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Mental Health

Living With Self-Harm Scars in a Body-Positive Way

Like many people my age, I’ve struggled with and still struggle with depression, anxiety, and ADHD, just to name the diagnosed illnesses. I could go on and on about how those have affected my life, and what “recovery” really looks like, especially as a college student, but I’ll spare you the details. Suffice to say, I regularly engaged in self-harming behavior from the age of about twelve. I haven’t truly stopped either, to be honest. I just exhibit it differently: I exercise and push myself, sometimes recklessly,  I enjoy danger and adrenaline, and I’ve never been able to kick the habit of picking at my skin excessively.


Even with mental health stigma decreasing, not many people discuss self-harm. It’s seen as a very personal and sometimes shameful thing, and people just go quiet if you bring it up. Believe me, I’m very good at oversharing, and I don’t know when to shut up, once I get talking. As a result, I’ve had uncomfortable conversations around the subject. For the sake of discussion, I’ll be direct: I used to cut myself because pain helps me think more clearly and calmly. For an adolescent with depression, anxiety, and ADHD, this was a lifesaving coping mechanism. These are my reasons; anyone else’s reasons might be entirely different. I engaged in these behaviors for years, and, as a result, my body is pretty much covered in scars. I do, like everyone, have scars from other events, some from surgery or from story-worthy misadventures, but the vast majority are from self-inflicted wounds.


Now, we could discuss self-harm all day; I often compare it to behaviors such as alcoholism. After all, barring the social stigma, how different are they? Alcoholism just a much more socially accepted way of hurting yourself, in an effort to improve your mental health. Many people hurt themselves-- it’s much more common than you’d believe, young people do it, old people do it, and they all have different relationships to pain, different reasons for doing it, and different situations. In the end it’s just another coping mechanism.

I want to broach the topic of scars. Specifically, self-harm scars, but this applies to all sorts of scars, from accidental injuries to surgical incisions to childhood mistakes.

First, you don’t owe anyone an explanation. I’ve been asked “what happened to your arm?” quite a few times, and rarely do I have the time or patience to sit down with someone and explain exactly why my arm is scarred. Most people, if they answer at all, give offhand, practiced remarks, such as “Oh, I struggled with depression as a kid,” or, for the less polite, “I got in a fight with my brain and lost.” I always try to measure and match the sincerity of the question, because I know just how frustrating it is to ask many questions, appropriate or otherwise, and never actually get an answer.  But being open isn't for everyone. For some, it’s scary to admit to the behavior, and scarier to consider the implications of everyone knowing about it. But that’s precisely why I’m so open about it. I wear tank tops and short shorts, and I talk about self-harm and my associated history when it’s relevant, even if it might be weird or uncomfortable for me to mention. I’m open because I know there are people listening. I know there are other people hiding it, because I was. I was that kid in junior high hiding my wrists.  I want them to feel comfortable too, I want to show that they can wear clothes that reveal their wrists and thighs, and wherever else scars might be. That being said, it’s not easy or possible for everyone to be open about it like I am. Sometimes people still regularly engage in self-harm, and open wounds are a lot more problematic than faded scars. Sometimes people think scars make them less attractive, and this often adds to a desire to hide one’s body, especially if other body image issues are involved.. Sometimes, scars are in very particular places or patterns due to the different ways we learn to hate our bodies. It’s different for everyone; the key lies in the ability to choose what you show, and to whom you show it.


Secondly, scars aren’t gross. Everyone has some, and whether the story behind them is badass or hilarious or sad isn’t really anyone else’s business. Hell, I wear crop tops and shorts whenever the weather allows, and people are still surprised to discover them when I bring it up, even after knowing me for quite some time. It’s pretty obvious, my scars are plentiful and definitely visible, and I make no effort to hide anymore. It’s my body, and my business, after all.


I’ve heard plenty of positivity on the subject, and it’s wonderful to see positivity in place of shame and guilt. However, while calling them “battle scars” sounds really cool, it doesn’t work for me anymore. I don’t have to have a badass backstory to show my body the way I want to. The scars are there, on my body. They will be for my whole life. I don’t owe anyone an explanation for that, and I don’t need to be ashamed of it either. Yeah, it wasn’t fun to be depressed, but that’s in the definition. And I absolutely don’t want anyone else hurting themselves, it’s an addictive behavior that only gets worse. And sadly, you can build tolerance, which results in increased behavior, and the cycle continues. More importantly, there are much more healthy coping mechanisms you can learn.

I don’t think that people should “show off” their cuts or scars for attention, or worse, in a battle of “I have it worse than you.” However, my policy is that if someone is “doing something for attention,” then someone should be giving them that attention. It doesn’t help anyone to ignore attention-seeking behavior, because that just leads to more drastic measures. As for the battles of “I have it worse than you,” people say a lot on the subject, but I rarely see it actually happening. It’s more a matter of “You shamed me for this, but I don’t care, I’m gonna be proud of it.” In the discussion of scars, this is not an ideal or strictly healthy outcome, but also not something we should be actively working against before we work towards more important goals, such as actually giving people the tools they need to cope in healthier ways.


For those of us who have struggled, and do have scars, feel free to open up about it. Whether that’s wearing different clothes, or talking to those closest to you about your feelings, go for it. If you hate the scars, and never want to show them to anyone, that's okay too. Your body is beautiful the way it is, but more importantly, it’s yours. And it’s going to be yours for your entire life, and even longer if you subscribe to relevant theology that is thus inclined. It’s your body, and it doesn’t have to be beautiful. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It keeps you alive, and rebuilds, and heals, and works hard to do so.

Jacob Westwood is a senior at the University of Utah, who loves animals, the outdoors, and hands-on work.
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