Most of what I know about Wisconsin comes from my friends who live there. I hear about Scott Walker and I hear about the weather. And once a year, I go to Madison for a feminist science fiction convention called Wiscon.
But now I also know about a news anchor named Jennifer (link goes to a video), who works for Channel 8 in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Jennifer, as one can immediately see in the video, is fat.
I prefer fat as a descriptor. I do a lot of work toward reclaiming that word, in part because it's the best adjective for what my body is. But I also work to reclaim it because the people who harass and hate fat people don't get to take my words away from me. I am a happy, perky little Muppet of a person but I will be damned before I give bullies the satisfaction of cowing me. (See what I did there?)
As a fat woman in the public eye, I'm no stranger to random emails popping into my inbox to tell me I'm fat. Like I don't know. Like I walk around and there's a haze of self-delusion that prevents me from knowing, quite intimately, how large my body is. So I'm not actually surprised that a random viewer decided one day, after a brief watch of Jennifer on television, that it would be a good idea to email her and tell Jennifer that not only is she fat, she's a poor example to young people, especially girls.
This makes me teeth-grittingly angry.
And maybe it made Jennifer that angry as well. Because she responded. And her response is pretty freaking amazing.
Also amazing: that the station let her do it. I'm kind of blown away that there exists anywhere in our fat-hating country a media outlet that found it appropriate to let a fat woman speak out in her own defense. It's not a lot of time in my day -- but in air time, just over four minutes is something like a lifetime.
Y'all, my hands are actually shaking as I type. It's not just her response -- it's that this sort of thing is necessary. It's that people actively reach out to injure fat people and then, in my general experience, feel self-righteously satisfied, as though they have performed a community service by shaming someone.
Jennifer makes the point that she tried to laugh off this hurtful attack. I know very well that some of you are sitting there protesting that the writer of the email didn't attack her, didn't say anything cruel. Some of you are protesting that there's an Obesity Epidemic, omgxors!!!11! We can't have fat people hanging out and doing things like they're just people! The writer of that email is Just Concerned About Her Health.
To you, I say this: If you gave a good goddamn about the health of fat people, you'd shut up about our fatness. You are destroying our mental health -- and that can kill a person just as surely as anything else.
Jennifer tried to brush off the email because so many fat people, especially fat people in the public eye, are used to that kind of thing. We are used to constant commentary on our bodies, as though we are public property. Leaving our homes is invitation to critique us.
It's kind of a shitty way to live, if we're being honest. And we are, because that's what we do here, right? We spread out our fears and our sex lives and our triumphs and our humiliations. And some of us write about our bodies because, hey, women's bodies are all kind of treated as public property, aren't they?
I had to rewatch, just to make sure I heard it correctly, when Jennifer says that her colleagues, including her husband, wouldn't let the email go. Her husband posted the email on his professional Facebook page -- and then viewers and fans did something that I completely did not expect (I can't even always read comments here because there is so much fat hate in the world and some days I just can't deal). They came to Jennifer's defense. Hundreds of comments later, Jennifer delivered her response on television.
There is nothing funny or lighthearted in her response. She's serious and impassioned. If you've never been fat, you might not actually be aware how rare that is. The trope of the jolly fat person is alive and well and living in our literature. Fat people often use humor to deflect hurtful comments and serve as a protective barrier between us and the rest of the world. Or, you know, between us and ourselves. Because fat people can be awfully hard on themselves.
Jennifer asks the question that many of us want to, when we're cow-called. "Do you think I don't know that?" It could be a rhetorical question, but I think most of us mean it seriously. Do you really think we don't know, especially those of us who grew up fat, that our bodies are different? Do you really think it's possible to live in this culture and not be exquisitely, painfully aware of every roll and bulge and extra pound that separates us from the ideal? Even women who are by no stretch of the imagination actually medically fat are convinced they are fat. Hell, we talk about "Hollywood fat" because that place has its own standard of acceptable bodies.
We know we're fat. Fatness really isn't on par with having something stuck in our teeth.
I've done some television and a fair amount of radio. And it has surprised some folks how willing I am to go into situations where I know the hosts are, well, more conservative. It's because I know what I'm going to get in those situations -- but when I'm on with more liberal folks, it's like talking to a brick wall. Because more liberal folks -- and I include myself in this group -- like to think we're so enlightened and politically advanced. We talk about social welfare and public health -- and then those friendly liberal radio hosts turn around and tell me they just think I should try to lose a little weight.
(That actually happened with Ron Reagan, Jr., after an hour-long show. He's all for stem cells but he can't quite bring himself to believe that I do things like get up and walk around.)
All of this feels personal because it is. Is there anything more personal than your body?
Jennifer calls out the person who emailed her for being a bully. Bullies tear people down, grind us under their heels like we're not good enough. Bullies enforce the social status quo, make sure none of us get ideas about being worthwhile human beings.
Bullies do not only operate in schools. There are plenty of adult bullies. And there are plenty of grownups who continue to be targeted for bullying.
When Jennifer talks about bullying, she talks about children. She talks about our schools and kids on the Internet. But this is just as applicable to adults -- who, I have to observe, are a lot more likely to be watching the news.
Bullying IS a learned behavior. And while fat is not a bad word, calling someone fat with the intent to remind them of all the cultural baggage now associated with the word and the concept is absolutely bullying behavior whether you are a child or an adult who is teaching your children what's acceptable. "Your [sic] fat," say the emails, which are almost always grammatically incorrect. "Yes," I say to myself. "I sure am." Because it's true. And because random people don't get to have that kind of power over me anymore.
"Do not let your self-worth be defined by bullies," Jennifer says -- not only to the fat kids but to the kids of color and the disabled kids and the queer kids (and to the kids with acne). "Learn from my experience that the cruel words of one are nothing compared to the shouts of many."
I hope we are all part of the many. I hope we all learn to shout. And, in the meantime, I am so very glad that Jennifer is there, serving as an example to the young people -- especially the girls -- of her community.