Obesity may no longer be a taboo subject, but it's still a sensitive one that few creatives feel comfortable tackling head-on. Here, though, is a brave and welcome exception.
Kiss it! is the result of a long-term collaboration between photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith and Shannon, a young woman living with obesity. Over 12 years, Abbie documented Shannon's journey from teenager to adult, navigating friendships, family, first boyfriends, prom nights, holidays and jobs.
Newly released as a hardback photobook, Kiss it! is an excellent starting point for the conversation around body weight that we all need to be addressing.
On the one hand, worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. One in four people in England is obese, and figures from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales follow a similar pattern: obesity is a bigger killer than tobacco in the UK. Research points to contributing factors of hormones, genes, long commutes, sedentary jobs, yo-yo dieting, sugary treats and relationships with electronic devices all contributing to this figure.
On the other hand, despite the complex causes, obesity is still perceived by many to be a failure of will and self-restraint on behalf of the individual —'just eat less and move more'.
Against this background, Shannon allowed Trayler-Smith into her life to create this frank and tender portrait, forming the photographer's first monograph. Collectively, the images portray what it means to be overweight when the response is often depersonalised, void of both understanding and the capacity to care.
Shannon was the central inspiration for Trayler-Smith's long-term project, 'The Big O' examining the issue of obesity in school-age children and young adults. But she also draws on her personal experience in her work.
"At age 11, I felt judged, criticised, and not approved of," explains Abbie, who was born in Wales and is now based between London and southwest England. "Others saw only my imperfect body, not the fact that I was funny and clever and warm. I came to believe that if I wasn't fat, somehow everything else in my life would be problem-free.
"As I stepped into adolescence, all of this became my identity," she continues. "Fast forward to the age of 33. I was working as a photographer at a press conference for a launch of health services to teenagers, and there she was: Shannon, with a voice I had never found, reading a poem addressed to the professionals, pleading to be understood and not judged.
"I saw the mutuality between us and the difference. She was the brave teenager I had never been able to be."
This brings us to the nub of the matter: obesity is all too often seen through a social, political or scientific lens, whereas it's ultimately about individual people. That's why, according to William Dietz, director of the Stop Obesity Alliance at George Washington University, USA, we should talk about 'people with obesity' rather than 'obese people'.
"Obesity, like asthma, is something that happens to a person: a disease with many etymologies, not all of them well understood," he explains. "Embedded in the stigmatisation of obesity is the idea that this is something that people have done to themselves; that is not the way to understand it."
Through Abbie's project, she explains, "We can see the ways in which Shannon's life is changed... and maybe more importantly, the ways in which she refuses to allow it to be changed. In the photographs of her extraordinary, ordinary life, we see not only her story but the story of anyone who has grown up feeling as though they are somehow different. Her brave, relentlessly infectious energy gives us a window of empathy and understanding into a subject that requires it more than ever and isn't going away."
In tackling the subject in this way, Abbie has been pretty brave herself. And that's typical of her career, which has led her to document the aftermath of conflicts in Iraq and Darfur, environmental activism in the Antarctic and the Indian Ocean, as well as the public mourning for Queen Elizabeth.
Abbie is often commissioned by organisations such as Greenpeace, The Samaritans, Oxfam, Save The Children, IRC, and UNICEF, alongside clients including BBC, Sony and Novo Nordisk. She also works on assignments for leading international media organisations, and her work has been shortlisted for Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at London's National Portrait Gallery and a World Press Photo Award.
Kiss it! by Abbie Trayler-Smith, with texts by Sally Williams and Abbie Trayler-Smith, is published by Gost. It's available to buy directly from the publisher for £40 / €50 / $55.