Lindsey Averill spent most of her life thinking things would be better if she could just get skinnier.
She counted calories and worked out, but still couldn’t reach the size she wanted, the one she saw on TV and in magazines. She put things off, thinking she’d do them once she shed 10 more pounds.
“Everything was in relation to when I got thinner,” said Averill, 36. “It’s almost as if my life was going to start when I got thinner.”
Then she discovered what’s known as the “fat acceptance movement” and started loving her body just the way it was – fat, in her words. Averill, who is 5 feet 6 inches tall, stopped getting on scales 2 years ago. The last time she got on one, she said she weighed 217 pounds.
Now Averill, a Boca Raton, Florida, resident and doctoral student at Florida Atlantic University, is trying to encourage others do the same through a documentary she’s making with filmmaker and friend Viridiana Lieberman of New York City.
Called “Fattitude,” the movie, slated to be finished in 2015, is aimed at exposing discrimination against overweight people in pop culture and in daily life. It’s also meant to teach people that they can embrace their bodies at any size.
It turns out that fat acceptance and discrimination is something many people feel strongly about. After a fundraiser for the movie went live on Kickstarter.com in April, Averill started getting harassed.
People sent pizzas to her house, signed her up for weight loss products and posted her address online. They even called with death threats. Averill admits being scared, but said it also showed how important the Fattitude project is.
“If we can incite all this hatred by spreading the message that you shouldn’t have to hate your fat body, then clearly there is prejudice and injustice out there,” she said.
“What I want it to do is change the nature of how we see bodies and weight and help people love their bodies,” Lieberman said, “and recognize that not only is it OK to be different, but to embrace the spectrum of bodies.”
Some of the controversy is centered around the idea that by saying it’s OK to be overweight, the movie will promote unhealthy lifestyles. Lieberman and Averill say that criticism is misguided.
They say they’re trying to reframe health as being not about getting thinner through excessive dieting or exercise but about leading a healthy lifestyle at every size. Being overweight doesn’t necessarily mean a person is unhealthy, they say.
“I’m not going to say to you that every single fat body in the world is healthy and I’m also not going to say every thin body in the world is healthy,” Averill said. “For me it’s not a question about size or shape. It’s about thinking about people as individuals and evaluating them as individuals.”
Dr. Laura Ziton, a family practitioner with the Broward (County, Florida) Health Physician Group, a group of about 60 doctors affiliated with Broward Health, said it’s true that a person can be healthy even if they’re overweight. It takes an examination and lab work to truly determine a person’s health, a person’s body mass index, or BMI, being one of the best indicators.
The real problem, Ziton said, is obesity, which can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes and heart problems. Morbidly obese people have a higher incidence, for example, of sudden cardiac arrest.
“I understand that despite our weight, we can make healthy food choices, we can have a healthy amount of exercise but in the end, if we’re obese, we will have health consequences,” Ziton said. “We do see some health consequences of being overweight, but they are minimal in comparison to those people who fall into the obese range.”
Regardless of how much they weigh, no one should be discriminated against, she said. That only leads to depression and anxiety, which can end up leaving an unhealthy person afraid to make changes – something Ziton said she sees frequently.
Virgie Tovar, a San Francisco-based expert on body image and fat discrimination who was interviewed for “Fattitude,” said part of what’s fueling discrimination against overweight people is the way they’re portrayed by the mass media.
She said they almost always fall into one of several categories. They’re either the villain or the best friend or the butt of the joke. They’re often shown as lazy or stupid. And in many cases, being fat is painted as one of the worst fates that can befall a person.
The end result is not just that overweight people internalize those feelings, Tovar said. It goes beyond that.
“People who aren’t fat are terrified of being fat, and also learn that it’s OK to make fun of people who are fat,” she said. “It ends up affecting everybody.”