How do you respond when asked, "Who is your role model?"
I find most women suggest a well-known figure—their favorite actor, a gifted musician or beloved author. Sometimes, it's a woman who has broken a glass ceiling—Arianna Huffington, Sheryl Sandberg or Meg Whitman come to mind. Or a political figure who has power and influence—Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama are popular choices these days.
While it's one thing to admire smart, strong and talented women, it's another when these icons do something out of the ordinary that is ultimately inspiring.
Which is just what happened last month when Wisconsin TV anchor Jennifer Livingston offered a gutsy, public response to a letter she received criticizing her appearance. The note, written by a Wisconsin lawyer and posted on social media by Livingston's husband said, "I was surprised indeed to witness that your physical condition hasn't improved for many years." He suggested that the anchor was not a "suitable example" for young girls, going on to say, "I leave you this note hoping that you'll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle."
After a great deal of online attention, Livingston decided to go on air to respond. She said, "The truth is, I am overweight, 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...so you know nothing about me but what you see on the outside and I am much more than a number on a scale." In speaking out, this competent, confident—and yes, attractive—anchor endeared herself not only to others who fight their weight battles, but to younger generations of those bullied for any number of reasons. A role model, for sure, perhaps even more deserving after courageously defending herself in this very public way.
Not long ago, actress Ashley Judd drew similar admiration when spoke out against physical objectification of women. She fended off cruel, incessant rumors about her "puffy face," attributing it to prescription steroids, not the plastic surgery she was inaccurately accused of having. On NBC's Rock Center, she described how women are persecuted for having "work" done if they look good and criticized if they don't. She pleaded with women to stop being their own worst enemies and many—including non-celebrities—supported her efforts to get women to be more supportive of one another.
And there are others speaking out, inspiring women to take a stand. Lady Gaga used her celebrity status to turn hurtful gossip about her recent weight gain into a rallying cry, encouraging women to join her in going public with their "less than perfect" bodies. She posted pictures of herself in her underwear—without her typical wigs, costumes or makeup—to send a message to the media to stop their bullying. She invited fans of all sizes, weight and shapes to post photos of themselves "as they really are." She called it the "Body Revolution," and got over 30 million women tweeting about it. Gaga wrote, "Watching you all create a safe space online for people to be compassionate is the greatest gift you could ever give me. My weight/loss/gain since I was child has tormented me. No amount of help has ever healed my pain about it. But YOU have."
Oprah is another public figure who has inspired others being on the receiving end of wildly mixed emotions about her body. While her fans have cheered her ever-reducing size, they also claimed to love her, large or small. She now talks about feeling glad she can focus on other aspects of herself that matter more. On Oprah.com, she wrote, "I think of all the years I've wasted hating myself fat, wanting myself thin...abhorring the thought of trying on clothes, wondering what was going to fit, what number the scale would say. All that energy I could have spent loving what is." Oprah, courageous in many ways, has handled herself beautifully on the body-image rollercoaster she has ridden for years.
Oprah may very well be a role model for Grammy Award winner Adele, who openly takes pride in who she is as a larger, plus-size woman. She advises others like her, saying, "the first thing to do is be happy with yourself and appreciate your body—only then should you try to change things about yourself." Meanwhile, Jennifer Hudson, another talented, and once full-bodied singer, has taken a different path reacting to life under scrutiny. Transforming herself from curvaceous to lithe, her fans now "ooh and ahh" not only about her voice, but her glamorous physique and hard work in getting there. Time will tell how these two young women deal with the scrutiny over their bodies and if they will ultimately serve as role models for the women who now admire them.
There are the two new young females coming into the public eye—Lena Dunham, on HBO's Girls and Mindy Kaling, on Fox's The Mindy Project—who may be showing us the role that contemporary role models will ultimately play. These are not your traditional television starlets and their shows are refreshingly not about beauty, bodies and perfection. If anything, Durham calls attention to her genuine, physical qualities by putting herself in unflattering and gritty nude scenes. And, in Kaling's show, when a co-worker tells her she needs to lose weight, she acts truly stunned—almost flaunting her less-than-petite size curves.
So what does it mean to be a good female role model in contemporary culture? Besides the obvious—being strong, smart, powerful and independent—is it the woman who transforms herself, gets into shape and loses weight? Or the one who rebels and doesn't care? Is it the aging woman who has the courage to admit to cosmetic surgery or the one who resists?
Perhaps the answer lies in the admiration for those who stand firm and strong about what they believe is good and right for them—rather than succumbing to the opinions of others. And maybe it's time to realize that role models come in different sizes and shapes.
Who is your role model and why?
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.