Battling obesity — and telling bullies to ‘Kiss It!’
Shannon Walton relaxes in her living room in Sheffield, England, in 2014.
The bullying was relentless.
When Shannon Walton got to secondary school, she started to hear comments about her weight as she’d walk down the corridor: “Oh, look at her.” “She’s fat.”
She would go outside more to avoid the stress at school, but she found no respite. Kids would kick footballs at her, she said, and then pretend they didn’t do it on purpose.
“Someone once threw a golf ball at my leg, and I’ll never forget it,” said Walton, now 26. “It literally looked like the golf ball was still on my leg because it was a white mark and then a massive red bruise around it.”
It was a difficult time for Walton, who in primary school had been diagnosed with a condition called premature adrenarche. That meant her body started developing much earlier than her peers. Later in life, she found out she had polycystic ovary syndrome, which affects the body’s ability to use insulin and often leads to weight gain.
“I’ve always been overweight, from a very, very young age,” said Walton, who lives in Sheffield, England. She remembers her weight being linked with her age as she grew up. “When I was 14, I was 14 stone (196 pounds),” she said. “When I was 15, I was 15 stone (210 pounds). It tended to go up like that.”
And it didn’t make sense to her.
“I’ve never been an overeater. I’ve never been a binge eater. I’ve never really been a secret eater,” Walton said. “My mom’s always cooked really fresh food. We’ve never been a family that’s had takeaways all the time or fast food. So my weight over the years, there’s been a bit like I don’t understand why I’m putting weight on.”
At some point when she was about 14 or 15 years old, Walton said enough. She was fed up with people making her feel terrible, and she decided she wasn’t going to let them get her down or stop her from doing what she wanted to do.
“Growing up, I could eat at McDonald’s and people would go, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be eating that; you’re too fat.’ But then you’d eat a salad and you’d get sniggers because you’ve eaten a salad and you’re overweight,” she recalled. “I got to a point where I thought, you can’t win so I’ll just do whatever I want to do.”
This transition, and Walton’s journey into womanhood, has been documented by photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith, who grew up overweight herself and started a project, The Big O, that tackles obesity.
The issue “completely took over my teenage years,” Trayler-Smith said. “Being overweight was like I wasn’t good enough; I wasn’t a good enough human being. That’s how I felt. So this project has been to sort of challenge that look at it. Why did I feel like that? How do you move on from that? If I feel like that, there must be a whole heap of other people who feel like that.”
This old schoolbook used to belong to photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith, who inscribed it with the word “fat” as she also struggled with her weight and self-confidence. “I’ve included these and other images of archive material from my teenage years to show why I started this work on teenage obesity,” she said. “It’s my story as well as Shannon’s and another 124 million kids around the world.”
This excerpt from Trayler-Smith’s teenage diaries show how unhappy she was when she was struggling with her weight in the 1990s. “If I don’t lose weight this week I might as well commit suicide,” she wrote. She hopes that by sharing her story and Walton’s, others dealing with the same issues will know that they are not alone.
Over the years, Trayler-Smith has photographed many British teenagers who have struggled with obesity, bullying and self-confidence.
Walton was the first subject, and her fearlessness inspired a photo book, “Kiss It!,” that they hope to publish soon if they can get the last bit of funding they need through the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform.
The name of the book comes from a tattoo that Walton got on her backside, a message to the bullies who taunted her for so long.
“To be that raw and real in front of the camera, I think it’s quite unusual,” Trayler-Smith said. “Most people are aware of the camera, and she just wasn’t and we just had this kind of amazing connection. So that’s what made me think if I’m going to do a book, maybe it should be about one person and really going deep.”
The book follows Walton through the ups and downs of her adolescence and tries to put the reader in her shoes.
“I believe that making healthy choices, whether it’s food or whatever it is in your life, starts when you feel good about yourself,” Trayler-Smith said. “And when you’re overweight and you’re being told you’re fat and you’re lazy and you’re greedy and there’s a massive stigma around it, that’s not a place where any of us are going to make healthy decisions from, I believe. …
“This project is not about saying that it’s OK to be obese. I’m not saying that’s healthy. I’m saying there’s a difference. There’s a balance between body positivity and and health, and I think we need to find that balance.”
Walton said her hope has always been to help people understand what it’s like to be overweight.
“It’s not just as easy as just going to a gym and eating less. Sometimes it is a medical condition. Sometimes it is in your genes,” she said. “And also, just because people are fat, it doesn’t mean that they’re miserable.”
Many of the photos in the book show Walton’s early years, when the bullying was especially bad and she was at one of her lowest points. But from the start of the project, Walton has stressed to Trayler-Smith how important it is to her to show the full picture of her life: the happy times with friends and family and the empowering moments.
“I am quite a happy, bubbly, chatty person. Normally you can’t shut me up,” Walton said. “I do find that people think because you are overweight, you are miserable. But that’s not always the case.”
It can be hard for Walton to look back at the photos of herself when she was younger and sad and lacking confidence, but she appreciates them because it was an accurate portrayal of how she was at the time.
“Then looking through the pictures as years have gone by, I think you can kind of see how much more confident I’ve got and how my life’s kind of panned out,” she said.
Walton curls up in bed. “Naked happiness, my own room, my own space with my own shape,” Walton wrote. “But also another day of a dark world that I was living in. Thinking about the life I want to live and the friends I have always wanted.”
“We are all women of all shapes and sizes,” Walton wrote about this photo. “If I want to stand and dry my hair in my underwear in the public changing room, I will!”
A fitness calendar that Walton kept in 2013. “We have all been there … writing down an exercise or diet chart to ‘stick to’ when in reality we put it up and carry them out for a day or two,” Walton wrote. “For motivation — or to try and stop people from nagging us about losing weight?”
A 16-year-old Walton arrives for her school’s prom night. “One of my favorite photos,” she wrote. “I had built myself up for this day for over a year. Knowing everybody will be looking at each other’s dresses and knowing that I wouldn’t be able to hide away. This shows the real me, laughing and joking with friends. This is how I imagined my prom to be and why I built up the confidence to attend.”
Today, Walton says she is happy with her life and that there’s nothing she’d change.
She works at a hospital and will soon qualify as a nursing associate. She’s engaged to James, a man she met when she was younger and was actually her first-ever boyfriend. They lost touch for several years before eventually reuniting.
She has a personal trainer she sees once or twice a month, and she goes to the gym whenever she can.
“The personal trainers told me that actually I don’t eat enough, and what’s happening is because I’m not eating enough, my body’s storing everything us fat,” Walton said. “So she upped my calorie intake, and I’ve lost 3 stone (42 pounds) since.”
Walton still gets the occasional remark about her weight, usually on social media where people will leave rude comments. But she says that hateful words don’t bother her anymore, and she offers advice for anyone who might be going through what she has.
“Don’t let other people’s opinions control what you want to do. And don’t let your weight define you as a person,” she said.
Walton has become close friends with Trayler-Smith, who said she would love to keep on taking photos of her.
“It’s been such a privilege to see her grow into a beautiful young woman,” Trayler-Smith said. “I know that she is still sort of battling with her weight and doing what she can. But to see her in a happy place within is a really beautiful thing.”
A 14-year-old Walton in 2010. It was the first picture Trayler-Smith took of her at her home in Sheffield.
Walton spends time in her back garden in 2020.
Help is available if you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters. In the United States, call or text 988, the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, to connect with a trained counselor. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide have contact information for crisis centers around the world.
Abbie Trayler-Smith is raising money via Kickstarter to produce and publish “Kiss It!” The crowdfunding campaign ends Thursday.