In just the first week of October’s National Anti-Bullying Month, two courageous women emerged to show that bullying can backfire. In West Branch, Mich., high school sophomore Whitney Kropp went from victim to fairy tale princess after vindictive classmates nominated her to the school’s homecoming court as a cruel prank. Across the Great Lakes, in Lacrosse, Wisc., local morning TV show anchor Jennifer Livingston gave a searing on-air editorial response to an email bully who complained that she had a “community responsibility” to lose weight to be a role model for young girls.
Though from two different generations, Whitney and Jennifer both shot to nationwide fame and are WIN GIRLS for outshining their bullies.
As someone who is an immigrant to the U.S., a racial minority and gay, I know firsthand what it’s like to grow up different and to not feel accepted by other kids. That’s why bullying – especially in psychological forms – makes me so angry. And that’s why it broke my heart to learn that 16-year-old Whitney Kropp considered suicide after she learned that some popular kids nominated her as a joke to Ogemaw Heights high school’s homecoming court. When the results were announced over the school PA system, some classmates even laughed. Even worse, the popular football player who was voted as her male counterpart on the homecoming court withdrew after learning about Whitney’s selection. What is this – a real-life "Mean Girls" episode?
Whitney initially wanted to skip the homecoming game to avoid public humiliation. But as if this were a John Hughes film starring Molly Ringwald, Whitney got a fairy tale ending. Her local community came to the rescue with what every girl loves and every coming-of-age movie needs – a dream makeover sequence! Like fairy godmothers prepping Cinderella for the ball, local businesses stepped in to pay for a Whitney makeover, complete with dress, shoes, jewelry, makeup, hair and nails. A former student set up a “Support Whitney” Facebook page, which has attracted over 120,000 “likes.” As Whitney’s story spread, she captured the spotlight – appearing on CNN, NBC’s Today show and across online media.
When Whitney walked beautifully onto the field at the homecoming game, over 1,000 people filled the stadium to support her and many dressed in her favorite color of orange. I can just imagine Whitney’s fingers giving two snaps and her internal voice saying, “I got a stadium full of orange love and national TV hits. What you got, mean girls?”
Alright, we should encourage valor, not vindictiveness. And that’s exactly what Whitney exemplified. After the halftime celebration, she spoke out to other bullying victims: “The kids that are bullying, do not let them bring you down. Stand up for what you believe in, and go with your heart and go with your gut. That’s what I did, and look at me now. I’m just as happy as can be.”
Whitney’s advice applies not just to kids but to also adult victims of bullying like Jennifer Livingston. A casual viewer, Kenneth Krause, sent her an email titled “Community Responsibility” to complain about her weight. He wrote these damaging words:
“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.”
Yes, words can hurt – even in adulthood. Jennifer’s husband (another anchorman at the TV station) took action and posted the offensive email to his Facebook page. After seeing a groundswell of online comments supporting her, on Oct. 2, Jennifer used her television platform to speak out on-air against Mr. Krause, against hurtful criticism of overweight people and against all forms of bullying. (Note to bullies – you might think twice before harassing media personalities. They have ways to publicly call you on the carpet.) Jennifer’s four-minute editorial response is brutally honest, eloquent and inspirational. Over 9 million YouTube views later, it is a viral Internet sensation. If you haven’t seen it, you’ve got to watch it:
These words in particular moved me:
“That man’s words mean nothing to me. But what really angers me about this is there are children who don’t know better. … 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 email. If you are at home, and you are talking about the fat newslady, guess what? Your children are probably going to go to school and call someone fat. We need to teach our kids how to be kind, not critical, and we need to do that by example. ... And I leave you with this … to all the children out there who feel lost … who are struggling with your weight, the color of your skin, your 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. Learn from my experience that the cruel words of one … are nothing compared to the shouts of many.”
In one profound speech, Jennifer Livingston made her experience relevant to every young person who has ever been bullied for any reason. She also told adults they must stop behavior that will teach their own children to bully. Mr. Krause has since given what I feel is a half-hearted apology. Showing true grace, Jennifer publicly accepted the apology and hoped “this situation has inspired people to find their voice.”
Though separated by geography and age, Whitney and Jennifer have one striking thing in common: They drew strength from their communities and other victims to stand up against bullies. In both instances, encouraging words from people in their hometowns and across the nation gave the women resilience. Interestingly, Facebook played a role in both stories – showing how a wave of online posts from strangers can remind a person that she is worthy. And it was this vast public response which turned Whitney and Jennifer into media darlings and caused the bullying to backfire. As this National Anti-Bullying Month continues, let’s learn a lesson from Whitney and Jennifer about the power of communities: The love of many can halt the cruelty of a few. So to all the family and community members out there, I call upon you to make bullying backfire by showering victims with more love than they could ever know was possible.
And to all the girls (and boys), if you are ever bullied – don’t hide and don’t give up. Stand strong. Shine your own beauty. And speak out. If you take a cue from Whitney Kropp and Jennifer Livingston, you too can be a WIN GIRL.
(Jimmy Nguyen is nationally recognized as an award-winning lawyer, new media expert, diversity and LGBT advocate, commentator and motivational speaker. In 2008, Lawdragon named Nguyen one of the 500 Leading Lawyers in America. He has been named a “Best Lawyer under 40” by the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and the National LGBT Bar Association. Jimmy serves on the board, and is former co-chair, of the California Minority Counsel Program. He formerly served on the board of Equality California, and in 2010, was named by the Advocate magazine to its “Forty under40” list of top LGBT persons. Jimmy writes for his own website at JimmyWin.com. Follow him on Twitter @JimmyWinMedia).