The Gospel of Grace for Women Who Self-Injure
Self-harm—clinically defined as the deliberate destruction of one's body tissue without suicidal intent, such as cutting, burning, and hair-pulling—is not new. What is new is the proliferation of images and messages through social media that may trigger these behaviors among those vulnerable to them. This is the finding of research published this month in Pediatrics journal.
The study examined one hundred YouTube videos focused on self-injury. Researchers analyzed the most-viewed videos appearing under the search words "self-injury" and "self-harm," and found that the top 100 videos were viewed over 2 million times and marked as "favorites" over 12,000 times. While some videos require viewers to verify they are at least 18 (a simple process requiring no proof of age), most of the videos were viewable to all. The researchers conclude that the videos "express a hopeless or melancholic message" and "may foster normalization of non-suicidal self-injury and may reinforce the behavior through regular viewing of non-suicidal self-injury-themed videos."
A cursory look at these videos confirms that even those presented as cautions against self-injury seem more likely to glamorize it. Ambient music, moody settings and images, and artistic renderings of self-injury are typical. One recurring type features animated characters, further removing self-harming behaviors from the realm of reality, yet aimed at viewers whose very struggle is to remain grounded in reality.
My introduction to cutting occurred years ago when I was a 20-something English teacher in a Christian high school. I'd never heard of cutting before. Like all of the subsequent students I've encountered who self-injure, this student was female, intelligent, intense, and experiencing deep emotional turmoil. Everything "Grace" told me about her cutting is consistent with my later research and experiences. Around age 15, prompted by feelings of rejection, Grace began self-injuring by grating her knuckles on the brick fireplace that went through her bedroom. She later explained, "I had an overwhelming sense of pain that I didn't know how to deal with, and I felt that whatever my problems were were my fault. So the physical pain seemed to sate the mental pain."
More recently, "Amy," a college-age friend, told me about a bout with cutting she underwent in the midst of a prolonged break-up last year. Helpless and alone after her boyfriend walked out on her, she made numerous shallow slices along her arm. "Feeling lost in a mental tornado," she says, "the physical sensation of cutting seemed to be the only thing that could bring me back to reality." These first cuts were so gentle that the welts, like mysterious modern-day stigmata, didn't appear until the next day. However, her third and last cut resulted in an emergency call and a permanent scar that she has since hidden under a tattoo.
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