I have been involved in activism for about four years now. In that time, I have learned a lot about how my experiences have been influenced by my physical and mental attributes (being fat and having mental health problems) and by the discrimination those characteristics have led to. I have also learned about other types of bodies and other types of discrimination against those bodies – discrimination that I myself have not have experienced and that I wasn’t aware existed. I have learned a lot about the world I live in and the different ways in which people may or may not experience the world. I have no doubt that the longer I am involved in activism, the more I will learn.
However, while I have learned a lot in general about different body types and how society reacts to them, I have learned very little about individual people and how their own bodies — and society’s attitudes towards their bodies — have affected them at an individual level. In short, I don’t know many people’s backstories. This is what I am now trying to learn.
So what do I mean when I say “backstory”? A person’s backstory is essentially their past, but here I am defining it more specifically as events and experiences in a person’s past that hold influence over them in the present day. Backstories play an important and often subconscious role in how we are and how we function as members of society. Since our bodies play such a major role in our lives, there is little questioning that our backstories contain numerous events and experiences related to our bodies. Every one of us has a backstory, and within our backstories often lie the reasons why we view the world in the unique ways we do.
To better explain the importance of both our own and other people’s backstories, I am going to have to talk about one of my favourite hobbies: LARPing. For those of you not in the know, LARP stands for Live Action Role Play, and it involves becoming a character within a make-believe world of the LARP leader’s creation, interacting with other characters in this world, and going on various adventures in this world, all in the name of experiencing an interactive story. It is very similar to Dungeons and Dragons, but it is, if possible, even geekier. It’s fabulous.
The character you create becomes the most important part of the LARP, because everything in this world you have control over is done through your character. It is important that you, as a player, understand your character’s thoughts, motivations, limitations, and other personality traits. For a lot of players, myself included, it is easier for us to understand our characters if we create a backstory for them.
Our characters’ backstories are completely within our control. The player chooses what experiences their character has had, as well as what their character has taken away from those experiences. Character creation often starts with an idea about the character at the time of play (for example, the character I play likes horses), which the player can then take and work into the backstory in some way (for example, my character rode horses a lot as a child).
This creation of a backstory often makes the characteristics of the character more grounded in the player’s head, because it gives reasons for why our character is the way they are. In real life, we do not have nearly as much control over our own backstories, of course, but they give similar grounding and reasons.
Backstories provide details, which is particularly important for understanding people at the individual level. I will illustrate the importance of this fact using two examples. First, when I was still fairly new to the LARP, my character was with a group in a cave and some supernatural creatures started attacking us. The rest of the group started attacking back with gusto, but my character hung back, ready to heal anybody who was injured, but not willing to shoot these creatures straight away. To people who did not know my character, my actions might have seemed cowardly, or at the very least strange.
Anybody familiar with my character’s backstory, however, would have known that she was taught at a young age to treat all living creatures with kindness and respect. As such, she will not shoot living creatures unless absolutely necessary — and even then, she will aim for a non-fatal part of the body. Knowing this detail of my character’s backstory is not only helpful for me when remembering my character’s motivations, but it is also helpful for my LARP group as a whole when deciding what sort of missions I would be better at being involved in.
My second example involves my real-life backstory. I have mentioned in a previous article that I have health anxiety. Health anxiety is a relatively common type of anxiety, and there are a number of reasons why somebody might develop it. Anyone on the outside looking in might assume that I have health anxiety because there have been health problems in my family. In actual fact, I developed it because my brain was bored. Seriously.
I had just finished my last exam for my Bachelor’s at university, and a friend of mine took me for a walk through a park. There was a gravestone he wanted to show me. Before then, I would have looked at gravestones without much problem. But my newly unoccupied brain seemed to latch onto what a gravestone signified, and I started panicking. Other stimuli have since kept the anxiety going, as it were, but that initial spark came from my bored brain desperately seeking something new to latch itself onto.
If you, the reader, had not known much about health anxiety before reading that last paragraph, you might now be reading my words and feeling a little more knowledgeable about how health anxiety can be triggered. You might be interested and wish to learn more. If you were to find other articles in which others with health anxiety share parts of their own backstories, your knowledge of this mental health problem would grow. You would find out the different ways in which health anxiety can be triggered, can manifest, can be treated, can be cured. Your knowledge would then enable compassion, because you would understand the wide range of difficulties people with health anxiety face. You would understand my challenges, because you have taken the time to learn other people’s backstories.
I will be the first person to raise my hand and say that no, I definitely do not know all of the different ways in which people become the way they are. It would, indeed, be impossible for me to know them all, since everybody has different life experiences. But I am trying to listen to and read about other people who have shared parts of their backstories, whether on The Body is Not An Apology, on other activism websites, or elsewhere. Through this approach, I hope to gain a broader understanding of how body-related experiences can affect people and learn to be more compassionate towards my fellow human beings. After all, for many of us, compassion is what we are ultimately fighting for.
Love and Iced VoVos,