I was recently shown this video of a local news anchor taking a stand. If you haven’t seen the clip, I would highly recommend it. In the news segment, Jennifer Livingston, morning anchor for LaCrosse, Wisconsin’s CBS station responds to a letter which criticizes her appearance of being overweight. The letter states “surely you don’t consider yourself a suitable example for this community’s young people, girls in particular.” Livingston handles the criticism amazingly well and turns a negative attack into a strong message for anti-bullying campaigns. The interesting question that comes from this example is whether a man would face the same criticism for his weight that Livingston did.
Obviously, the media portrayal of men and women can be very different. Though the young, fit, and typically white portrayals of both men and women remains the norm, there is a far more diverse range of accepted roles for men in media. Fat guys are accepted as funny, charming, and often kind-hearted. Fat women are not often depicted. Older men are often shown as worldly, smart, and attractive. Older women rarely receive the same treatment.
However, we are beginning to see some paradigms shift. The movie Bridesmaids has vaulted plus sized actress Melissa McCarthy into a number of upcoming starring roles in other comedies. Actress Rebel Wilson, who also appears in Bridesmaids, plays a major part in the recent Pitch Perfect and is incredibly funny in both films. It’s nice to see that society can accept female comedians and actresses who don’t fit the traditional ideas of “fit” and “attractive.” After all, a huge list of male comedians has escaped body image criticism for decades.
Another move toward change is a more favorable depiction of older women. Though the idea of a “cougar” can be construed as a double edged sword, there remain some positives about showing older women as attractive. The most obvious is that many women feel that they somehow “peak” in their early twenties. As a male, the idea that somehow I will never be as attractive as I was at age 21 has never crossed my mind. Sadly, society engrains an idea into women that it’s all downhill from there. Perhaps shifting norms that women don’t suddenly become unattractive once they hit 30 will end this horrible attitude toward women.
I don’t write this post as a claim that society is magically fixed by changing media portrayals. What I am writing about is the reason that we have idiots writing letters to heckle women such as Jennifer Livingston is due to a homogeneous depiction of “the way women should look” due to movies, television, and other media. Though most reasonable people consciously realize that media depictions aren’t realistic or representative or real life, on a subconscious level, these images affect all of us.
Life can be hard at times for both men and women. Just ask the majority of middle schoolers. But, it is easier for men to look to the media for reassurance because there is a much larger diversity of appearance. Feel bad about your weight? Look at all the successful men who were overweight and still made tons of movies. Feel worried about getting older? Plenty of men in movies are shown as even more attractive (and still attract young women). Women on the other hand, don’t find this same reassurance.
Which brings me back full circle to the video of news anchor Jennifer Livingston. Would an overweight man have received the same letter? I would wager that they would be far less likely, and the reason I’d point to is media portrayal.
I am happy that Mrs. Livingston addressed the offensive letter head on because it brings awareness to the attitudes that many have. I’m happy about the success of actresses like Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson. I’m happy to see shows depict older women as attractive (despite some questionable elements of sexism). Only by changing the ideas of what is acceptable appearance can we eliminate hateful attacks like the one received by Jennifer Livingston. The more that people are able to unite in accepting the differences of others, the easier it gets.