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“Silly, attention-seeking girl”: self-harm is a feminist issue

By Naomi Salisbury

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

The last time I sought support around self-harm the response was, ‘Have you considered a cookery class?’

At the time I wasn’t clear how this would help me deal with the next time I came out of a disassociated state to discover I had attacked myself with scissors, but over time it has started to make more sense.

Working for Bristol Crisis Service for Women (soon to be Self-Injury Support), a national women’s self-injury support organisation, every new report about self-harm in the media makes me a little more demoralised. The findings generally come as no surprise, but it’s the platitudes from high-ups that accompany these articles that I find so depressing.

‘We must put an end to this,’ is an oft quoted pledge, but to be honest in my years working in this sector it feels like the will to understand self-harm has stagnated in a flurry of desire to be seen to be ‘doing something,’ regardless of what that something is.

Self-harm isn’t a new phenomenon, but how we conceptualise it has changed over time. Self-flagellation and scarification have existed for centuries. Studies of self-harm in Victorian literature show a holistic approach considering self-harm to have psychological and emotional meaning. As we moved further into the twentieth century the medicalization of self-harm drew us away from trying to understand to focus on trying to fix the obvious wound and the societal discomfort it evoked.

The underpinning ethos of our organisation is to focus on why someone uses self-harm and what they want support with. We know from years of research that the vast majority of self-harm is symptomatic of something else going on in someone’s life. Each person’s experience is unique and it could be anything – from bullying or social isolation to past or present experiences of sexual violence.

Focusing on preventing someone from using self-harm puts them under huge pressure and removes a way of coping that is working for them. For some people this can lead to a shift to more ‘socially acceptable’ things such as drinking or eating to excess or gambling. For others it can remove a safety net standing between them and suicide.

If we look at self-harm and self-injury in only the narrow context of what and who then it does appear to be an overwhelmingly female and more specifically young female issue. But these are the figures we know about collected from studies focusing on hospital attendances and targeted research, often with young people.

Recent research has shown that rates of men and women self-harming are no longer in such sharp contrast when forms of self-harm other than cutting and overdoses are taken into account.

So perhaps it’s not the act of self-harm which is a feminist issue but the response we offer as a society. From being told you’re a ‘silly girl’ when seeking treatment for self-harm to being vilified for ‘daring to bare’ long-healed self-harm scars, responses to self-harm in women reflect wider themes for women in today’s society. Even the language often attached to perceptions of self-harm – attention-seeking, manipulative, hysterical – is overwhelmingly associated with negative traits commonly attributed to women.

The focus on women’s appearance as a defining factor of their worth is constant and raises its ugly head around self-harm in a number of ways. Clumsy attempts to stop women self-harming often include pleas to stop as it will spoil their bodies; they will regret the scars later; they will repel other people.

Women’s bodies are often not seen and sometimes not experienced as their own. A common consideration for me when using self-harm was always where, not for reasons of safety, but to preserve my privacy and prevent others from feeling they had the right to comment on my body. Others feeling they can comment and ask complete strangers about self-harm scars is such a common issue that a colleague of mine role plays with women so they feel confident enough to respond with ‘I did it myself, why do you want to know?’

This lack of bodily autonomy also extends to the coercive approaches sometimes used in relation to self-harm by others in a supporting role. Attempts to persuade someone to stop using self-harm often focus on the impact it is having on others and their discomfort, effectively dictating what a women can and can’t do with her own body.

I realise now that the suggestion of a cookery class was nothing to do with me, but at the time it only reinforced the feeling that my body and any damage I was doing to it were of little importance. As often happens the emphasis of support was disproportionately focused away from the distress I was feeling.

There’s no denying that self-harm is an emotive and often distressing issue – that’s why our organisation exists. But responses which reinforce some of the very reasons women use self-harm are as much a reason to consider self-harm a feminist issue as the causes.

Naomi Salisbury works for Bristol Crisis Service for Women, a national self-injury support organisation for women and girls. Follow @BCSWBristol, or for information and support, visit: www.selfinjurysupport.org.uk

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5 thoughts on ““Silly, attention-seeking girl”: self-harm is a feminist issue

  1. Naomi Wilcox-Lee

    From one Naomi to another, thank you for writing this brilliant piece. I really wish people could talk more openly about self harm and the issues surrounding it. The two biggest factors in my journey to recovery were firstly, not feeling ashamed of what I was doing (or you just get into a cycle of self blame, which often perpetuate the feelings which led you to harm in the first place), and secondly, being told that I was in control; it was MY body, MY choices, MY emotions that were ok to feel.
    You’re so right that self harming is nothing new; there is even self harm in the bible (Job cuts himself with broken pottery); I think we need to move away from it being such a taboo subject.
    It might seem a weird thing to say, but I am proud of my scars – they signify that I made it through a really difficult time in my life, they represent my strength and not my weakness, and I would never hide them or wish them away.

    Reply
  2. Paul Winkler

    I am glad you brought up the issue of treating the symptom, and not the causes.

    I know a woman who has a long history of cutting. Her therapist told her at the start of her treatment that she (the therapist) would have a zero-tolerance policy about the self-injury. During a particularly stressful episode of bipolar depression, that lasted a few days, my poor acquaintance could not resist succumbing to her old habit. Being honest, she admitted this to her therapist, who promptly started making arrangements for a new therapist. I was aghast at the arrogance and lack of empathy from this “therapist”. Unfortunately, this attitude from a professional is far from uncommon.

    Reply
    1. Ellesar

      Presumably that therapist was treating the self harm in the same way as a substance addiction, IMO missing the point that the reason for not accepting a client who is intoxicated is necessary in order to have the client clear thinking for the session. This is hardly the case for a cutter. It is hard to see how such an approach could ever build trust and rapport, and smacks of an authoritarian approach.

      I hope your friend found a more sympathetic therapist with a more flexible approach.

      Reply
  3. Ellesar

    I have heard the ‘attention seeking’ attitude SO many times and sometimes I have said ‘what is wrong with attention seeking?’ Meaning that if someone is in distress and they ask for help why is that such a bad thing. I consider self harming absolutely to be attention seeking, and I do not see why a person in distress should not have attention. And like most troubled people a self harmer is not asking for help in a direct and ‘sensible’ way. Of course not – they are unlikely to need help if they are that sorted!

    Reply
  4. Jess

    Thanks so much for this article, Naomi. Sums up my views and experiences perfectly.
    I also really like Ellesar’s comment about “attention seeking” – so many people self harm for such a variety of reasons and all of those are legitimate. Thanks again

    Reply

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