m the mother of three girls. I’ve had three miscarriages. I am a journalist. I love to sing. I dabble in photography. I volunteer. I have a thyroid condition. I listen to Taylor Swift every chance I get. I am a daughter, wife and sister. Get it?
Being overweight is one part of who I am. It is not the de?ning part. Someone tried to judge this book by its cover, not realizing the whole story that awaited inside.
I could have let that e-mail go. I could have so easily hit delete. But what kind of example would that have set? What kind of message does that send? Be the person you want your children to be.
Take the lead. And they will follow.