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What Is Bullying?
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim
Being a health care provider and educator, I've met all sorts of people who are passionate about healthy eating. My experience has been that most people looking to improve and maintain their health through optimal food choices and a balanced lifestyle have good intentions and seek to be healthy so that they can enjoy being alive.
Sadly, I've also known some people who have gone into an emotional death spiral of sorts, where the desire for better health transforms into something quite dark, a mindset that seems to rate people's worth by what they eat and how thin or fit they appear.
Many years ago when I was living in California and deeply immersed in learning about the health benefits of water fasting, I followed a strict vegan diet, choosing to eat mostly raw foods with small servings of cooked vegetables, legumes, and some gluten-free grains like quinoa and brown rice. At that time, I became good friends with a fellow who was a true champion of the raw food diet. He had serious dental problems that he couldn't afford to have treated, but he was close to all-raw, an exercise enthusiast, and overall, an inspiration to those looking to adopt a healthier lifestyle.
After I returned to Canada, got married, and started my own fasting clinic, my friend came for a visit one winter. I wondered what he would think about me marrying someone who wasn't a strict vegan - Margaret had long followed a healthy lifestyle, but never to any extreme. And since getting married, though I was still a vegetarian, I didn't get too crazy about avoiding the occasional processed treat like non-dairy ice cream or tortilla chips with salsa.
Well, as soon as Margaret offered my friend some tostitos with salsa after our huge salad dinner, I saw something flicker in my friend's face. He was still pleasant, but I sensed that he was dismayed over us having such foods in our home.
Though he never specifically condemned my shift away from the diet that I faithfully followed while I was in California, over the next few months, our friendship fizzled away. In one e-mail, he mentioned that he was as determined as ever not to lower his standards, which I guess was his way of gently letting me know that he couldn't be friends with someone who wasn't committed to the same way of eating.
Here's the thing: though it hurt a bit to feel rejected based on my food choices, I think my friend was quite civil about expressing his values. Sadly, I have found that some people with my friend's mindset on diet can get downright elitist and mean when they interact with people who don't live up to their ideas on what a healthy diet and lifestyle look like.
Take, for example, a message that one viewer sent to a Wisconsin news anchor named Jennifer Livingston:
"Hi Jennifer, It's unusual that I see your morning show, but I did so for a very short time today. I was surprised indeed to witness that your physical condition hasn't improved for many years. Surely you don't consider yourself a suitable example for this community's young people, girls in particular."
"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."
Jennifer responded to this message, saying
"Now those of us in the media, we get a healthy dose of critiques from our viewers throughout the year, and we realize that it comes with having a job in the public eye.
"But this email was more than that.
"The truth is, I am overweight. You could call me fat, and yes, even obese, on a doctor’s chart. But to the person who wrote me that letter, do you think I don’t know that, that your cruel words are pointing out something that I don’t see?
"You don't know me. You are not a friend of mine. You are not a part of my family. And you have admitted that you don't watch this show.
"So you know nothing about me but what you see on the outside. And I am much more than a number on the scale.
"That man's words mean nothing to me, but what really angers me about this is there are children who don't know better, who get e-mails as critical as the one I received, or in may cases even worse, each and every day. The internet has become a weapon. Our schools have become a battleground and this behavior is learned. It is passed down from people like the man who wrote me that e-mail.
"If you were at home and you were talking about the fat news lady, guess what? Your children are probably going to go to school and call someone fat.
"To all of the children out there who feel lost, who are struggling with your weight, with the color of your skin, you sexual preference, your disability, even the acne on your face, listen to me right now: do not let your self worth be defined by bullies."
Here is Jennifer's full response via video:
My feeling is that most people would agree that the message sent to Jennifer was unkind and unnecessary. But there are those who don't feel this way at all. Take, for example, the following comment from the news station's facebook page:
"When did opinions and observations put in a clear message become bullying? He saw a woman that could take better care of herself and said as much. I could lose a few pounds myself and don't mind hearing it from those around me. I contend that Jennifer, in fact, is the bully. She used her position of influence to ostracize a man who pointed out her flaw. Jennifer might take this opportunity to evaluate her life choices and make some changes to her diet for the love of her family and loved ones. Eating disorders are serious as they are often how we are hard-wired. To those that rally around the overweight to spare their feelings, use that energy to encourage better diet choices. In the same way we might not want to see a friend drinking beer every day, we should suggest better eating options to those who need upbeat advice. So many would rather pat the shoulders of those whose feelings have been hurt. I don't feel that shaming is the answer, nor is coddling."
I, for one, am with those who feel that the message sent to Jennifer was an act of bullying. I imagine that Jennifer, like most of us, has enough challenges in her everyday life - making a living, taking care of loved ones, caring for herself, looking to be of service to others - that it's not helpful in the slightest to have someone tell her that she is setting a bad example for children.
I've long believed that a healthy body without a thoughtful spirit that is sensitive to other people's feelings is somewhat of a wasted existence. Who cares if we're healthy if we're going to walk through this world making others feel bad? If people don't sparkle in our presence, we are not nourishing them, we are not nurturing, regardless of our intentions.
Thanks, Jennifer, for reminding us to be mindful of everything we say, especially in front of our children.
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