When Lindsey Averill launched a Kickstarter campaign to help finance "Fattitude," her documentary about fat discrimination, she and co-director Viridiana Lieberman got a lot more than the $45,000 they needed to make the film.
They received death and rape threats. So many people called Averill's house that she had to change her phone number because of all the hateful messages.
"It was truly terrifying," she recalls.
After a few days of being paralyzed by fear, they reached out to the media with their story and we were able to catapult their issue into the national news. "The internet trolls' tactics backfired by solidifying the reality of the vitriol fat people face," she says.
The original idea for the documentary came from Averill's academic research. She was writing her doctoral dissertation on the representations of fat bodies in the media, cultural depictions such as Hollywood film included, directed at teens when she realized that making a documentary would have more far-reaching effects.
"[My friend] Viri, a fellow women's studies scholar and a filmmaker, agreed," says Averill, a professor of women's studies and literature at Florida Atlantic University. "I live in a fat body. So does my business partner. We are also academic feminists, so we were able to see and understand how fatness was functioning as a source of systemic prejudice."
Sick of the lack of body diversity, Averill and Lieberman conceived of not just a movie, but a catalyst for the community. Their goal was to create a sort of meetinghouse where all voices could be collected and given the opportunity to speak in hopes that would resonate louder than individual perspectives.
Pinpointing the start of cultural fat shaming is impossible, Averill insists, because it's so pervasive in our homes, our science and our media. She sees the historic origins as biblical, but points to how it increased around the turn of the nineteenth century and has only worsened since.
"I think that people fail to recognize fat-shaming jokes are brutal because they think they deserve to ridicule fat people. They think fat people are worthless failures, a constantly reinforced and misinformed evil stereotype," she says.
Examples abound in the film, including characters in films targeted at children, such as Disney villains Ursula and the Queen of Hearts.
Using a staff and crew made up almost entirely of women, Fattitude" was filmed in New York, Florida, California and Georgia throughout 2014 and 2015.
"We're academics. We know women are underemployed, so if there was a woman capable of doing the job, we hired her," Averill explains. The film won for best direction at the Oregon Documentary Film Festival and was screened at many other events, such as the Doxa Documentary Film Festival and the Berlin Feminist Film Fest, she says.
The filmmakers believe that fat prejudice is akin to all other prejudice, making it a civil rights issue because it's systemic. For them, the hope for the film is to inform and educate viewers — ideally, they'd like to be the origin of change so that people recognize the way they treat fat people differently than others.
It's a topic that's resonated at Q&A sessions after screenings around the world. People ask Averill and Lieberman about how they can stop fat shaming.
"People ask us about our views on health and fatness, which are varied, but honestly have nothing to do with justice or the level of respect that people deserve," Averill says. "People ask us about parenting and raising body-positive kids."
While the filmmakers learned many things in making the film, Averill says that mostly they learned that nothing should stop anyone from living a fully empowered life. She's quick to add that the best thing to come out of making the documentary is how it affected others.
"We get love letters about how 'Fattitude' changed people's lives," she says. "People tell us it allowed them to live fully after years of shame. That's what it's all about."
For that reason, she thinks it's a film for everyone. "This film is an eye opener for people of all sizes, clinicians, parents and anyone who wants the world to be a better place. Everybody, no matter size or shape, deserves respect." S
"Fattitude" and discussion with the filmmakers Aug. 21 at 7:15 p.m. at the Byrd Theatre, 2908 W. Cary St., byrdtheatre.com. Check out the trailer at Fattitudethemovie.com