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Abbie Trayler-Smith, Kiss It! (2023)
Abbie Trayler-Smith, Shannon, age 16, has the words ‘Kiss it!’ tattooed, Sheffield (2013)Photography Abbie Trayler-Smith

In photos: a young women’s defiant battle against fatphobia

In her new project Kiss It!, photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith spent 12 years taking pictures of Shannon, a young woman living with obesity

Kiss It! (published by Gost) is a long-term collaboration between photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith and Shannon, a young woman living with obesity. Created over a period of 12 years, the photo book follows Shannon through the trials of adolescence as she moves into adulthood, chronicling important milestones alongside quieter but nonetheless significant moments of everyday life. From shopping for a prom dress and first love to friendships and girls’ holidays, Trayler-Smith observes Shannon with the frankness of a documentary photographer while retaining the total empathy and admiration of a trusted ally. 

The pair met for the first time at a press conference launching health services for teenagers. The photographer tells Dazed: “She was standing up in front of the press reading out a poem, and I was just blown away by her presence. For her to come [from Sheffield] to London for the first time ever, age 13, and stand up and read out a poem to a whole room of professionals, I thought that was pretty awesome. So I think she's a really brave, courageous person.”

Having struggled with weight and negative body image herself, the book incorporates pictures of ephemera from Trayler-Smith’s own youth – a school textbook with the word “FAT!” written in Tippex across the cover, and pages of diary entries recording fluctuations in weight. “At age 11, I felt judged, criticised, and not approved of,” she recalls in a statement about the book. “Others saw only my imperfect body, not the fact that I was funny and clever and warm.”

During the course of the project, which amounts to over “a decade of shared experiences”, an important reciprocity developed between the photographer and her subject. Witnessing Shannon’s confidence and her battle against the fatphobic judgements of others, Trayler-Smith was inspired to re-evaluate her own sense of low self-esteem which had accumulated throughout her youth. She explains, “I’ve learned to accept myself for who I am and she’s kind of blossomed with the attention.”

Below, Abbie Trayler-Smith recalls her most enduring memories from making Kiss It! and explains why she felt so compelled to document Shannon’s world…

“I wanted to make a piece of work that challenges how we look at people living with obesity or, as I like to say, fat people. I was really fat growing up and I’m sick of the way it’s portrayed. My aim was to make a piece of work that enabled people who weren’t obese or fat to understand what it might actually be like, to grow up and have that as an issue in your life. Fat people are thought of as less than, and I wanted to challenge that.” 

“And then I found this amazing young woman, Shannon. I was on a job with a health journalist who invited me to come along to this press conference and that’s where I met Shannon. I think my spirit was drawn to her courage. And together, that’s what kind of made the alchemy to produce the work.

“Shannon is completely herself in front of the camera. She doesn’t want to be living in her huge body, but nevertheless, went through a much faster journey of her accepting herself than I did. So I just couldn’t stop taking pictures of her, and here we are 12 years later. The book is about her journey – and my own journey – and how, through working with each other, I’ve learned to accept myself for who I am and she’s kind of blossomed with the attention. I guess when someone sees you for who you are, it’s a really liberating thing, isn’t it? 

“From the outset, when I went to talk to her after that conference, I told her I was a photographer and that I want to make a piece of work about childhood obesity. So she agreed I could come to her house for a cup of tea with her, her mum and her brother. And then once they all got on board – which was extremely quickly – it was a case of, ‘So, what’s happening in your life? What can I come and document?’ 

“I wanted to observe her daily life as well as the highlighted moments. So it was like, ‘Oh, you’ve got prom coming up? Can I come shopping for the dress with you? Any chance I could come along to prom? It’s your birthday? Perhaps I can get up to Sheffield for your party?’ It was year after year of that. And, before you know it, you do become friends. My way of working is just to hang out with people in their natural environments and get to know them. In the course of doing that, I share bits of my life so I guess that’s what makes it reciprocal. It’s like I’m experiencing her life with her, taking a picture as I go. So it’s been a decade of shared experiences.

“The first few years that I met her, she was bullied a lot and I think that really did affect her. And I think it also probably made her get a lot bigger than she would have been otherwise. Those years between 13 and 17 were really challenging for her because she’s such a giving, loving, warm person that I think making friends was more difficult for her. I suppose I’m speaking for myself as well here, but when you’re an overweight teenager, you don’t really get involved in exercise and team sports because you’re uncomfortable in your body, which means that you don’t get all those endorphins and feel-good hormones that are released when you move your body. I was so self-conscious about being purple and out of breath, I kind of missed the point. And I would say that’s also been true for Shannon for a long time. 

“Because she’s very intuitive, she can just feel that she’s being judged... There’s just a kind of low-level discrimination when you’re obese” – Abbie Trayler-Smith

“Not being able to find clothes is also so hard. Of course, in the last ten years – which was very different to when I was growing up – there are a lot more clothes available for people of all sizes. So I guess it’s less of a problem, although I think finding fashionable stuff, when you're a size 22, is something Shannon’s found difficult. 

“Because she’s very intuitive, she can just feel that she’s being judged. I can’t provide specific examples of when she’s been discriminated against, other than maybe at work when other people have been promoted ahead of her, for example. Who knows whether that’s down to her weight or not, but I can’t think of many other reasons it would be because if I was going to have anyone running my ward, it would be Shannon. And if I was gonna have anyone looking after me, it would be her. So I think there’s just a kind of low-level discrimination when you’re obese. 

“I think the reason why Shannon was so keen to be involved is that she was so sick of being looked at like that. She wanted to put her story out there so that other people in the same position don’t have to feel like that as much. When society makes you feel bad about yourself, it evokes shame because you’re not the size everyone else is, or you don’t look like the movie stars and the models. And she was just so sick of feeling that. And I don’t think it is an imaginary thing, because I know it’s real, I felt it too. 

“I’d said to her from the very beginning, ‘If there’s anything you don’t like, or you’re not happy with, it's up to you. This [book] has got to be something you’re happy with otherwise there’s no point.’ She's a very feisty person when she’s got something on her mind and I really admire that assertiveness. I didn’t even know what boundaries were until a couple of years ago, yet there she is at 21 and she definitely knows where her boundaries are, which is quite impressive.

“I started out just wanting to photograph her, but now we are friends and I feel incredibly privileged to have met Shannon” – Abbie Trayler-Smith

“There’s an image in the book where she’s naked, she’s getting ready in her room. For me, that just epitomises her spirit for life. And there’s another one in the shower where she’s got the shower head and she’s spraying the inside of her mouth, and it’s just that lovely sensuality that she represents. But then many of the overriding memories with Shannon involve getting fits of giggles so hard that I’ve actually peed my pants. She’s so funny. One time, I gatecrashed her holiday on the Costa del Sol and there were so many moments where we just could not stop laughing. We’ve experienced a lot of things together. And, you know, there’s lots of poignancy in there too as well as the good times.

“I've really learned from her how to step into myself because I’ve always been someone who hasn’t liked to take up any space. I think I was too shy or too withdrawn to take up space with my voice and so my body started taking up space for me. Shannon enabled me to step into my body and reclaim it again, warts and all. I started out just wanting to photograph her, but now we are friends and I feel incredibly privileged to have met Shannon.”

Abbie Trayler-Smith’s Kiss it! is published by Gost and is out now.

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