Shannon Walton relaxes in her living room in Sheffield, England, in 2014.
The bullying was relentless.
When Shannon Walton entered middle school, she began hearing comments about her weight as she walked down the hallway: “Oh, look at her.” “She’s fat.”
She wanted to go out 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 there was a white mark and then a massive red bruise around it.”
It was a difficult time for Walton, who in elementary school had been diagnosed with a condition called premature adrenarche. This meant that her body began to develop 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 that her weight was tied to her age when she was growing 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 a binge eater. I have never been a binge eater. “I’ve never really been a secret eater,” Walton said. “My mother always cooked fresh food. We have never been a family that had takeaways all the time or fast food. So my weight over the years has been a bit such that I don’t understand why I’m putting on weight.”
At some point when she was about 14 or 15 years old, Walton said enough. She was tired of people making her feel terrible 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 are too fat. But then you’d eat a salad and you’d giggle 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 just want to do what I want.”
This transition, and Walton’s journey into womanhood, has been documented by photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith, who herself grew up overweight and started a project, The Big O, which tackles obesity.
The problem “completely took over my teenage years,” Trayler-Smith said. “Being overweight was like I wasn’t good enough; I wasn’t a good enough person. That’s how I felt. So this project has been kind of a challenge to look at it. Why did I feel this way? How do you move on from that? If I feel that way, there must be a whole bunch of other people who feel that way.”
This old school book used to belong to photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith, who wrote it with the word “fat” when she too struggled with her weight and self-esteem. “I’ve included these and other images of archival 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 children around the world.”
This extract 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 story and Walton’s, others dealing with the same issues will know they are not alone.
Over the years, Trayler-Smith has photographed many British teenagers who have struggled with obesity, bullying and self-esteem.
Walton was the first subject, and her fearlessness inspired a photo book, “Kiss It!”, which 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 back, a message to the bullies who taunted her for so long.
“To be so 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 that if I’m going to do a book, maybe it should be about one person and really go deep.”
The book follows Walton through the ups and downs of her youth and tries to put the reader in her shoes.
“I think 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 told you’re fat and lazy and you’re greedy and there’s a massive stigma around that, that’s not a place for any of us to make healthy decisions from, I think. …
“This project is not about saying that it is okay to be overweight. I’m not saying it’s healthy. I say there is a difference. There is a balance between body positivity 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 the gym and eating less. Sometimes it is a medical condition. Sometimes it’s in your genes, she said. “And also, just because people are fat doesn’t mean they’re miserable.”
Many of the photos in the book show Walton’s early years, when the bullying was particularly 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 whole picture of her life: the happy times with friends and family and the empowering moments.
“I’m quite a happy, bubbly, chatty person. “Normally you can’t shut me up,” Walton said. “I find that people think that because you’re overweight, you’re miserable. But that’s not always the case.”
It can be hard for Walton to look back at the pictures of herself when she was younger and sad and lacking confidence, but she appreciates them because they were an accurate depiction of how she was at the time.
“Then looking through the photos as the years have gone by, I think you can see how much more confident I am and how my life has kind of evolved,” she said.
Walton curls up in bed. “Naked happiness, my own room, my own room with my own shape,” Walton wrote. “But also another day in a dark world that I lived in. Thinking about the life I want to live and the friends I always wanted.”
“We are all women in all shapes and sizes,” Walton wrote of this photo. “If I want to stand and dry my hair in my underwear in the public changing room, I will!”
A workout calendar Walton kept in 2013. “We’ve all been there…written down a workout or diet plan to ‘stick to’ when in reality we set it up and do it for a day or two,” Walton wrote . “For motivation – or to try to stop people nagging us to lose weight?”
A 16-year-old Walton arrives for her prom night. “One of my favorite photos,” she wrote. “I had been building up for this day for over a year. Knowing that everyone would 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 envisioned 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 is nothing she would change.
She works in a hospital and will soon qualify as a nurse. She is engaged to James, a man she met when she was younger and was actually her first boyfriend ever. They lost touch for several years before finally reuniting.
She has a personal trainer she sees once or twice a month and she goes to the gym when she can.
“The personal trainers told me that I’m actually not eating enough, and what happens is because I’m not eating enough, my body stores all that 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 leave rude comments. But she says hateful words don’t bother her anymore, and she offers advice to anyone going through what she has.
“Don’t let other people’s opinions dictate 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 continue taking pictures of her.
“It has been a privilege to watch her grow into a beautiful young woman,” said Trayler-Smith. “I know she’s still struggling with her weight and doing what she can. But to see her in a happy place inside 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 the back garden in 2020.
Help is available if you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health issues. In the USA, you can call or send an SMS to 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, to get in touch with a trained counsellor. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders all over the world has contact information for shelters around the world.
Abbie Trayler-Smith is raise money via Kickstarter to produce and publish “Kiss It!” The crowdfunding campaign ends on Thursday.