A few weeks ago, meteorologist Rhonda Lee offered a passionate response via social media to a viewer’s complaint about her hair. The complaint read:
“the black lady that does the news is a very nice lady.the only thing is she needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair. im not sure if she is a cancer patient. but still its not something myself that i think looks good on tv. what about letting someone a male have waist long hair do the news.what about that.”
In response to this instance of sexism and racism, Lee explained how her hair grows* and that she takes pride in her heritage. Explaining that she deliberately chose her short haircut, she wrote,
Many Black women use strong straightening agents in order to achieve a more European grade of hair and that is their choice. However in my case I don’t find it necessary. I’m very proud of who I am and the standard of beauty I display. Women come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities, and levels of beauty. Showing little girls that being comfortable in the skin and HAIR God gave me is my contribution to society.
Now, a few weeks ago, anchor Jennifer Livingston was also picked on by a viewer — in her case, about her weight. Just as Lee responded to her critic on facebook, Livingston responded on the air, saying, “To all of the children out there who feel lost, who are struggling with your weight, with 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.”Livingston was hailed in nationwide reports as a hero for her public broadcast. Sadly, Lee was not; her network actually fired her for her social media response.
How unjust for Lee, and what a huge opportunity missed by the network. Had they played their cards differently, they might have been able to build upon Lee’s comments and raise awareness of the need for diverse role models on television. Girls deserve better than cookie-cutter women all over the screen; they should be seeing women of many shapes and sizes, of many races and ethnicities, and yes, with a range of hairstyles–not just those reflecting overly narrow white standards of beauty.
Furthermore, those women need to be allowed to use their voices. It’s common knowledge that women who appear in visual media are treated like specimens under a microscope; people scrutinize their appearances and are quick to judge them in harsh, unforgiving ways. Men like those who criticized Livingstone and Lee act with incredible privilege, assuming that all women should conform to a standard of beauty that is pleasing to their eyes–completely ignoring the women’s own subjectivity and individuality when they make statements like these:
it’s still not something myself that I think looks good on tv.
As I explained in my book, young girls growing up in this society don’t just witness this kind of relentless criticism of women’s appearances; they learn to take part in it. Unfortunately, as they approach adolescence, they often turn that critical eye on themselves, with disastrous results to their self-esteem, because who can possibly measure up to our society’s impossibly rigid beauty ideals?
Girls won’t learn to fight back against this unrelenting gaze if they don’t have good role models who have demonstrated that it’s possible to do so. In other words, if Lee sees racist remarks posted about her to her KTBS-TV’s facebook page, and there is no community moderator willing or able to delete the original post for its offensive nature, she has the right to speak up for herself–just as Livingstone did on the air.
By answering their critics, women like Livingstone and Lee are doing very important work, speaking out not only for themselves, but for girls and women everywhere.
A change.org petition is circulating in hopes that KTBS-TV will give Lee her job back. In case you are interested in signing, the petition is here.
* Note that black women find themselves having to educate white people on the topic of their hair all too often. Lee shouldn’t have even had to explain herself, but to her credit she did so with graciousness.