The Fat Bird – an atypical protagonist

Fat BirdI needed a strong central female character for Singled Out; a woman in her early to mid-forties, perceptive, bold and shrewd. When it came to physical appearance and with one eye on Hollywood (see how optimistic I can be!) I could have gone for an Angelina Jolie, a Julia Roberts or a Gillian Anderson type – lithe, slender, unsettlingly striking.

But I’ve gone for a fat bird. Yes, my protagonist – early to mid-forties, perceptive, bold and shrewd – is unapologetically overweight.

But let’s be clear, this isn’t your stereotypical one-dimensional fat bird. You know the cliché; the friendless, clumsy lump, drifting round in a cloud of body odour, stuck in a dull job and spending her evenings in front of the TV stuffing her face with donuts and chocolate whilst fantasising about an imaginary boyfriend. If she’s in a novel or a TV series, she’s the one that’ll get murdered, her corpse lying undiscovered in a secluded attic flat for months until her bodily fluids seep through the floorboards and attract attention. Or she’s the deranged axe wielding perpetrator, desperate for affection and driven to heinous crimes by her loveless, empty life. So far, I’m afraid, so very predictable.

That’s not my girl. Not even a little bit.

In the great tradition of novice writers I’m writing what I know – at least in part – because I’m overweight too. I’m a lifelong yo-yo dieter who has spun into middle-age at the wrong end of the string. Depending on your perspective, I’m fat, plump, obese, tubby, lardy, big, broad-beamed, heavy, chubby, chunky, stout, podgy, ample, fleshy, well-rounded, plus-size, large, buxom, curvaceous, womanly, cuddly, curvy, rubenesque, bountiful, abundant, voluptuous and any number of other flattering and not-so flattering descriptors.

Apparently, novice writers are wont to base a main character on themselves. But I’m sorry to disappoint you; whilst I wouldn’t mind being my female protagonist, and whilst she and I share one or two other characteristics, I’m really not her. I understand the physicality and the occasional self-confidence issues of someone who carries extra pounds and I thought it would add a non-stereotypical dimension to my character – and that’s more or less where it ends. I’d love to have her boldness, and her hair, come to that. But she has frailties and failings that…  Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it? Anyway, they are frailties and failings I like to think I don’t possess. I have others, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about.

When it comes to my abundant, warm yet troubled female lead, I’ve played it deliberately vague on the question of size. That’s because what’s fat to one, is curvaceous to another, what’s blubbery and revolting to one is alluring and magnificent to another. My readers get little – actually nothing – in the way of specifics. No height-to-weight ratio, no Body Mass Index, no speak-your-weight scales, no dress size – nothing… um… concrete.

Aspects of her physicality reveal themselves here and there but the biggest (sorry) clues the reader will get are from the other characters, who respond to her according to their own perspectives, prejudices – and desires. She could be a size 16 or a size 26 for all the reader knows, and I imagine each reader will see her differently.

As to how I see her – I’m not telling. If you encounter this woman within the pages of my debut novel, you’ll need to imagine her yourself; and the persona you conjure up will be informed by your own perceptions and preconceptions, alongside all the other clues to her character, spirit and style.

I just hope I’ve done a good job of bringing her to life.

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Pink for a girl?

I’m allergic to pink – from the marrow in my bones to the tips of my un-painted fingernails, even though it suits me (so I’m told), I can’t abide pink.

Pink fairy - Microsoft ClipartA child of the early waves of feminism and equal opportunity, it makes me cringe to see little girls being defined by this one colour, in every shade from powder pink to lurid fuchsia.  If you’re a young girl, it seems you have to be fluffied into pink and preferably adorned with butterflies, fairy wings or glitter.   You only have to wander into any children’s section in any department store anywhere in the country to be greeted by a tidal wave of pink, sparkles and tulle.  I see it and I weep, because of what it represents, and because of the mindset it seems to endorse.

I’m not the only one. Today in the Telegraph, Jenny Willott, the Consumer Affairs minister, bemoans gender stereotyping, which begins, she says, with the way girls and boys are directed towards certain toys, often through none-too-subtle colour coding – pink for a girl, blue for a boy.   I would add, not just toys, but clothes; clothes and princesses and fairies and fluffy-wuffies.  I couldn’t be more against this gender-divisive stereotyping.

Undeniably controversial in some of her comments (just read the article), Jenny Willott says girls are being dissuaded from certain roles and professions through gender stereotyping which begins in their childhood.  She highlights the worlds of science, technology, engineering and maths where she says businesses – and the economy – are missing out on their talent.  Despite the vitriol being poured on her through the comments on this article, I can’t help thinking, she has a point.

Think of the 60’s and 70’s, and back to the Suffragettes and beyond and you will find numerous examples of women stepping away from traditional gender-defined roles and stereotype and pressing for equality and opportunity – and winning it for their own and future generations.  Yet here we are today, so keen to stereotype girls into pink princesses and fairies where the only thing that’s valued across those formative years, is how pretty and sparkly they are.

One of a few ‘golden rules’ I try to follow both as a writer and a woman, is to avoid cliché and stay away from stereotype. So it saddens me to see the work done by many brave and dauntless women of modern history, undermined by today’s predilection for pink, and all it represents in terms of gender stereotyping.