cutting, Health, Mental Health, mental health disorders, romanticizing self-harm, Self inflicted violence, Self Injury, self-abuse, Self-harm, self-injurious behavior, Self-mutilation, SI, sib, SIV, suicide
As the original has been my most popular blog post (funny, I didn’t think it was the best), I thought it would be good to write a follow-up. The topic hasn’t gone away and while I still hold the same opinion—that you can be beautiful but self-harm never will be—I acknowledge that the issue is quite complicated. (Note: most of the information presented here is my opinion. I am not an authority on this subject—if one can even be that—and you are more than welcome to disagree with me.)
Trigger warning: Very mild descriptions of self-harm. Please proceed with caution. Resources are at the end of the post if needed.
To romanticize means to glamorize or idealize something. I might romanticize my morning cup of coffee and say that it is providing me with a vital life force to get me through the day. In actuality, it’s just perking me up very slightly. While romanticizing my morning routine doesn’t hurt anyone (except sleepy me), romanticizing self-harm or other forms of self-abuse can be dangerous. Drug abuse is often romanticized, with users indicating that it’s cool to smoke or drink dangerous amounts of liquor. Likewise, romanticizing self-harm can negatively influence people. Instead of describing self-injury as what it is—a coping mechanism with risky physical and psychological drawbacks—someone might describe this as something cool and mysterious. Or one common presentation is that individuals self-harm until they meet the person of their dreams; someone who kisses their scars, tells them they’re beautiful, and then self-abuse ends. If this happens to someone and it does magically end their self-harm forever then great, that’s fantastic. But if self-harm is presented as something that can be easily mitigated by a significant other or some other accomplishment, this will only disappoint those people for whom this doesn’t work. While I’m very much in love with my supportive significant other and I’m proud of the accomplishments I have made, these have not solved my self-harm and expecting them to would put me in a bad state.
When talking about self-harm I consider there to be two main audiences. First is those who don’t self-harm who may have no idea what self-harm is, have the wrong idea, or just may not have the same perspective as those who self-harm. The other audience is obviously those who self-harm or who have harmed in the past. Any discussion of self-harm, including that which romanticizes the act, affects both these audiences.
Is romanticizing self-harm bad? I think the message it puts out is overall negative, but I acknowledge that it isn’t always done with nefarious intent. Some people may romanticize self-harm because it helps them deal with this problem. Perhaps if they think about it as something beautiful, then they’ll feel less shame for engaging in it. While I don’t wish to critique anyone’s methods of dealing with something, I think romanticizing self-harm as a way to feel better about it is a dangerous path to go down. Resorting to self-harm as a coping strategy isn’t disgusting or gross, but calling it beautiful does little to deter one from the already tempting path. In this way, romanticizing self-harm can be dangerous for an audience of people who are self-harming in that it doesn’t do much to help them stop.
Romanticizing self-harm can also be detrimental for the non-self-harming audience. Anything that gives this audience the impression that people are self-harming for any reason other than to cope is probably not helping to reduce the negative stigma around self-injury. If these people think we self-harm as a way to enhance our sad poetry writing or to seek out compassionate partners, this may influence them to think that this isn’t a serious issue. But it is serious. Even if your wounds aren’t lethal or warranting a hospital visit, the harm likely indicates that you aren’t in a good place. You might not be suicidal, but turning to self-harm instead of a healthier coping mechanism means you’re hurting. And if you’re hurting this should be something others are compassionate towards, not dismissive.
On the other hand, I don’t think self-harm should be completely censored or removed from media or art forms. Self-injury isn’t pretty and isn’t “family-friendly” enough to show images on a children’s television station. But it is a part of so many individuals’ lives and affects people of all ages. It’s important to acknowledge the different struggles others go through to present this issue and remove the negative stigma for an unknowledgeable audience. It is also important for individuals who are depressed, anxious, or self-harming to know they aren’t alone. Lastly, talking about it through art or other means can be an important and constructive coping mechanism. And everyone’s story isn’t going to be rated G or be happy and fun to talk about. Stories of racial prejudice, sexual assault, homophobia, transphobia, suicide, and other themes all need to be told to educate the public and empathize with the sufferers. Self-harm deserves a similar spotlight and like all these examples should be addressed with care. Warnings about graphic content can be helpful in addition to describing the context of the self-harm depiction.
So how do you talk about self-harm and not romanticize it? Some steps are probably obvious but of course there’s going to be plenty of nuance. I’m not going to pretend to be an authority on this issue, but these are some things I think are important.
Acknowledge and spell it out. Of course, subtlety is important for many art forms. But if your goal is to educate the public on why this is an important topic, you’ll want to make it clear. Showing someone self-mutilating in a dimly lit room or having telltale scars all over their body might add to whatever “dark” atmosphere your work is going for, but it’s not really going to help either audience. Depending on your art form, you might want to describe why this character is doing this. Happy or sad endings are up to you and both have their place, but I’d hope that your work doesn’t endorse self-harm or suicide in any way that might encourage a viewer to do these destructive acts.
Don’t give the impression that self-harm makes someone beautiful. This point I can’t emphasize enough. Everyone is beautiful despite their scars. Everyone is courageous, strong, and admirable for the tragedy they worked through. But self-mutilation doesn’t make them beautiful. What kind of impression does this leave people with? Will people with depression who are hurting think that taking up self-harm will elicit sympathy or encourage others to finally accept their pain as valid? Because self-harm is such a hard thing to overcome, enticing others to take it up even unintentionally is dangerous and reckless.
Don’t dismiss the complexity. For most of us, self-harm won’t be fixed because we find a nice partner or because we get that A+ on our test. Unless your character is just self-harming once and never turns to it ever again, some simple plot twist probably won’t fix this. For one, that’s not very good writing. But more importantly, this inaccurate portrayal gives both self-harming and non-self-harming audiences the wrong impression. Self-harm is a complex issue and it’s important for audiences to know that relapse or lingering thoughts are common and nothing to be ashamed of.
Offer hope. Again, I don’t want to tell you that you have to write stories with happy endings. Unfortunately, happy endings aren’t always the case in real life. There’s definitely a place for stories in which characters need to deal with suicide, self-harm, sexual assault, or anything else. These are a part of so many peoples’ lives and deserve to be recognized. But if you can, for your audience’s sake it would be nice to offer hope. An obvious way is with uplifting plots in which people overcome any of these things. If that’s not the direction your art takes, you may want to consider leaving phone numbers for crisis hotlines or other sources of help. This isn’t your responsibility (at least I don’t think there are any laws governing that), but if you’ve gone through this I hope that you would want others to find the healthiest ways to cope.
There are probably many other ways to address self-harm without romanticizing it and if you’d like to contribute I’d be more than happy to hear!
Thank you for reading.
Resources (find a more extensive list in the “about” section of this blog):
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386
(I’ve noticed that I get blog views from a wide range of countries and while I can’t realistically find resources for everyone I hope this list is of help.)
List of suicide helplines for various countries: http://www.defyingmentalillness.com/worldwide-suicide-helplines/