Ashleigh Shackelford is stunning. The 22-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University student majors in Business Admin and Political Science with a minor in Gender Studies. She is also working on starting a non-profit organization to promote positive views of all body types, especially among children. After seeing pictures of her conducting a one-woman “Body Positivity” campaign on VCU campus in the compass, I had to meet her.
Shackelford has been a big girl her whole life. Although active as a child, she was just always naturally fat. Because of her weight she developed quite early, and wore a bra in the third grade. Her early development caused her to be marginalized; she was sexualized, but also regarded as not feminine enough because people saw her obesity as a masculine characteristic.
“When I was growing up in middle school, I remember looking at everyone who was thinner and I felt like, you know, because I’m bigger I’m not really pretty, or I’m not feminine enough to be a girl. Like I had to overpower everyone because I’m bigger even though technically, I was being overpowered by everyone in my middle school,” Shackelford explained.
The cruelty because of her weight continued through her high school years. She was picked on, shoved into lockers, had slurs called out at her, had food thrown at her, and was called names by people in her school. High school was a difficult time in her life, a times that almost broke her spirit. One particular time when she was jumped by two men in her sophomore year put her at a very low point in her life.
“A friend of mine was talking to this guy, and his friend was trying to get me to do things sexually with him… I was like ‘No, I’m good,’ but he made [a comment] about how I was fat, and how I should be lucky that he was even willing to hook up with me,” said Shackelford. Her friend and the two boys wanted to go a party, but the situation turned out to be a setup. “I went … because I didn’t want her to go by herself… We start walking, and I didn’t even know where we are,” said Shackelford. “One of the guys … kept saying, ‘We’re cool, we’re cool,’ and kept trying to dap me up… I was like, ‘No, I’m fine. I’m not going to shake your hand.’ [When] I finally reach out to shake his hand… he punches me with his other hand, and then the other guy runs up and starts kicking me while I’m on the ground.”
Even in college, people still bully her, harassing her on the street or making comments about her weight. She has experienced some bullying in Shafer, VCU’s cafeteria, as well. “Groups of tables will be laughing at me, and be like, ‘Oh, my friends like you…’ Like, are we ten? That stuff still happens,” Shackleford says. “Someone was behind me the other day saying that I was going to eat all of the food. I turned around and [said], ‘Yeah, you’re damn right I’m going to eat all the food, so get out of line.’ People still do this, like I’m supposed to care because you hate that I’m fat.”
Now, Ashleigh has taken these experiences and is using them to create a platform and a safe place for people to be okay with who they are. She started a body positivity program on campus beginning by standing in public places on campus and holding up signs that say things like “Fat & Perfect” or “Your body is not wrong, society is.” Through talking with people around campus, she’s started to organize like-minded individuals and put together a group to promote positive body image. “We had our first meeting for the organization last week and there were so many people who came up to me and told me that they never had anyone … talk to them and tell them that they were okay,”she said. “That was just so heartbreaking to me… that’s so shitty [to hear] that you have never been told that you’re okay.”
Ashleigh finds that the conventional wisdom relating to the issues she’s working with don’t often match up with reality. Not all skinny people are healthy and not all fat people are unhealthy. According to a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), obesity Is not even in the top 10 leading causes of death in the USA, and the CDC also significantly downgraded the mortality risk from obesity in 2005. However, Shackelford’s message is not that people should go and get fat; instead, she is trying to point out that weight and health are not necessarily linked. “I can tell you right now that being obese or overweight doesn’t automatically make you unhealthy,” she says. She also tells people that “you are still worthy of respect and love and care, even if you are fat.”
The fine line between health and positivity can make her message difficult to convey to younger children. Shackelford has received plenty of comments from parents who believe that she is promoting obesity. However, she insists this is not the case. “The point is that you shouldn’t pressure your child or anyone to look a specific way in order to fulfill your ideals of what you think healthy looks like,” Shackelford says. “We should be shown more fat people existing, because fat people are normal.”
Shackelford’s goal is for the young girls who grew up with bullying and fat shaming to know that they are still beautiful and to be confident. Before we concluded our interview, she had a message to give to those young girls: “I’d say stay strong because you are amazing and you are worthy and you’re important. No one can take that away from you.”
Those interested in learning more about Ashleigh’s organizing around the issue of body positivity can contact her through her tumblr: ashleighthelion.tumblr.com