‘Who wants to get involved with a project that’s about being fat?’: A tender examination of teenage obesity

Shannon, age 22, on holiday. Costa del Sol, Spain, 2018 © Abbie Trayler-Smith

Created over 12 years, Abbie Trayler-Smith’s debut monograph offers a deeper understanding of a subject often shrouded in shame

It was around the time of her 11th birthday that Abbie Trayler-Smith first began to feel something was wrong. As a child she had never given much thought to her body – it was merely the vessel that carried her joyfully through the world. But, as she approached her teens, she started to question whether her body was really all it was supposed to be.

“I remember my family saying ‘Oh, it’s puppy fat’,” she recalls. “And then suddenly it wasn’t puppy fat, it was a problem.” By the time Trayler-Smith reached secondary school, she was scrawling the word “Fat” onto the covers of her workbooks. On a page of her diary, a list of reasons to lose weight included: “No more hassle from mum + dad, they would be proud of me instead of being ashamed [sic].”

This feeling of shame followed Trayler-Smith into her adult years – right up until the day she met Shannon. The photographer was attending a health services event for young people and saw Shannon read a poem on behalf of her weight management class, pleading to the professionals in the room for understanding rather than judgement. Trayler-Smith was floored by her eloquence and confidence. “She was the brave teenager I had never been able to be,” she says.

From this time, Trayler-Smith and Shannon embarked on a photographic partnership that would last for more than a decade. Part of the photographer’s long-term series, The Big O, which examines the issue of obesity in school age children and young adults, the images have now been collected into Trayler-Smith’s first monograph. Kiss it! explores the life of an ordinary young woman as she attempts to navigate a world determined to judge her not for who she is, but for how much she weighs.

Simple, striking portraits of Shannon follow her as she transitions from teenager to adult, and as she navigates friendships, family, first boyfriends, prom nights, holidays and jobs. The images overflow with colour and with personality – Shannon’s sense of self is infectious, seeming to emanate from each of the volume’s pages. However, this fierceness is offset by moments of cruelty – one image shows a text which reads: “ya so fat no one wants you ahah and your a fat face aswell ya fat slag [sic]”.

Shannon, age 15, watching her food intake at home. Sheffield, 2012 © Abbie Trayler-Smith
Shannon, age 15, laughing with friends at prom. Sheffield, 2012 © Abbie Trayler-Smith

“My dad saw the book the other day and he looked really traumatised by the end,” Trayler-Smith says. “He asked what he could have done differently, and I suppose that is a good question – how can we approach this issue differently?” The photographer discusses the secrecy and embarrassment which can often accompany obesity, acknowledging that it is at once a serious health concern, a public health issue – and just one small part of a person’s identity.

In England, one in four people are obese and across the UK, obesity is now responsible for more deaths than tobacco. The causes of obesity are many and complex – hormones, genes and sedentary jobs can each play a part – but all too often, the issue is perceived solely as a failure of self–restraint. Against this background, Trayler-Smith and Shannon offer an alternative narrative, a frank and tender portrait of a young woman whose experience is relatable for anyone who grew up feeling different.

“I’ve always been really open and honest with Shannon,” Trayler-Smith explains. “I told her, it’s going to be a brave project for you to get involved with, because who wants to get involved with a project that’s about being fat?” Despite these early concerns, over their time together, Shannon’s confidence grew. On her 16th birthday she got a tattoo, a message to those who had bullied her when she was younger – the words “Kiss it!” inked proudly across her bottom.

While the eponymous book is an exploration of Shannon’s life and experiences, it has also had a profound impact on Trayler-Smith, who was forced to confront the sometimes painful realities of her own childhood while making it. She hopes that the work will reduce judgement and shame for young people who are obese, she is made anxious by the highly personal nature of what she is releasing into the world. It was only half-way through the book’s creation that she finally decided to include her own teenage workbooks and diary pages.

“There was a reason I kept those diaries, and I think it was because I wanted to make this work,” she says between draws on a cigarette – the pressure of Kiss It!’s release has led to a recent reappearance of the habit. “And it’s enabled me to look at my embarrassed, awkward, uncomfortable teenage self and begin to make peace with her.”

Shannon, age 16, has the words ‘Kiss it!’ tattooed on her bottom as a message to the people who bullied her. Sheffield, 2013 © Abbie Trayler-Smith

“She was the brave teenager I had never been able to be”

Kiss It! by Abbie Traylor-Smith is out now (GOST)