Deana, 12.
An in-depth look at the children behind the obesity statistics in the UK.
Photography and text by Abbie Trayler-Smith
Chelsea, 17.
Our teenage years are arguably the most awkward of our lives. Whether it’s acne, depression, body dysmorphia, anger management, or any other number of issues, the turbulence of hormones and physical, mental and emotional changes, all while navigating school.

But imagine having all that going on, and being fat.

Growing up fat myself, I believed that if I wasn’t fat, then somehow everything else in my life would be problem-free. Obesity isn’t a hidden problem. It’s one that you wear, one that everyone can see. One that makes it harder to run away from, and ultimately harder to address. Yet there are more obese children today than ever before. The WHO estimates that there are now 124 million school-age children and adolescents living with obesity worldwide and that by 2030, obesity will be the single biggest killer on the planet.

These are shocking figures. In the future more people will die from obesity than starvation.

But alarmist headlines almost always fail to examine the everyday reality of struggling with weight and self-image. The psychological effects of being fat in a society that values thinness, interest me as much as the obvious health impairments. Being overweight or obese is deemed to be self-inflicted, even a lifestyle choice, and the ‘culprit’ labelled, greedy, lazy, lacking in discipline. Obesity has taken over from cancer as the thing to fear, with the ‘Big O’ and its stigma and discrimination following the overweight from the schoolyard into the workplace and beyond.
This is an old schoolbook of mine from when I was around 14. Using Tipp-Ex, I wrote FAT on the front of the book to help me stick to my diet. My teenage diaries give me great insight into the way I felt at the time and enable me to connect with my subjects in an emotive and honest way. They have helped me to bridge what can often be an emotional gap between adults and teens about how they’re suffering, especially when it comes to being fat. It’s holding the shame that stops us from moving forward. In revisiting them myself and ultimately making them public, I feel I am releasing myself from the shame of those teenage years.

Also pictured above is a little note my dad left for me one day when I was about 15: ‘Big Fat Lady who could be Abbie if she doesn’t do something NOW!’ It’s strange but I don’t remember actually getting the note. I do remember stapling it in my diary and thinking sadly that he was right, I did need to do something now. And the thought that I wasn’t enough as I was or wouldn’t be good enough in his eyes until I lost weight plagued me throughout my teenage years. Looking back, I realise that he didn’t know how to deal with my problem at the time: my parents weren’t fat, and no one wants to have fat kids; we are constantly reminded of the far-reaching health implications of obesity in the news.
Chelsea, 18.
Sam, age 18, says: “You shouldn’t be an outcast because of your size. You’re bombarded with the fact that you should be thin, on telly, in films, in magazines. It’s everywhere, and when you’re bigger you automatically think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’. It’s drummed into you that the way you look is the most important thing.”

Sam has never had a boyfriend. “They all want the skinny girls.”
Sam, 18.
I was photographing Sam in the giant paddling pool in her family’s back garden when her dad turned to me and said: ‘She’s our daughter and we love her no matter what. But she can’t afford to get any bigger.’ I can understand what Sam is going through and interestingly, now that I’m a parent myself, I understand even more that the way Dad handled my weight getting out of control, was the best he could do.
Sam’s Post-it notes, 19
Sam uses messaging to remind herself of her own self-worth. She wants to be a singer and actress, ideally a Disney princess, but she knows she is too big for the starring roles. “I started becoming aware of size being an issue when I was in primary school,” she says. “But when I joined stage school, I realised how image-conscious everything is. Comments just hurt. I want to do the best that I can, but there’s a little part of me, knowing my weight, that just knows I won’t be able to quite get the best that I want.”
As for me? Well, I don’t remember how I got fat. I do remember being a slightly chubby eight-year-old and being told: “You’ll grow out of it’ it’s just puppy fat.”. But even at that age, I already knew that that word, FAT, was a pejorative term. I felt bad about myself. Not good enough. Not worthy. People like to blame the parents when children are overweight, but for me it was all my own doing. There weren’t piles of biscuits in the cupboards or sugary snacks lying around; I was going out to get those on my own. By the age of 11, I was cycling the two miles to the local shop to spend all my pocket money on Mars bars and eating them secretly before I got home. By 12, I was being taken to Slimming World. The puppy fat hadn’t disappeared – it had set in. By the age of 16, I was almost 16 stone.

The repercussions encompassed an emotional and physical fallout from having a body scarred with stretch marks and fat cells that never quite shrink or die. And let’s not forget that lingering shame.

Where my parents failed was in how to handle it. Maybe they could have got me into sports, but by that point I hated sports and they both had full-time jobs and were running a small business from home in the evenings and weekends.
But it’s too easy to apportion blame. The fact is that we are living in an obesogenic world. Far from being an individual problem, childhood obesity occurs in the context of a social landscape awash with high-calorie, low-nutrition food and sedentary lifestyles. Now there is evidence that genetics, gut hormones and many other factors play a key role in whether we get fat or not.
Amelia, 11.
Tia’s bin, 11.
Deana, 15.
Comfort eating when you’re fat is a vicious cycle. This is one of my diet diaries where I’ve had a good week, stuck to a limit and lost 4 pounds, down to 15 and a half stone. It felt amazing losing those 4 pounds and I lived for those moments. But then I would reward myself with loads of chocolate and feel immediately guilty. I was lucky enough to go through school without ever being bullied like many of the kids featured on this site, but even without that, being fat just made me feel so bad in many ways.
Deana, 13.
Deana, 13.
But she still feels nervous going anywhere, “because kids these days, you know, even littler kids, they can be quite harsh. I don’t feel comfortable in myself, because I just feel like I’m too heavy. My family’s been through some tough times over the years and I just found myself eating a lot”
My teenage diet diaries.
I think the longest of the diet diaries from my teenage years goes on for about three weeks.
Michaela, 15.
Cala is 15 and from the Valleys in South Wales. She tells me: “I once fell asleep on the bus home from school and one of the boys wrote FAT on my forehead in permanent marker.”

I don’t often do this as my work is mostly observed, but I asked her if we could recreate that memory and she agreed. Then, as I was taking the picture, she said, “People in school told me it was me who caused the Japanese tsunami.”
Michaela, 16.
Cala deals with her feelings of low self-esteem and anger at being ridiculed by going down the gym and cage fighting with the local lads. And since that incident on the bus, she’s toughened up a lot. What’s really going on underneath is more difficult to access, let alone understand.
Kieran, 17.
Meeting and getting to know Kieran, aged 11, and his family has helped me understand obesity from a boy’s perspective. Being overweight made him want to avoid playing footy with his mates in the park or get involved in sports even though he desperately wanted to. At 14, this is what he had to say: “Being overweight makes everything harder because in most of your daily activities you’re carrying more weight than you should be. I’d say that it’s known that girls are unhappy with themselves, but boys tend to keep it bottled up, so no one knows that they’re unhappy with themselves at all. Being slim definitely gives you an advantage with girls, because obviously they like confidence and obviously slim lads are more confident than big ones. You just look better when you’re slim.”
I met Jack and Mason through Shine, a not-for-profit organisation that helps obese young people aged 10 to 17 lose weight and increase their confidence and self-esteem.

Kath Sharman, the founder, believes that, “children do their best when they’re feeling their best”. “We look at the data and their progress dips when they are in a crisis,” she says. “Adults might drink or smoke, but children use food as a way of coping. Rather than being blamed, shamed and judged, parents and kids need to be understood. Weight stigma discourages them.”

Mason’s mum died in December 2017, very quickly after being diagnosed with cancer. That’s when his weight began to spiral out of control. Today he lives with his guardian Rachael, his mum’s best friend. Rachael tells me: “He’s his own person; he doesn’t care what anybody thinks. When his mum got ill, she was doing a healthy-eating thing and one of the last things she asked me was to take him to Shine before big school because kids are mean at big school. Since going to Shine he tells me when he’s full; he never used to do that. He used to comfort-eat after his mum died, but we don’t do that anymore.”

Shine founder Kath tells me how proud she is of Mason: “He’s come on a lot. If “eat less, exercise more” worked, then we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic. With obesity, there’s so many things that can lead to it: unless you’re working on all of them, one can sabotage the other; it’s so complex. It’s once you’re in a happy place that you can really get going on your weight-loss journey.”
Jack, 15.
Lisa, Jack’s mum, says, “Jack’s always been overweight. I feel guilty.”
Kieran, 15.
Chelsea, 21.
The stigma and discrimination surrounding obesity mean the fat get fatter and the problem gets worse. When we individualise the issue of obesity, we moralise it. We point the finger at the person and create shame in the individual, which can have far-reaching consequences.

The shadow of being overweight is something that has followed me throughout my life. One in three kids here in the UK is obese or overweight yet we seem to have no idea of how to even talk about this issue. It is engulfed in stigma and taboo, blame and shame. And these are the reasons why it took me so long to address it in my work. I was ashamed, depressed and full of self-loathing.
The aim with this work is to show that this is a complex and nuanced subject that taps into the wider youthful experiences of insecurity and disquiet that so many of us, fat or not, go through with our own bodies and self-image during those formative and insecure teenage years. I want to challenge the stigma and preconceptions around what it means to be ‘fat’ while also questioning the impact obesity is having on society. The experience of being overweight can negatively affect your mental health for years, with the effects of the invisible fat suit never quite leaving you.

From my own experience, I have learned that the journey to living a healthy life begins in the mind, with self-worth and self-confidence. And this is a slow journey. For me it began with moving to the big city, studying at university and falling in love with photography. I got busy and there was no one around telling me I what I already knew, that I needed to lose weight. And that’s when my weight began to drop.
Tia, 11.
The idea that once you have lost weight you are cured is wrong. Obesity is the disease that keeps on giving. Scientists know that fat cells never really go away ( but it is more than that. I don’t know how these young people’s stories will unfold. Professor Julian Hamilton-Shield, who runs a childhood-obesity clinic at the Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, told me that if a young person can lose their weight by the time they are 18 they can be freer of it, but if they carry that weight into adulthood then obesity will be with them for life. By 21 my weight was ‘down’ to 12 stone. It has ballooned twice since then and I am now in my 40s. It never goes away and neither does the feeling of being a fat person. The shame still resonates to this day and this work is ultimately about understanding not just obesity, but the journey through it.
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