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Ottawa board of health member sees outpouring of support after body-shaming message

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A member of the city of Ottawa's board of health is speaking out about body shaming after receiving a letter that said she shouldn't serve on the board because of her weight.

Elyse Banham tweeted a picture of a letter she received that claimed she could not be a role model because she appeared to be overweight, according to the writer.

"As a member of the Ottawa Board of Health, citizens expect you to be a role model for our city's residents and I 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," it said. "I would be happy to see you on the new committee on the condition that you become a better role model."

Banham was quick to call it out.

"Standards that are projected onto women make this type of work hard. Sad, demeaned & hurt today but standing up for myself and all women," she said on Twitter.

Her tweet was met by an outpouring of support from across the city, including board of health chair Coun. Catherine Kitts and Ottawa Public Health.

"You’re beautiful (inside & out!) & a valued board member. Proud to see you speak out about this nonsense. The toxic vitriol hurled at women in leadership is beyond comprehension," Kitts replied.

OPH's Twitter account replied with a "corrected" letter from their "Bruce" character calling Banham "an incredible role model for our community" and that her empathy for others makes her a "beacon of much-needed light" for which they are grateful.

"We will always be happy to have you as part of our Board, especially on the condition that you never change, Elyse," the note said.

Speaking to CTV News Ottawa, Banham said it was the first physical letter she's ever received in her four years on the board of health.

"When I read through it, I was shocked," she said. "At first, I was sad and I'll admit I cried in my office and I felt, obviously terrible… then I got a bit angry and I posted it to Twitter and I've had thousands of people reach out with supportive messages understanding that what you look like does not determine how you contribute and that's the important message."

Banham says the letter came after her photo was used in an Ottawa Citizen article in which she is quoted talking about diversity on city committees and boards.

"My photo was used for that article and the person was responding to that, and she felt the need to tell me that I needed to lose weight in order to participate in a committee," she said. "This person paid a dollar to send a letter but I will not be giving them any rent in my head. It’s just important to realize that your value comes from within, not from the outside."

She said she shared the message in part because women in professional settings often deal with messages about how they look.

"My daughter is turning three in a couple of weeks and I was thinking about her when I posted it and when I received it," Banham said. "I hope when she's older, she doesn't need to think about, 'What do I look like? Do I need to put makeup on? Do I need to go to the gym today?' She just knows she'll be able to contribute."

COUNCILLORS SHARE MESSAGES OF SOLIDARITY

Other city councillors shared messages of solidarity with Banham and their own experiences dealing with gendered harassment.

Bay ward Coun. Theresa Kavanagh, who is the council liaison for women and gender equity, told CTV News these kinds of messages are disheartening.

"What if a young woman, who's ambitious, she's in high school… and then finds out if I'm in the public space, someone's going to criticize the way I look and make these kind of comments. It's soul destroying, it's wrong, and it's not helpful," she said. "I'm particularly disappointed it's coming from another woman, by the way."

Somerset ward Coun. Ariel Troster said she received an email the same day Banham tweeted her letter that said her lipstick makes her "look like a cheap whore."

"In the year 2023, women in leadership positions are being faced with this kind of toxic garbage constantly," Troster wrote.

"Being a member of local government means long hours and in many smaller communities, little pay. When you add constant harassment to the job, who would want to do it? If we want gender equity in political leadership, we need to tackle the constant stream of online harassment," she said in a second tweet.

Banham says she doesn't know if these kinds of messages will ever go away, but what's important is the support that so many more people are offering.

"What I can say is that thousands of people wrote to support me and that's what our community believes in," she said. "I hope that others see that, who maybe are nervous, see that support and think, 'I can contribute, too.'" 

--With files from CTV News Ottawa's Jackie Perez.

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