Shannon Walton relaxes in her living room in Sheffield, England, in 2014.
Bullying is relentless.
When Shannon Walton was in middle school, she walked down the hallway and started hearing people comment about her weight: “Oh, look at her.” “She’s fat.”
She would get out and about more to avoid the stress at school, but she couldn’t find respite. She said kids would kick soccer balls at her and pretend they didn’t mean to.
“Someone threw a golf ball at my leg once, and I’ll never forget it,” said Walton, now 26. “Literally, the golf ball was still in my lap because it was a white marker and then a huge red marker buzzing around it.”
It was a tough time for Walton, who was diagnosed with a condition called adrenal precocity in elementary school. This means her body starts developing earlier than her peers. Later, she discovered 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 young age,” said Walton, who lives in Sheffield, England. She remembers her growing up with a weight related to age. “When I was 14, I weighed 14 stone (196 pounds),” she says. “When I was 15, I weighed 15 stone (210 lb). It tended to go up like that.”
It doesn’t make sense to her.
“I was never a binge eater. I was never a binge eater. I was never really a secret eater,” Walton said. “My mom always cooked really fresh food. We were never a family that ate takeout or fast food all the time. So over the years I’ve gained weight, kind of like I don’t understand why I put on weight.”
Sometime around the age of 14 or 15, Walton said enough was enough. She was fed up with people who made her feel bad, and she decided she wasn’t going to let them bring her down or stop her from doing what she wanted to do.
“Growing up, I could eat at McDonald’s and people would say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t eat that; you’re too fat. But you’d eat a salad, and then you’d snicker because you ate a salad and you’re overweight, ’ she recalled. “I got to a point where I thought, you can’t win, so I’m going to do what I want.”
Photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith documented this transition and Walton’s journey as a woman, who grew up overweight and started a project called The Big O to tackle obesity .
Traylor-Smith said the question “completely took over my teenage years.” “Being overweight is like I’m not good enough; I’m not a good enough person. That’s how I feel. So this project has been looking at its challenges. Why do I feel this way? How do you move on? If I feel this way , then there must be a whole bunch of other people feeling that way.”
The old textbook once belonged to photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith, who inscribed the word “fat” on it as she also struggled with her weight and self-confidence. “I included these and other images of archival material from my teenage years to show why I started this work on teenage obesity,” she said. “This is my story, and it is the story of Shannon and 124 million other children around the world.”
This excerpt from Trayler-Smith’s teenage diaries shows how unhappy she was when she struggled with her weight in the 1990s. “If I don’t lose weight this week, I might as well kill myself,” she wrote. She hopes that by sharing her and Walton’s story, others dealing with the same issue will know they are not alone.
Over the years, Trayler-Smith has photographed British teenagers struggling with obesity, bullying and self-confidence.
Walton was the first subject, and her fearlessness inspired a photo book, “Kiss It!”, which they hope to publish as soon as possible if they can get the last bit of money they need via Kickstarter.
The title of the book comes from the tattoo Walton has tattooed on her back as a message to the bullies who have long taunted her.
“I think it’s unusual to be so raw and authentic in front of the camera,” Traylor-Smith said. “Most people know about the camera, she just doesn’t, we just have this amazing connection. So that’s what made me think that if I was going to write a book, maybe it should be about a person and go really deep.”
The book follows Walton through the ups and downs of her adolescence and tries to put the reader in her shoes.
“I believe making healthy choices, whether it’s food or anything in your life, starts with feeling good about yourself,” Trayler-Smith said. “When you’re overweight and someone tells you you’re fat, you’re lazy, you’re greedy and there’s a lot of stigma around it, that’s not a place for any of us to make health decisions, I believe. …
“This project isn’t saying obesity is okay. I’m not saying that’s healthy. I’m saying there’s a balance between body positivity and health, and I think we need to find that balance.”
Walton said she’s always wanted to help people understand what it’s like to be overweight.
“It’s not as simple as going to the gym and eating less. Sometimes it’s a medical condition. Sometimes it’s in your genes,” she said. “Also, just because people are fat, it doesn’t mean they’re miserable.”
Many of the photos in the book show Walton’s early years, when she was bullied particularly badly, and she was at one of the lowest points in her life. But from the beginning of the project, Walton stressed to Traylor-Smith how important it was to her to show the big picture of her life: moments of joy and moments of empowerment with friends and family.
“I’m a very happy, lively, talkative guy. Usually you can’t shut me up,” Walton said. “I do find that people think that because you’re overweight, you’re in pain. But that’s not always the case.”
It may be difficult for Walton to look back at pictures of herself when she was young, sad and insecure, but she appreciates them for being a true portrait of her at the time.
“As the years go by, looking at the pictures, I think you can see how I’ve become more confident and what my life is like,” she said.
Walton curled up on the bed. “The naked bliss of my own room, my own space and my own shape,” Walton wrote. “But also another day in the dark world I live in. Think about the life I want to live and the friends I’ve always wanted.”
“We are all women of all shapes and sizes,” Walton wrote of the photo. “If I wanted to stand in my underwear and blow dry my hair in a public changing room, I would!”
Walton’s fitness calendar for 2013. “We’ve all been there…writing down a workout or diet chart to ‘stick,’ when in reality we put it on and execute it for a day or two,” Walton writes. “For motivation—or to stop people from Nagging us to lose weight?”
Sixteen-year-old Walton arrives at school for prom night. “One of my favorite photos,” she wrote. “I’ve been preparing for this day for over a year for this day. Knowing that everyone is going to look at each other’s clothes and knowing I can’t hide from it. It shows the real me and laughs with my friends . That’s what I imagined the prom would be, and that’s why I built up the confidence to attend.”
Today, Walton said she is happy with her life and she wouldn’t change a thing.
She works in a hospital and will soon qualify as a nurse assistant. She’s engaged to James, a man she’d known in her youth and was actually her first boyfriend. They lost touch for years before finally reuniting.
She has a personal trainer whom she sees once or twice a month and hits the gym whenever she can.
“The personal trainer told me that actually I wasn’t eating enough and what was happening was because I wasn’t eating enough and my body was storing all the fat we had,” Walton said. “So she increased my calorie intake and I’ve lost 3 stone (42 lbs) since then.”
Walton still hears the occasional comment about her weight, usually on social media where people leave rude comments. But it doesn’t bother her anymore to say the hateful things, and she offers advice to anyone who might be going through what she is going through.
“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 says.
Walton became close friends with Traylor-Smith, who said she would love to continue taking pictures of her.
“It has been such an honor to see her grow into a beautiful young woman,” Traylor-Smith said. “I know she’s still battling her weight and doing the best she can. But it’s a really beautiful thing to see where she’s happy inside.”
In 2010, 14-year-old Walton. This is Traylor-Smith’s first photo shoot of her at her home in Sheffield.
Walton spent 2020 in her back garden.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health issues, help is available. In the US, dial or text 988, Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, Connect with a trained counselor. International Association for Suicide Prevention with global friend Contact information for crisis centers around the world is available.
Abby Taylor-Smith is Funding via Kickstarter The crowdfunding campaign to produce and publish Kiss It! ended Thursday.