No one with scars should feel shamed into covering up.
I’ve had a problem with self-harm since I was 13. That means I’ve been intentionally injuring my body for exactly half my life. I used to cover my arms, legs and chest until my scars had faded or turned pale, but I don’t want to do that anymore.
I don’t believe I should have to hide in long-sleeved shirts, thick tights, and turtlenecks to make strangers feel more comfortable.
People with self-harm scars have as much right as anyone else to wear what they want and show skin if they choose to. Just because someone has visible scarring from self-inflicted injuries, it doesn’t mean they’re any less worthy of wearing short sleeves, skirts and dresses with bare legs or shorts, if that’s what they want to do.
Unfortunately, self-harm still carries a lot of stigma, particularly for adults.
It’s popularly viewed as something that ‘only teenagers do’, creating more shame for people self-harming in their 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond. It’s very hard to admit to doing something that you’re constantly told you should’ve grown out of, or to ask for help when you think you’ll be judged harshly.
I moved to London in May, and I had a bad self-harm incident in my first week of being in a new city and doing a new job, without friends, my partner, or a support network around me.
I immediately reached for the baggy trousers and maxi skirts to hide the wounds from knee to ankle, but with temperatures in the mid-20s and so many cute dresses in my wardrobe, I decided to fuck it and wear what I wanted.
The response was pretty much what I expected. In public, people stared.
They stared on the train, on the tube, in shops, in the street, in the bar, in pub gardens, and in the queue for the cash point.
There were the straight gawpers, who just goggled at me without even trying to hide what they were doing, the sheepish glancers, the mothers who all but shielded their teenage daughters’ eyes and the lemon-suckers who twisted their faces into caricatures of disapproval.
It had an effect. I felt far more ashamed and unhappy with myself because of the way people reacted than because I’d actually had an episode and self-harmed in the first place. I was being eyeballed like a zoo attraction and it felt horrible.
The more I thought about it, the more I started wondering why people were being so rude. Would they stare like that at someone with surgical scars? Or acid burns?
My scarring is connected to mental illness rather than a physical one, but it doesn’t make me any less of person or any less deserving of basic respect.
Due to the stigma around self-harm, it’s very difficult to find reliable figures on how many people in the UK are currently affected.
People self-harm for a variety of complex reasons, but it’s usually as a response to extreme emotional distress. Some self-harmers say that the pain of self-harm gives them focus in a sea of emotional turbulence and brings them out of a haze of numbness or disconnection, or lets them focus on a tangible pain outside their mental distress.
Others see it as a way of physically ‘letting the pain out’ of their bodies and relieving the suffering they are experiencing.
Self-harm can be a tool for turning invisible thoughts and feelings into something visible, escaping traumatic memories or expressing suicidal feelings and thoughts without attempting to end your life.
For many people, self-harm is actually the lesser of two evils if they’re in such a deeply distressed place that they are considering suicide.
I am not ashamed of my body. I prefer to see my scars as proof of my strength and resilience, rather than marks of regret. My scars remind me that I’ve been through so much darkness and I do struggle with mental illness, but I’m still here and I still want to live.
If the weather’s warm, I’m going to wear booty shorts and a vest because there’s no reason why I or anyone else with self-harm scars should feel shamed into staying covered. People who are affected by self-harm deserve to be able to wear what they want, just like everyone else.
It’s not ‘advertising’ self-harm to show your scars. The trappings of mental illness and emotional distress are not desirable, they just exist.
For anyone who objects to scars because they’re ‘ugly’, it’s much uglier to stare at someone’s body with a sneer on your face than to have scars in the first place.
Every time you make someone feel self-conscious or uncomfortable for showing scarred skin, you’re telling them that their body is unacceptable. This is an incredibly damaging message to be sending someone who may be struggling to come to terms with trauma, dealing with chronic low self-esteem or having a generally bad time with their mental health.
When I open the wardrobe, there’s a fight in my head over whether it’s worth the hassle of wearing a skirt that comes to my knees or a short sleeved shirt. I want to be comfortable and express myself through my clothes, but is it worth how small all those hostile or questioning stares will make me feel?
We should remember that for people with scars, whether they’re old or new, and that it can take courage to leave the house showing skin.
For friends, family members, and partners of someone with scars, the best thing you can do is support their decision to wear what they feel comfortable in. If they’d rather cover up, fine. If they want to wear clothes that show their scars, that’s fine too. Don’t make their scars about you.
If someone’s a stranger to you, you have no right to ask personal questions about their scars (this also goes for tattoos, piercings, weight, shape, height, clothing and any other distinguishing markers – it’s none of your business). And for goodness’ sake, don’t gawp. It’s rude.
When people stare at my scars, I’ve simply started staring back. By making eye contact with them, I’m showing that I’m not going to be intimidated or shamed by their behaviour. Self-harm scars don’t make me inferior.
If my body bothers you, I’d advise you to look somewhere else.
If you see someone with scarring on their body, don’t:
- Stare. Remember when your mum told you it was rude to stare at people who look different? That’s still true.
- Look at the person in a pitying way. It’s demeaning and doesn’t help anyone.
- Make assumptions about the cause. If you really feel the need to ask, consider whether you know the person in question well enough. Do you want to make them more self-conscious to satisfy your personal curiosity?
- Look grossed out or disgusted by their body. This is 100% bad behaviour and anyone tempted to do this needs to take a good long look at themselves.
- Point or nudge your friends to make them look. This one should really go without saying. It’s tantamount to playground bullying. Don’t do it.
A version of this piece first appeared on Metro.co.uk