Oct. 2, 2012 at 5:40 PM ET
"What has happened has been really inspiring, but overwhelming at the same time," Wisconsin television anchor Jennifer Livingston told TODAY's Savannah Guthrie Wednesday.
The 37-year-old anchor/reporter at WKBT-TV in La Crosse, Wis., became the center of attention Tuesday after she went on air to respond to what she called "a personal attack," a harshly critical email from a viewer who suggested she was too fat to be on TV. Her bold retort has become national news, spurring a heartwarming response from the public and a new discussion about the boundaries of bullying.
"I have never gone in the public and said I was a shining example of what your health should be," Livingston told TODAY Wednesday. "And I have never said girls should aspire to have a body like mine."
She continued, "When you attack somebody on a level that is personal, it’s not fair."
In the original email, the viewer wrote: “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.”
Many media types may have shrugged off the criticism as part of the job. Anyone who’s in the public eye is used to hate mail, name-calling -- and worse. But then Livingston’s husband, fellow WKBT anchor Mike Thompson, posted the email on the station’s Facebook page.
Hundreds of people left comments; more than 2,200 “liked” the posts.
And so Livingston decided to fight back.
In an on-air segment that ran more than 4 minutes, she acknowledged that she is overweight – “You can call me fat, and yes, even obese on a doctor’s chart,” she said -- but then she lashed out at the viewer for contributing to a culture of bad-mouthing and bullying.
“If you are at home and you are talking about the fat newslady, guess what, your children are probably going to go to school and call someone fat,” she said.
She urged children and others who have been victims of cruel criticism to take heart.
“Do not let yourself be defined by bullies,” she said.
On TODAY Wednesday, Livingston, the mother of three girls, said it wasn't the fat-shaming that upset her, but the accusation of being a bad role model.
"I can deal with being called fat ... with being called obese," she told TODAY's Guthrie. "It was calling me a bad role model that rubbed me the wrong way, and not only a bad role model for our community, but for young girls, in particular."
The man who wrote the email, Kenneth Krause, told the Associated Press that his emails had nothing to do with bullying. Livingston and Krause exchanged a few emails, but Livingston said he wouldn't back down from his opinion that she was a bad role model.
On Tuesday Krause stood by his initial email and issued a statement: "I hope she will finally take advantage of a rare and golden opportunity to influence the health and psychological well-being of coulee region children by transforming herself for all of her viewers to see over the next year, and, to that end, I would be absolutely pleased to offer jennifer any advice or support she would be willing to accept."
Livingston told TODAY she believed the viewer's concern about obesity was genuine, but "I think his approach was totally inappropriate."
Livingston’s move is a step toward civility in a society that thinks a woman’s weight is fair game, said Dr. Robyn Silverman, a body image expert and author of the book “Good Girls Don’t Get Fat: How Weight Obsession is Messing Up Our Girls & How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It.”
“I applaud her for her response,” Silverman said. “It was a very responsible response.”
We’ve become a “fault-finding” society where it’s acceptable to make snarky comments about anyone, but especially those in the public eye, Silverman said.
When Livingston stood up to the mean-spirited viewer, she was helping combat the messages that say it’s OK to judge people based on weight.
“We send the message to our children that they are not good enough, they are not valuable enough, unless they look a certain way,” Silverman said.
Though some of the responses to Livingston’s video were as cruel as the original comments, others were an affirmation of her individuality and courage.
“Tell your wife she rocks,” one poster wrote.
“Your wife is AWESOME! You’re a lucky man,” wrote another.
“Wish more people would focus on promoting compassion and kindness instead of focusing on appearances only,” wrote a third.
Livingston, whose station profile says she’s the mother of three young girls, did not respond to TODAY Health requests for comment. But in her on-air segment, she told viewers she was buoyed by the outpouring of support – and wanted others to be, too.
“Learn from my experience,” she said. “That the cruel words of one are nothing compared to the shouts of many.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report