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I was boob-shamed on "Jeopardy." That's right, "Jeopardy" -- the cerebral TV quiz show with a television viewership I mistakenly assumed would be sophisticated, respectful, and humane.
My show taped on November 30, 2010. That day, at age 37, I accomplished a lifelong dream: to compete on "Jeopardy" without doing anything too embarrassing. I answered the Daily Double correctly, nailed the Final Jeopardy question, and came in a close second to a guy would later go on to compete in the Tournament of Champions. I had no idea that five months later, when my episode actually aired, that I would be blindsided by Twitter vitriol that had nothing to do with how I played and everything to do with how I looked. Or how my breasts looked, to be precise.
On April 6, 2011, the day my episode aired on national TV, my husband Alex called me at work.
“Get on Twitter. It’s starting in a few minutes.”
Alex is a Twitter fanatic. He thought it’d be fun to see what people had to say about my episode, with its first airing about to begin on the East Coast. (We live in San Diego so the episode wasn’t scheduled to air in our time zone for another three hours.)
I juggled the phone against my ear and typed #Jeopardy on my computer keyboard.
“Oh, Christ…” Alex murmured to himself over the phone.
“What is it?”
And then they started appearing on my screen. The Tweets. One after the other, all with the hashtag “Jeopardy.” The Twitterverse was weighing in on my appearance on the show, and it was humiliating.
"Chick on #Jeopardy has a flat tire," from @mksmn515.
"I'm totally distracted from this episode of #Jeopardy by this lady's pair of misshapen breasts. Red is not a good color for her," a woman with the Twitter handle @arson4humanity shared.
The spelling-challenged @calgacus73 commented, “Man this chic [sic] on #Jeopardy looks like she has mismatched breast sizes…one’s really big the other not so much.”
And this observation from @scargregjim: "Heysus! That lady on #jeopardy has one giant boob. One."
I instinctively covered my chest with my arms.
I thought back to the day we taped in November, in the moments before I was to walk onstage. Perhaps I should have listened to Connie, a kind, warmhearted speech-language pathologist from Kansas who was a fellow contestant.
I’d planned to wear a charcoal grey blazer over my red shirt on the show. At the last minute, before we went out on the set, my nerves had raised my body temperature to such a degree I was sweating like a pig, and the blazer felt like a down jacket in the suddenly stuffy greenroom. I took off the blazer and hung it up on a rack with the rest of the contestants’ clothes.
“Does this look OK without the blazer?” I asked Connie.
She cocked her head, squinted, and said in the most maternal way possible, “Well, that’s certainly a sexier choice.”
She was from the Midwest, I thought, and maybe sexy meant something different in that part of the country.
But my choice of clothing and the body beneath it sent out a message to viewers I was unaware of -- that I deserved to be criticized for what I looked like. This was “Jeopardy,” not “The Bachelor” -- but it didn’t seem to matter.
Those nasty Tweets stung, and it pissed me off. This was supposed to be one of the shining moments in my life. I made it on Jeopardy, for Chrissake, and I couldn’t enjoy it because I was too embarrassed by what strangers (whom I would never meet) were saying about my chest on the Internet.
Maybe it was time to stick up for myself. There were too many Tweets to respond to, so instead, I tried to follow as many of my Twitter critics as I could.
A few of my detractors began to follow back, almost in shock that I was a real person actually reading their assessment of me, rather than just an image on their TV box they were free to criticize without hurting anyone’s feelings.
That helped, some. But what I really needed was to talk to the one person who could lift my spirits, and make me feel like I was the smartest, cleverest, funniest girl on the planet. But my mother wasn’t available to me. She had died of cancer just one year earlier.
I didn’t have the kind of mother who cared if I left the house without makeup on, or made comments about my weight, or criticized the way I dressed. Her focus was rarely on my appearance. She often told me she thought I was beautiful, but I didn’t take it too seriously. She was my mom. She had to say that kind of stuff. Part of the job description.
So my self-esteem was never really wrapped up in how I looked. Of course I wanted the boys I had crushes on and the girls I was friends with to think I was pretty. But if they didn’t, I still knew who I was. I was a smart girl.
And as I got older, and entered my thirties, I gained weight and was no longer the string bean I’d been most of my life. Young men bagging my groceries started calling me “ma’am” instead of “miss.” But despite society’s drumbeat message that I was losing my value as a woman because I was getting older, my sense of self was stronger than ever. I was still a smart girl. Getting on “Jeopardy” seemed to codify that fact. So while the boob-shaming Tweets did knock me off my game for a few days, ultimately they didn’t change the way I felt about myself, or my “Jeopardy” experience.
Now, when I look back, I don’t think about the boob-shaming so much. Instead, I remember walking onto the glossy set for the first time during rehearsals, how bright the lights seemed, and how privileged I felt to be a part of something so magical. I remember how surreal it felt to hear Alex Trebek say my name out loud for the first time when I rang in to answer a question. I remember looking into his light brown eyes as I told him a story about how I slept with a can of tuna as a toddler during the game show’s get-to-know-the-contestant story break.
And I remember wishing my mother could’ve been there to share it all with me -- but somehow knowing she was always part of the journey.