The Mommy Vortex: How You Look Is Not Who You Are
Last week, in a video that went viral, morning news anchor Jennifer Livingston of WKBT-TV (a CBS affiliate in LaCrosse, Wisconsin), publicly responded to a cruel email sent to her by an occasional viewer concerning her weight. Instead of becoming defensive, Ms. Livingston turned an offensive situation into an opportunity to speak out against bullying.
While I was heartened to see her response, I couldn’t shake the feeling of anger and disbelief that this woman had to go on television and respond to such superficial, callous, and unnecessary remarks from a stranger. It made me think of similar situations over the past few years, where women and young girls were routinely subject to critical comments from the media and the general public simply about their appearance.
It made me wonder for the umpteenth time, why do we as a community think it’s acceptable to judge females by their appearance? Why don’t we judge men that way? And most importantly, what are we teaching our daughters (and sons) about their self-worth when we perpetuate and allow this unnecessary discourse to continue?
Admittedly, I am not one to pay much attention to the latest fashions on the cover of those glossy magazines; frankly, the airbrushed pictures of too-skinny models and actresses wearing impractical clothing don’t do much for my post-child bearing body’s self-esteem. But I simply cannot ignore the appearance-related comments about those women and girls in the public eye who are out there giving so much more to society than just sharing a pretty face.
Take gymnast Gabby Douglas for instance. Back over the summer, during the London Olympics, the United States women’s gymnastics team won team gold, as well as a number of individual medals. Gabby Douglas, the young woman from the U.S. gymnastics team that took individual gold in the all-around competition, had made many personal sacrifices to achieve that unique and enviable accomplishment. Yet, during her competition days, the media became focused on what she was wearing. Was her leotard patriotic enough? Should she have worn a more American-influenced design instead of hot-pink?
I remember becoming infuriated listening to and reading these ridiculous comments. I wanted to snap off the television, especially when my kids were watching with me. What did it matter what she was wearing? She was representing our country, and after years of hard work, she managed to perform gymnastics in a way that earned her and her country two premier gold medals. I never heard the commentators remarking about the mens’ outfits – and they didn’t fare nearly as well as the women in the competition.
What is it about our society that allows us to think we have permission to critique and discuss a women’s outfit, makeup, or even hair as being relevant to that woman’s accomplishments, self-worth, or her ability to make contributions to their fields? I can still remember the running commentary about prosecutor Marcia Clarke’s changing hair styles at the infamous OJ Simpson murder trial back in 1995. And given that she wasn’t the only one subject to such ridiculous scrutiny during that trial, I’d like to think that the verdict was based on more than a haircut or a new suit.
As a professional, I completely understand that appearance matters in terms of being respected; you just can’t go to most job interviews in ripped jeans and t-shirt and expect to be taken seriously. We can all agree that we have certain cultural expectations about appearances in a professional environment. But these relentless and unfounded attacks on women in the public eye are a completely different animal, because the media and viewers are purposefully creating a nexus between a women’s weight or hairstyle and their self-worth and abilities. And that is just not acceptable.
Ms. Livingston said it best in her on-air response, “. . . this behavior is learned; it is passed down . . .” By bringing this point to the surface, Ms. Livingston reminded all of us that if we are criticizing each other (and ourselves) in a superficial and negative manner, our kids are going to do the same thing to themselves and each other. It starts – and ends – with us.
We need to let our daughters know that their self-worth and their contributions to society are based on so much more than the outfit they are wearing or how they style their hair. We have to remind them that they need to be healthy – not necessarily skinny – because they have to care about themselves for reasons that matter more than looking like a magazine model.
And every time they are criticized by another person based on appearances, we need to lift up their self-esteem based on the talents and qualities they possess, which really shouldn’t include how they look. I, for one, wouldn’t want anyone judging my abilities simply based on my appearance. None of us would.
So we have to change our collective approach as a society. If enough of us women and parents speak out against such cruel and unnecessary criticisms, if enough of us stop buying the publications that perpetuate unhealthy and unattainable body images, and if more of us show our children that we love ourselves despite our own flaws, perhaps responses like Ms. Livingston’s will become unnecessary; and, eventually, perhaps people like the viewer that sent that appalling email will be rendered powerless, and simply fade away.
Rosemarie Coppola-Baldwin is a practicing attorney and a dedicated mother of two children. A Georgetown University graduate, Rosemarie has practiced law at a major New York City law firm and for the City of New York. Rosemarie has been a guest lecturer on women’s civil rights and related legal issues at St. John’s University (New York), and offers pro bono legal services to a variety of entities.