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Byron, 14, lives with his dad,
in Rotherham, UK.

This is an intimate study of how it feels to be overweight as a young man in todays world. As a fat teenager myself, I know how it feels, and what effect it can have on your life. The very word Fat is a pejorative term and evokes judgement and shame upon those who bear its description.

Alarmist headlines fail to examine the everyday reality of struggling with weight and self-image. Being overweight or obese is deemed to be self-inflicted, or even a lifestyle choice, and the ‘culprit’ labeled, greedy, lazy, lacking in discipline. Obesity has taken over from cancer as the thing to fear.

Byron first comes across as shy but has a winning smile and is clearly bright and understands more than his years. I first met Byron in 2015 at an after school weight management club run by Morelife when he was just 10. He was enjoying the sports activities offered by the services but was struggling at school and in his local community with bullying due to his weight. He’d stopped going out to the local playground as the taunts and jeers were beginning to get unbearable. 4 years on and the situation has got a whole lot worse. He rarely leaves the house and spends his time online, gaming and talking to friends in America and Australia, so much so, that his thick northern accent has morphed into an American one. In the time I’ve known him I’ve only seen him outside the house once, when PokemonGo was all the rage and him and his sister did a tour of the block catching creatures, but he was wary and didn’t want to be outside for long.

On 16th July 2019, Byron and his dad Phil play basket ball in the spare room, which has now become Byron’s second bedroom. Phil wins (46/29) for the first time ever. That was the last time I saw Byron. I’ve called in 3 more times but Byron’s been in bed every time I’ve gone round since.
His dad, Phil, told me:

“He’s stopped going to school now. Because of the bullying. We had the window smashed in again 3 weeks ago. Thats the third time this year. Its kids that have been bullying Byron about his weight since junior school. At Easter they tried to set him on fire with an aerosol and lighter on the bus. Then they chucked his new football boots out the window. He’s a brainy little bugger. But the bullying’s got out of control now, he’s terrified of school, shaking, crying, he’s petrified. He won’t talk to me, or the teachers, says no one understands. He won’t talk, he’s stopped going to school a couple of months ago. They’ve been bullying him for 5 years. You can only push him so far and he’ll snap and I wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of that cos he’s a big bloody lad.”

It’s September 2019 now. Phil says,

“I managed to get him out to the fair the other night. And when he comes out of his shell, he’s great company. He’s a brainy bugger. He is conscious of his weight of course. I’m gonna take him to the doctors for blood tests as there’s nothing in this house that’d make him fat. I don’t know what I’ve done, I’ve always been a slim guy, but he was big as baby. His mum’s a big woman. I’ve got a meeting with the school next week, to try and get something changed, for the time being they’re sending his work home.”

The National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) shows that 9.5% of reception age children in England (age 4-5) were obese in 2017/18, with a further 12.8% overweight. These proportions were higher among year 6 children (age 10-11), with 20.1% being obese and 14.2% overweight. In both age groups, boys are slightly more likely than girls to be obese. I have spent 8 years following the lives of overweight girls and felt it was important to look at the experience of boys, something rarely talked about.

With 1 in 3 of our kids here in the UK classified as obese or overweight, we still seem to have no idea of how to even talk about this issue. Individualising the issue of obesity is to moralise it, to produce shame in the individual and for me, as a fat teenager, this is something that has followed me throughout my life and has led to depression, anxiety and low self esteem.

The aim with this work is to show that this is a complex and nuanced subject and to tap into the wider youthful experiences of insecurity and disquiet, that so many of us, fat or not, went through with our own bodies and self-image during those formative and insecure teenage years. To challenge weight stigma and preconceptions around the issues. From my own experience I know it begins with mental health and our psychologies. The idea that once you have lost weight you are cured is wrong. Obesity is the disease that keeps on giving.

– text by Abbie Trayler-Smith
© Dandy Vagabonds 2020