Woman told she shouldn't serve on Ottawa health board because of her weight
A member of the Ottawa Board of Health is speaking out against body shaming after she received a letter from a resident telling her she shouldn't be on the board because of her weight.
Elyse Banham said the letter, dated Jan. 12, sat unopened for weeks on her desk at the Ottawa Birth and Wellness Centre, where she's executive director. Banham figured it was simply more hate mail protesting the centre's vaccine clinics.
She finally opened the envelope March 18, and realized it was a response to an Ottawa Citizen article in which Banham called for more diversity on city boards. The letter is signed, but CBC has been unable to verify its authenticity or find the writer, and is therefore redacting the name.
Banham has been a member of the Ottawa Board of Health for four years and has applied for another four, the article noted. But the letter writer took exception to that, apparently based on the photo of Banham accompanying the article.
"As a member of the Ottawa Board of Health, citizens expect you to be a role model for our city's residents and believve (sic) you cannot fulfil that role due to your unhealthy status. It is unacceptable to be overweight by the 20 pounds it appears you are carrying," the letter to Banham reads.
"I would be happy to see you on the new committee on the condition that you become a better role model."
Banham told CBC on Sunday that she was hurt by the letter, but not entirely surprised.
"It's not that I haven't experienced this before — I think that people can be very unkind to each other. But this was the first time that somebody took the time to send me a letter and point out that I wasn't capable of performing work because of my body appearance," she said.
She decided to post the letter on Twitter, and said she's received many supportive messages in response.
Catherine Kitts, the city councillor for Orléans South–Navan and chair of the health board, called the letter "horrendous." Kitts said she's sad not only for Banham, but also for the letter writer who took the time to send such a hateful message.
"I was proud of member Banham for calling it out, because that also takes guts, and I was pleased and not surprised to see this outpouring of support for her," Kitts said. "Member Banham is such an incredible addition to the board of health. She's such an excellent contributor and a very valued member, and that should be the message. Her contributions to the board speak volumes."
Vitriolic attacks are an ugly side of public leadership, Kitts said, and situations like this are a reminder "that this is what we're facing every day."
Jill Andrew, co-founder of the advocacy group Body Confidence Canada, said that when women in public positions are targeted by body-based discrimination and harassment, "it certainly doesn't create the type of welcoming, inclusive climate that we need to have more strong women coming forward. So it's disappointing.
"All too often women are judged not by our intellect, not by the quality of our work or by the history of our work, but by our waistlines. And it is absolutely absurd ... it can take many of us away form the duties we have on our plate."
Banham said she's proud of the support she's received after going public with the letter.
"Nobody wants to be told they're 20 pounds overweight. I can certainly tell you that I did not enjoy that part of my day. But talking to somebody like Greg Fergus — a member of Parliament who posted about working with me and the fact that I am somebody who leads with integrity and tries to use my thoughts and my opinions to support others — I value that and I'm very grateful," she said.
She said she hopes her experience will show people wanting to serve on boards and in other leadership roles that while there will always be people out there wanting to take shots at them, there are many others who will come to their defence.
"The intent of this message was to hurt me and belittle me. And it would have been easy for me to take that and feel isolated in it. But the reason I shared it is because we can do better together, and the majority of people think that, and that's why there's been this outpouring of support," Banham said.
"And so I'm grateful for all those people who came to my defence, and what I think that really says is that we are looking for more diverse opinions."
Listen to Elyse Banham's entire interview with CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Monday