For centuries, women and men alike have been engaging in acts of self-harm, but our understanding of the behavior has long been limited by sexist stereotypes writes Rachael Verona Cote.
In the 1580s, a young novice, who recently joined an Italian convent, seizes a whip and unsparingly lashes her body. Demons have infested her flesh, she declares, and to be worthy of God’s love she must exorcise them. Posthumously, she will be memorialized as a saint.
Centuries later, a young woman in Victorian England restlessly sets aside half-finished embroidery and—ensuring that she is alone—laces her needle into her wrist instead. When her family discovers this habit, they usher her to a local doctor, where she’s diagnosed with hysteria. A senior at the College of William and Mary, class of 2007, slumps in her chair, casting a sidelong glance at her psychiatrist. “You want to know why I cut myself?” she asks. “It’s the quickest way I know to feel less anxious.”
For centuries, men and women alike have engaged in self-mutilation; however, the specter of the self-harming woman has commanded a particular breed of fascination, mystification, and cultural interpretation.
Examples of men self-mutilating for purification abound in literature. The act is usually depicted as a means of cleansing oneself from unholy erotic desires; The Scarlet Letter (1850), Brave New World (1931), the musical Sweeney Todd (1973), and some adaptations of the Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) are particularly notable examples. In these cases, masochism is a brutal, active force, one that establishes the superiority of men over corrupting, sexualized feminine forces.
Narratives of female self-mutilation, conversely, tend to veer towards self-abnegation and self-annihilation. During the Middle Ages, female martyrs would mutilate themselves to safeguard their chastity. Saint Wilgefortis, betrothed without her consent and plagued by her father’s sexual advances, starved herself while praying for God to divest her of physical charms. As she became evermore emaciated, Wilgefortis’s body grew a coating of hair, and a beard sprouted from her chin. Her royal fiancé, aghast at the effects of her asceticism, spurned her, and her father—brutal and enraged—ordered her crucifixion. As she died on the cross, Wilgefortis referred to “the passion that encumbrances all women” and beseeched women to pray through her to be delivered from vanity and erotic desire.
In the mid-16th century, according to some accounts, the precocious Saint Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi clandestinely fit herself with a crown of thorns and began whipping herself when she was only 10 years old to practice religious self-abnegation. Ten years later she had joined a convent and restricted her diet to bread and water—this dietary order, she said, had come from God himself. She continued to self-flagellate, sometimes in public, in order to banish the demons purportedly plaguing her. She coaxed the convent novices to whip her, too, and to stand on her mouth. Sometimes she burnt her skin with hot wax. When, at 37, she lay battered and swollen on her deathbed, she admonished her sisters not to touch her, lest they be visited with sexual longings.
The cases of Saint Wilgefortis and Saint Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi are extreme, but they’re far from isolated. As scholar Robert Mullen notes, 88 percent of those who bore wounds believed to be connected to Christ were women. “The prevailing Christian acceptance was that the stigmatic blood ‘not only purged the woman of her sin but also saved her fellow Christians’ by compensating for sins through substituted atonement,” he writes. These holy women, then, were both vessels of contamination and vehicles of spiritual deliverance, blessed in their squalor.
Centuries later, women who intentionally harmed themselves were still regarded as sites of sexual excess; in the Victorian era, a time equally infamous for extreme repression and unflagging fascination with sex, medical journals puzzled over over the “Needle-Girls” phenomenon—”a peculiar type of self-mutilation…sometimes seen in hysteric persons”— wherein women began pricking themselves with their sewing needles, even threading them into their skin.
Of course, not all of these so-called “hysteric persons” used needles as their implement of choice. In 1896, for example, physicians George Gould and Walter Pyle published their observations of one 30-year-old woman in New York in Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, noting that she had “cut her left wrist and right hand” in late September of 1876. Three weeks later, after being refused opium, she reportedly “again cut her arms below the elbows, cleanly severing the skin and fascia, and completely hacking the muscles in every direction.” She continued this pattern of self-mutilation at intervals of a few weeks, sometimes inserting objects like shards of glass and splinters into her wounds. (According to the article, the woman cut herself from the last time in June, 1877.)
Contemporary medicine diagnosed these women as hysterics, their self-harm a symptom of their femininity and, thus, their fundamental emotional excess. For articulating their suffering they were branded with hysteria’s stigma. Many were unnecessarily bundled away in asylums, deemed irreparably ill because their words went unheeded. In L.E. Emerson’s 1914 The Case Of Miss A, a psychoanalytical study, he endeavors to understand a 23-year-old patient referred to as Miss A, who told doctors that she had cut herself “twenty-eight or thirty times.” He recounts her history, one fraught with the trauma of sexual assault and its stigma: For “many years (five or six),” she was sexually abused by an uncle and, years later, one of her cousins attempted to sexually assault her as well. Finally, she was abandoned by a suitor after he discovered she wasn’t a virgin. The suitor called her a whore, Emerson writes, and—pierced by this rejection—she later carved a “W” into her leg.
Emerson remarks upon “the sexual nature of her acts,” noting that the “relationship to Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter is interesting.” Operating in the Freudian school, he deduces that there were numerous motives for her self mutilation: The first was that “cutting was a sort of symbolical substitute for masturbation.” Miss A was also propelled by “a desire to escape mental distress” and a longing to punish herself. Emerson moreover surmises that she intentionally drew her own blood out of “a desire for regular menstruation.”
While his interpretations may not be entirely wrong-headed, they are narrow, almost foregone conclusions in an age when women’s suffering was conceived primarily as a medical oddity, filtered through psychoanalytic discourse that saw women as fundamentally deficient. What might these women have said for themselves if male physicians had not been so hasty to speak for them?
By the 1960s, psychoanalysis continued to loom large in psychiatric study, and the field had become no less sexist. Doctors began to examine “self-harm” as a concept that merited study on its own terms; however, their studies tended to focus on women, generating the fetishized figure of the “cutter.” In the media, the “cutter” or “wrist-slasher” was reduced to “the province of pretty, clever, white, middle-class girls,” argues Liz Frost in Young Women and the Body, decrying the institutional tendency to myopically “ignore issues of class, sexuality, and [race].” The obsessive emphasis on gender, too, was limiting: As sociologist Chris Millard notes, researchers in the 70s frequently described men who hurt themselves as “pretty boys” and “effeminate,” reinforcing gendered stereotypes, undermining their own objectivity, and doubly stigmatizing male patients.
Even the term “self-mutilation,” now common parlance, seems to spring from the 1960s cutter stereotype of the 1960s and 70s. As scholar Barbara Brickman observes, “the medical discourse on ‘delicate’ cutting pathologizes the female body, relying on the notion of femininity as a disease… One begins to wonder if ‘mutilation’ would be used so readily to describe wounded skin on a less appealing body.” The cutter was generally seen as genteel, lovely, and educated—and, because she was not necessarily suffering from suicidal ideation, she was viewed as salvageable. Indeed, the cutter, who was typically described as unmarried and intelligent, could very well be wife material so long as she never missed a therapy appointment.
Despite abundant commentary on the “cutting” phenomenon, the 60s and 70s saw a dearth of non-clinical writing about self-harm. A few exceptions exist—Joanne Greenberg’s semi-autobiographical novel, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden from 1964, Sylvia Plath’s 1962 poem “Cut”—but it wasn’t until the 1990s, with the publication of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s wildly popular Prozac Nation and the dawn of the internet, that multitudes of young women who engaged in self-harm began to articulate their own experiences outside of the psychological establishment’s narrow purview.
One begins to wonder if ‘mutilation’ would be used so readily to describe wounded skin on a less appealing body.
In Prozac Nation, published in 1994, Wurtzel portrayed cutting as a pressure valve. “If the desperation got so terribly bad,” she wrote, “I could inflict harm on my body.” Two years later, according to sociologists Patricia Adler and Peter Adler, there was a fundamental shift in the mindsets of people who injured themselves: Prior to 1996, most patients viewed the behavior as “self-invented,” but afterwards most reporting hearing about the behavior from the media or from their friends, and subsequently deciding to try it themselves.
Today, self-harm is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) under the name “nonsuicidal self-injury disorder.” In its typically clinical tone, the DSM-V explains that nonsuicidal self-injury refers to harm intentionally inflicted on “body tissues.” It is “normally used,” the manual continues, “by individuals to handle worrying negative affective emotional states, in particular anger and depression,” and affects men and women alike—though women tend to cut themselves more than men do.
As Cornell University psychologist Janis Whitlock discovered, the practice is startlingly common. Of 5000 people surveyed across several Ivy League colleges, 20 percent of women and 14 percent of men reported having resorted to self-harm at least once. The catalysts for such behavior are vast in number. Some people who engage in NSSI struggle with depression and anxiety, or with disordered eating. Disorders tied to borderline personality, the autism spectrum, and associative anxiety can also beget the urge to self-injure. Other research indicates that in the case of women, eating disorders and self-mutilation share a striking connection.
They see the blood, and they say, ‘OK, that’s where my body is because the blood is coming out of my skin, and I know where the boundaries of my body are.’
Professor Armando Favazza of the University of Missouri, a leading scholar in studies of self-harm and author of Bodies Under Siege: Self-mutilation and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry, has described self-injury as a means of returning to one’s body after a period of disassociation. “[One] of the sure ways to end these episodes of depersonalization is to cut yourself,” he told NPR. “[Those who engage in self-harm] see the blood, and they say, ‘OK, that’s where my body is because the blood is coming out of my skin, and I know where the boundaries of my body are.'”
In the same NPR interview, 19-year-old Rebecca Raye explained that cutting was, paradoxically, her mode of eliminating pain. “All the things that are really hurting me at the moment are just kind of leaving me, along with the blood,” she said. The way Raye describes her ritual—maintaining a “kit” with all her supplies, making careful, symmetrical cuts—shows an extremely deliberate effort to harness freewheeling emotional agony through a deliberate and steady act. As NPR’s Alix Spiegel narrates, “Whenever Rebecca is distressed—by work, by family—she returns to this kit. Before she cuts, she says her mind is exploding. But once she feels pain, there’s a kind of peace.”
My own experience with self-harm is similar to the one Raye recounts. For over a decade and a half, I treated cutting as a refuge, and chased peace through pain. I did not so much court death, but quiet; every episode felt like a leap into black stasis. Cutting my body eased the swell of melancholy and anxiety, like a gently deflating balloon. I felt that it transported me beyond language, beyond legibility, and into deep obscurity. I have, at long last—and with the invaluable assistance of treatment—very nearly broken the habit. But there was never one sure cure; rather, it was a grinding, piecemeal process of psychotherapy and pill cocktails (and it took years before I arrived at the blessed trinity of Klonopin, Wellbutrin, and Cymbalta). Cutting had enabled me to sink into blankness —then, all of a sudden, I was compelled to locate words to describe my urges to a therapist. At 31, I’m unsure that the impulse will ever fully dissipate. I only know that I have, with all my might, fortified myself against it.
My experiences align me with a legion of women who have also grappled with self-harm. We are fixated upon and diagnosed, our kindred struggles differently named across theoretical schools and medical models. And yet, women’s bodies have rarely catalyzed social empathy. Throughout history, we have been viewed as sites of spectacle, fundamental excess, and metaphor. For as long as women have been cutting themselves, “the self-harming woman” has been spun into a specific narrative—one that usually supports a cultural mythology which insists that we are always in peril, always compromised by our own femininity. Perhaps the self-harming woman seems almost a gender-specific inevitability: the psychological outcome of navigating a world so often inhospitable to us. We did not compose these narratives, but we bear their burden; slowly, hopefully, we will undo them.