Love Starved: Filmmaker explores her lifelong struggle with body image

A doctor labelled Allison Stevens as obese at just three years old. Now 34, Stevens is working to grapple with the shame and hate she feels towards her body — and herself.

Labelled obese at three years old, filmmaker Allison Stevens is on a journey to reclaim her body image

As a child, filmmaker Allison Stevens was labelled by doctors as 'obese' and 'chubby'. Now 34, Stevens is working to grapple with the shame and hate she feels towards her body — and herself. 4:56
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A doctor labelled Allison Stevens as obese at just three years old.

Her medical records, which Stevens obtained through a request under the Personal Health Information Act, found not only was she described as an "obese little girl", she was also put on a diet and referred to as "heavy" and "chubby" in her early years. 

Now 34, she is working to overcome the shame and hate she has felt toward her body — and herself.

The Winnipeg filmmaker delves into these deeply personal issues in Love Starved, a trailblazing documentary about her complicated relationship with her body. 

What impact does being labelled 'obese' at age 3 have? (Submitted by Allison Stevens)

'I'm trying to understand why I hate my body'

Labels like obese and heavy were applied to Stevens long before she could understand what those words meant. But the impact they've had on her life has continued to reverberate. 

"There was never a point where it was like, 'Allison, you're beautiful. Your body is just natural and wonderful and it's OK.' Never. I've never heard that. Still to this day I've never heard that," said Stevens.

Allison Stevens, pictured here in Pembina Valley Provincial Park, was determined to understand why she hates her body by looking through family photos, childhood artwork, schoolwork and journals. (Crystal Stevens)

Negative and anxious thoughts have consumed Stevens' mind for as long as she can remember, with constant worries about taking up too much room in public spaces.

"I feel guilty about that or sort of uncomfortable," said Stevens. "Anywhere that I'm going, I have to be mindful of where I can sit or what I can fit in."

She says she's experienced depression and even considered suicide.

Car accident gave Stevens a new perspective on life

In 2017, Stevens and her sister were involved in a car accident. The roof collapsed, windows shattered and the car was written off, but they both walked away with only a few scrapes and bruises. The experience gave her a new perspective.

"Usually when people have a life threatening situation, they come away with a renewed sense of life and I came away with the regret of not dying," said Stevens. "Facing that made me realize … if a rollover car accident is not going to kill me, I have to live. And, in order to live, I have to make changes. I have to deal with that real ugliness inside of me."

In her film, Stevens overlays excerpts from medical records calling her 'obese' and 'chubby' on childhood photos of herself. (Submitted by Allison Stevens)

It also helped her to realize her desire to find a romantic connection.

Stevens has never been in a relationship and has always avoided dating because she was too afraid to show her body to another person. Since the accident, she's come to accept her sexuality, as a bisexual woman, and her fear of dating and relationships.

"Someone had said to me that, 'You should run towards the things that scare you because that's where growth happens,'" said Stevens. "The most terrifying thing for me is to show my body to someone else, so I knew that's where I needed to go in order to grow."

Making the documentary was 'an act of healing'

She reflected on her experiences and her relationship with her body in the documentary Love Starved: More Than Fat, which she began work on in 2017 as part of a workshop with the Winnipeg Film Group. In the short film, Stevens attempts to claim her experiences and challenge her shame.

"For me, the film was an act of healing," said Stevens.

"If you've ever had any doubts about your own body. Or any doubts about any aspects of yourself that really made you feel different or ashamed or uncomfortable, I think that those are universal experiences that I'm articulating."

Stevens says society is conditioned to see fatness as a bad thing — and she hopes this film has people questioning why. 

Allison Stevens shooting an experimental film using a vintage 16mm Bolex camera in Nopiming Provincial Park. (Crystal Stevens)