Monday, 30 March 2020

The Write Stuff with... Andrew Shanahan

Today it's my pleasure to hand the blog over to Andrew Shanahan with a guest post asking 'Why aren't there more obese heroes?' 

When I was writing my new book Before and After, I made a conscious decision that I wanted my hero to be obese. This is unusual as generations of books and films have made one point very clear: fat people aren't heroes. If you are obese then you have two very specific roles in stories – you are either the comic relief and must look for the nearest puddle to fall into, or you must look on approvingly to what the thin, main character is saying and doing. It’s reached the point where the very idea of an overweight hero is absurd – can you imagine a BMI 30+ Gandalf? Or Batman leaping on a Batmobility Scooter? So why is it so hard for storytellers, who talk a great game about representation to give a starring role to obese people?

One obvious point is that society frequently perceives obese people in a negative sense. They are lazy or stupid, they are the butt of the joke. They wouldn’t be capable of chucking a Batarang, or edging their way down a heating duct if their life depended on it. And yet this goes against real world evidence. Sure, obesity has the potential to increase the risk of a number of medical issues, but it doesn’t follow that fat people are therefore stupid or lazy. You only need to switch on the news to see that obese people run the world’s biggest companies and countries – so surely we should be better at perceiving their positive traits?

The key is perhaps to be found in the word “action”. We expect a hero to be a person of action – and the view of storytellers seems to be that surely that’s not something that obese people can do? One of the reasons that I chose to have my hero as someone who is super-obese (denoting a BMI of over 50) is because several years ago I founded an organisation called MAN v FAT. Since it began MAN v FAT has provided support to over 4 million men around the world through its website, forum and the schemes that it runs. In that time I interviewed and spoke with thousands of men who were obese and who wanted to lose weight.

What struck me so often about their stories as they tried and failed and tried again to lose weight and get fit, was that they typified the hero’s journey. They start in an unbalanced position and desperately want to restore balance to their lives, but they face many challenges along the way. If that isn’t a clear description of going on a diet, then I don’t know what is! These men were not lazy or stupid; they were not mere couch potatoes. Despite all of the barriers that they faced, they were often keen to get to the gym, provided other users didn’t make them feel unwelcome. I desperately wanted to showcase some of the heroism and the positive action I had seen from those men and to offer inspiration for anyone else who wants to make a change.

There is an argument against the concept of a fat hero. Namely, that if you present examples of obese people doing heroic things then it will negate the need to change. If Harry Potter has a BMI of 35, then maybe children will start to see being fat as a positive thing. I don’t agree with this. I believe that we need to see the positive examples first in order to give us hope. Hope starts a fire burning and gives people energy. Hope allows people to dream and encourages them to have ambition. If we give them that through representing them in stories, then they are more likely to be in a position to want to make positive changes about themselves – if they so choose.

Before and After is the story of Ben Stone who is 601lbs, a diabetic and hasn't left his flat for nine years at the start of the novel. He needs his leg amputating and the only way to get him out of his flat is to remove the front wall of his flat and lift him out by crane. Just as this is happening though, the world ends. Before and After tells the story of Ben and his dog’s experience and how they realise just how much they have to lose when the end of the world comes.
Follow me on Twitter - @nervouscrying
Subscribe to my blog - 
Join my Facebook page - shaniswriting

1 comment: