October 22, 2012 12:00 PM

After finishing her early-morning news anchor shift at WKBT in La Crosse, Wis., on Sept. 28, Jennifer Livingston was preparing to cover the city’s upcoming Oktoberfest parade when an e-mail popped up that left her dumbfounded. A local security guard named Kenneth Krause got oddly personal, telling the 37-year-old Livingston, “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.” Livingston turned to a photo of her three daughters on her desk. “Who does this guy think he is?” she asked herself. “It was a punch in the gut.”

But Livingston, 5’5½” and 235 lbs., refused to let it knock her down. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who think, ‘Wow, she’s awfully big to be on TV,'” she says. “But people have never called me out as a bad role model for this community. That was really difficult to hear.” So on Oct. 2-just days after her infuriated husband, WKBT evening anchor Mike Thompson, posted the e-mail on his Facebook page to an outpouring of support-Livingston took her critic to task in an impassioned on-air editorial that quickly went viral. “The truth is I am overweight,” Livingston said in a clip that has since garnered more than 9 million clicks. “But to the person who wrote me that letter, do you think I don’t know that? … You know nothing about me but what you see on the outside. And I am much more than a number on the scale.” Her four-minute defense hit a nerve with the nation, making her the brave face-and figure-of a woman who wasn’t going to be shamed for her size. “It took a lot of strength for her to get up in front of a television audience and say, ‘I’m fat,'” says Thompson, 35. “To empower other people who are feeling belittled or picked-on to stand up for themselves is a great and powerful thing.”

Livingston, who has hypothyroidism, a hormone disorder that can slow the metabolism, is not in denial about her diet. “Clearly, looking at me you know I struggle with my weight. I’m not the worst eater, but I don’t exactly eat as I should,” she admits. “I’m not a person who uses olive oil instead of butter a lot. I’m not going to make any excuses for the fact that I’m not always making the healthiest choices. But I am trying my best to do that and be a good example.”

Livingston never lacked in the confidence department growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. As the only girl in her “meat and potatoes family”-which includes actor Ron Livingston, 45, of Office Space and Sex and the City-Livingston was a high school athlete who was “always around a size 12,” she says. After graduating from Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, she landed a gig in La Crosse, where she has hosted WKBT’s morning show since 2000.

But after gaining 40 lbs. while pregnant with her first child, Katelin, now 10, Livingston admits she has had a hard time getting back into shape. As her family expanded (Finley is 3 and Quinn is 17 months), it only got harder. “My alarm goes off at 3:45 a.m.,” says Livingston, who ends work at 12:30 p.m. “By the time the show would be over, I’d be starving. If someone brought in donuts, I’d have one or two.”

This summer, in an attempt to revamp her diet and her family’s, she stopped making unhealthy meals like fettuccine Alfredo and potatoes for dinner. Instead, “I’ve been into lettuce wraps with ground turkey,” she says. “And we don’t buy chips anymore.” By adding a two-mile run with friends two to three times a week, Livingston has lost 8 lbs.-which brings her closer to her goal of getting below 200 lbs. “and being able to buy the hip clothes off the rack.” More important, she wants to be someone her girls can look up to. After making her remarks, she went to school to pick up Katelin, who greeted her with a hug and cheered “You go, Mom!” “That’s really all I need to feel okay about doing this,” says Livingston. “I’m trying to raise good, kind girls who have confidence in themselves.”

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