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We know fat is bad — but it’s OK to be fat?

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Updated: November 6, 2012 6:21AM

So is being fat bad? Or is it good?

Fat is bad, right? It’s unhealthy, unattractive, limiting and a sign a person needs to take control of his or her life, to diet, exercise, become less fat. Most believe that.

Yet lots of people are fat. One third of U.S. adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Their continual diligent efforts to get thin inevitably come to naught. They still have to face themselves every day, and rather than waste their lives yearning toward some impossible ideal, they need to accept themselves. They learn to think: I’m OK. It’s OK to be fat. Fat is good.

So which is it?

Society accepts all sorts of heretofore marginalized groups — people with differing abilities or sexual orientation. Yet in 2012 fat doesn’t quite make the cut. Michelle Obama picked childhood obesity as her safe, First Lady cause, and all but the most extreme right-wing fanatics see this as an inarguably worthy cause. What parent is glad to have a fat kid? It’s heartbreak. Kids should eat right, exercise, be less fat. We all encourage that.

And yet. Here is Jennifer Livingston, a Wisconsin anchorwoman who projected herself from the echoless oblivion of the La Crosse media market to national attention with a single four-minute commentary earlier this week on WKBT, her TV station.

A viewer sent her an email last Friday. It reads, in its entirety: “Hi Jennifer. It is 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 an 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 this note hoping you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.”

Livingston would have just winced and let that drop into the swirling vortex of anonymous cruelty that is the Internet. But her husband, another anchor at the station, posted the email on his Facebook page. Livingston was emboldened by the outpouring of support, and took to the air Tuesday.

“The truth is, I am overweight,” she said. “You could call me fat and yes, even obese on a doctor’s chart. But to the person who wrote that letter — do you think I don’t know that? That your cruel words are pointing out something I don’t see?”

Because the viewer’s remarks are couched in sense, you might miss the mean, unfair part, so I’ll highlight it. Obesity is not a “choice.” Nobody decides to be fat. Obesity is a result of 50,000 years of human culture and genetics butting up against our last 50 years of relentless super-abundance. Lifestyle choices can affect weight, but taking pride in not being fat is like taking pride in not getting cancer — giving yourself too much credit for something chance gave you.

“You know nothing about me but what you see on the outside,” the 37-year-old mother of three young girls continued. “I am much more than a number on a scale. And here is where I want all of us to learn something from this. If you didn’t already know, October is National Antibullying Month, and this is a problem that is growing every day in our schools and on the Internet.”

What is most admirable about Livingston’s reply is that she makes it, not about herself, but about every kid teased for any reason.

“The Internet has become a weapon,” she said. “Our schools have become a battleground, and this behavior is learned. It is passed down from people like the man who wrote that email. If you are at home and talking about the fat news lady, guess what? Your children are probably going to go to school and calling somebody ‘fat.’ We need to teach our kids to be kind, not critical, and we need to do so by example.”

Having been fat myself, I know that, as often happens with afflictions, fatness is a mixed blessing, both good and bad. I became the person I am because I wasn’t running around with the athletes, and honed my wit cutting the Berea bullies down to size.

Yet I just can’t embrace those who find the answer is complete acceptance. Fatness is indeed unhealthy, uncomfortable. We should try to be thinner. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

But that is a personal decision, and just as you wouldn’t mock people for their height, or race, or religion, so how they view their body is all their concern and none of yours.

The key word in Livingston’s bold remarks is “kindness.” A value not stressed enough. There is another lesson here, too. Livingston’s comments were posted on YouTube on Tuesday. By Thursday they had 5.7 million hits and she was a national name. Expect to hear more from her. Fat is often bad, but it can also be good, because it demands courage, and courage is rewarded, sometimes.

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