Published: Dec. 1, 2007 By

[1] I can still remember the first time it happened. I was either thirteen or fourteen, I don’t know that, but I do know that I was sitting in a chair in the kitchen with my back to the folding doors leading down the long slate hallway. I was somewhere in my first major depressive episode although I lacked the vocabulary to identify it as such. There was a strange moment of clarity amidst the miasma of my angst. It occurred to me that my body was covered with skin, and skin was breakable by tools, and I had the opposable thumbs to use tools. I ferreted through the kitchen looking for a proper instrument, not being brave enough to start out with a knife. I picked up various tools, examining their tips with all the discretion of a wine connoisseur. After poking through drawers, I chose a slim nutpick, precise and seemingly perfect for the task. I began pulling up my shorts, etching into my leg. I watched the way my flesh gave way to a white waxy layer underneath, and I was surprised by how far below the surface my blood seemed. I knew I had to get to the blood, though; it was important that I cut deeply enough that blood became a medium for this oddest of arts.

[2] I did not realize that my first date with the nutpick would be the gateway drug into years of razors, knives, wax, whatever means were at my disposal. Looking back, I find it odd that it even occurred to me to cut myself. I had never heard anyone talk about it. I was not sure if I were inventing some new habit. I do not think I even thought about whether cutting myself were a good or bad thing to do, but I knew enough to keep it a secret. I hid my scars under my clothes with the same overwrought determination with which I tucked pictures of boys I liked in the backs of my dresser drawers.

[3] My realization of cutting’s pervasiveness came gradually. First, there was Dawn, a sprightly redheaded swimmer I knew from a coffee shop. She suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder after years of childhood rape and mentioned the names of all the doctors in town who had “stitched her up” after she cut. Some time after that, I was riding back from a concert with my friend Martha, another redhead, but a reserved Episcopalian percussionist. We had been debating which Waffle House to stop at, and somehow the conversation evolved. “I just wish I could stop cutting myself,” Martha said, switching on her turn signal. Her casually wistful statement of that desire suddenly let me know that I was not alone. What was it that led three intelligent, creative redheads to focus so much energy on deliberate self-destruction?

[4] I now realize that all three of us fit criteria of the standard cutter. We were all middle-class women who were victims of child sexual abuse and struggled with depression. We all had our bouts of suicidal ideation, but always fantasized about painless methods that were much less bloody than our cutting habits. While the private nature of self-injurious behaviors like cutting makes it difficult to ascertain accurate data about the nature of cutting and cutters, most sources indicate that seventy-five percent of cutters are biologically women.

[5] Another trait that connects most research about cutting is its origination within the realm of abnormal psychology. In this investigation, I hope to highlight the flaws inherent in such a schema by articulating the bias which often informs conceits of mental health and links cutting to “abnormal psychology.” This disingenuous categorization neglects the reality that the social ills that create such destructive mechanisms, while far from benevolent, are so prevalent as to be anything but abnormal. The problem with embedding the locus of cutting-related discourse deep within the milieus of psychological epidemiology is that such isolation necessarily disrupts a dialogue between self-mutilators and the rest of society. Those who cut are shoved into a necessarily vague category of mentally ill people who should “get help” or otherwise solve their own problems. Even when cutters seek help, the therapeutic systems in place often further deplete them of their agency by the necessary subjugation of patient to healer through vague clinical vocabulary and pharmaceutical distribution which prioritizes profits over health. Both the causes and ineffective treatment methods of cutting are embedded and repeated through such a complex political nexus that escaping into non-politics is impossible. Anyone failing to conform to societal standards (even the impossible ones set for women) is vilified as sick, weird, other, queer, hysterical, or a host of other watchwords which advertise the very bias they are meant to conceal. Moreover, the binary between normal and abnormal psychology maintains modern power structures that look to “science” to give credibility to human conditions, stereotypes, and paradigms of social order.

[6] It is also worth noting that abnormal psychology is often a euphemism for discussing so-called criminal minds. Self-mutilation is often linked with criminal behaviors and portrayed as yet another deviant behavior. Cutting becomes phantasmatically construed as the pathology itself rather than an effect of discord. Psychological research describes cutting with the same vocabulary used to discuss criminal activity or severe illness. A study by Coid, Wilkins, and Coid even attempts to synchronize cutting with pyromania in female prison inmates. These reports draw parallels between self-destruction and generally destructive behavior and ultimately further pathologize cutting as a predictor of criminal activity. Further, relegating cutting to the same discursive level as criminal destruction forces a necessary interpretation of cutting as a destructive act rather than a coping mechanism which happens to be destructive.

[7] Recent decades have played host to a number of perceptual shifts in mental illness which, like their vague terms, display conceits of sanity and normalcy for the fluid chains of biopower they are. Mental illness, by no means as stable of a signifier as many would like to believe, changes with perceptions of decency. As of 1973, homosexuality ceased to be listed in the DSM as an illness. However, the 1994 edition still cites frigidity as a mental illness. This pair of observations clearly indicates how one condition has, by increasing its visibility, become psychologically acceptable. Meanwhile, discussing a lack of female sexual desire is still so forbidden that science can speak of it as a quirk rather than a predicted response to both cultural and personal dissatisfactions.

[8] Another change in mental health treatment impossible to ignore is the growing market of psychiatric drugs. Rising commodification of the body has linked arms with rising awareness of mental health, sparking the same market flooding as witnessed in erectile dysfunction drugs. It is not simply that there are more drugs available for more conditions but that those conditions are sometimes created by those drugs. Annie Murphy Paul reports in Slate that the original 1928 edition of the DSM includes 128 disorders, while the 1994 edition contains 357. When considering the amount of money received from pharmaceutical companies by the experts (cited in the same article), the ballooning possibilities of diagnosis are impossible to view without suspicion. Murphy Paul reveals economic factors’ role in conceptions of sanity by describing conditions such as “runaway slave disorder,” insubordination best cured by whipping. Conceits of mental illness have been necessary economically as well as politically. In Madness and Civilization,Foucault details mental hospitals as sources of cheap labor and pacification of potential insurgents: “The classical age used confinement in an equivocal manner, making it play a double role: to reabsorb unemployment, or at least eliminate its most visible social effects, and […] to act alternately on the manpower market and on the cost of production” (54). Such grave instances prove not only the mutable concept of mental illness but also their strategic political (and often economic) mutation. In The Nation, Ray Moynihan and Alan Cassels reveal the history behind the genesis of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Moynihan and Cassels describe the roundtable meeting funded, organized, and attended by Lilly (producers of Prozac/fluoextine, a drug for which Lilly’s patent was expiring) at which panelists decided that PMDD did exist and could be treated by fluoexetine (re-packaged in pink and named Serafem). Such revelations are troubling beyond the obvious trickery involved: is femininity itself a mental illness to be cured? Medical gestures such as the creation of PMDD ape the continuous effort to turn women into men and “cure” them of any conditions exclusive to women. While many axes crosshatch to form ideas about normal and abnormal psychology, the polylocal intersections of those axes are the very point of examining the discourse of abnormal psychology. Far more polymorphous than the grab bag of freakery as it is often packaged, abnormal psychology is a smokescreen for the fact that normal psychology does not exist.

[9] I do not mean to imply that diagnostic criteria is essentially unhelpful and that psychiatry is essentially a greedy sadist wanting to snap a straitjacket on anyone showing symptoms of life. Rather, I wish to show that psychiatry is no safe haven from the problems that create conditions such as self-mutilation. No understanding of human experience can develop without human involvement; any psychiatric (rather than cultural) understanding of self-mutilation needs to be interpreted with the realization that the omniscient eye of “science” is worn by a human body inevitably steeped in the human (and therefore subjective) experience.

[10] Another problem with the scientific understanding of cutting is that it presupposes two sets of people: the “normal” (often synonymous with masculine, white, and heterosexual) ones and the self-mutilating ones. A report by Janet Haines and Christopher L. Williams discusses cutting as a province strictly of individuals with bad decision-making skills: “individuals who self-mutilate rely too heavily on emotion-focused coping” (1098). Theorizing appropriate levels of emotion-focusing fails to account for the wide range of individual and cultural experiences. Further, it smacks of a masculinist tendency to minimize “emotion-focused” behaviors rather than validate them.

[11] The division of coping behaviors into emotion-based versus whatever the opposite of emotion-focused coping is further reflects the very inequities which lead to self-destructive behaviors. Assuming that emotion and intellect function independently causes the self to further fragment. Since emotion and intellect are never entirely separated in lived bodily experience, anyone who fails to meet this impossible standard risks being labeled abnormal or otherwise mentally diseased. The desire to divorce emotion from other human acts reinforces the patriarchal tradition of invalidating emotions and locating them in the realms of the womanly, weak, and infantile.

[12] An important question arises out of such considerations. Are women who self-mutilate portrayed as criminal, crazy, or too emotion-focused, or is cutting portrayed as criminal, crazy, and too emotion-focused because women are the primary practitioners of self-mutilation? The cultural anxiety surrounding self-injury actually reflects anxiety surrounding women who somehow fail to conform to societal standards of femininity. Cutting, then, is both construed differently than other self-destructive behaviors (such as binge-drinking or high-risk sexual behavior) and necessarily deemed a harridan’s destructive habit rather than a valid critique of forces shaping the female body. The true “sickness” of cutters, then, is not their dissatisfaction with the given, but their blatant critique of it.

[13] The pathologization of self-mutilation is not naïve. Rather, it stems from the Cartesian dualism between mind and body, the perceived split where the body is asked to operate as a shallow visage under the mind’s direct control: “Body is thus what is not mind, what is distinct from and other than the privileged term. It is what the mind must expel in order to retain its ‘integrity'” (Grosz 3). The simple act of divorcing mind from body implies hierarchy and independence. The negation of the body and its relationship with the mind are thoroughly incompatible with actual lived corporeal experience. There is no mind so advanced it can exist without sustenance and sensory input from the body. Realizing this relationship is threatening to dominant, masculinist power structures because an emphasis on the body automatically implies an emphasis on birth and death, the two processes which most strip a subject of its autonomy and agency. Since the body is inextricably linked to birth, bodily subjugation also inevitably reduces women to their bodies. As the potential creators and nurturers of bodily life, women are often aligned with the body and therefore reduced to it.

[14] In the dominant paradigm of corporeal understanding, illustrating control over the body is paramount: “whether as an impediment to reason or as the home of the ‘slimy desires of the flesh’ (as Augustine calls them), the body is the locus of all that threatens our attempts atcontrol” (Bordo 92). The body is often construed as a blank, inscribable surface on which power relations are written. While this metaphor erroneously equates power to a static text rather than a dynamic network of effects, it pithily conveys the body’s role as an object in an endless game of deeply-rooted power politics. Foucault discusses these attempts at controlling the body in his definition of biopower, the forces which construct and control a body: “In contrast to the often sporadic, violent power over a relatively anonymous social body exercised under older, monarchical forms of power, biopower emerges as an apparently benevolent, but peculiarly effective form of social control […] over the individual body–its capacities, gestures, movements, location, and behaviors” (Sawicki 190).

[15] Foucault’s discussion of biopower is particularly useful in conversations about cutting because Foucault reminds us that we no longer have the luxury of considering ourselves nonpolitical animals who can treat illness with any objectivity: “For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question” (Sexuality143). Biopower, comprised of all the forces acting on embodiment, operates insidiously by creating normative standards for the body. Since bodies are always sexed both anatomically and discursively, bodily standards are therefore sexed. Woman, reduced to a microcosm of all the body’s weaknesses and ills, embodies most bodily scripts by being asked to conform to them. Women are encouraged to take up small amounts of space, appear youthful, and otherwise modify their appearances until they can seem to have total control over the wily beasts that are their bodies. Therefore, women are asked to prove control over their desirably passive and blank bodies by repeating behaviors which keep it docile: “The qualities that a given period calls beautiful in women are merely symbols of the female behavior that the period considers desirable: The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance” (Wolf 13-14).

[16] Self-mutilation violates bodily norms for women by seeming to prove a lack of control over the body. Such an assertion is ironic, considering self-mutilation is a corporeal act over which women have more control than the performativity of feminine bodily norms. Yet, a woman who cuts her body with her own hand portrays a weak-willed creature unable to deny the impulses to interact with her body. While self-mutilation repeats somatophobia by destroying the body, it also transforms flesh into a site of resistance to cultural power. This resistance makes the self-mutilated body not only vulnerable but also threatening. The body’s scarred surface hints at the psychical scarring of the body and its image.

[17] The pathologization and narrow interpretations of self-mutilation extend far beyond the scope of the academic journal. While I do not equate self-mutilation with torture, I borrow from Elaine Scarry’s discourse on the topic of torture to examine ways in which treatment of self-mutilation often robs the body of agency, rather than restore its integrity. “Torture consists of a primary physical act, the infliction of pain, and a primary verbal act, the interrogation” (28), Scarry begins. Such a definition could apply to self-mutilative acts comprised first of the physical act of self-mutilation and then the verbal act of confessing to a therapist. I have discussed my own self-mutilation in sessions with many therapists. After an episode of cutting, each therapist has asked the same questions. I must confess how I felt before the act and what my mental state had been surrounding it. I am then asked in detail which tools I used, what influenced my selection of those tools, where I cut, how many times I cut, for how long the cutting endured, and what made the cutting cease. I am then asked to show the cuts to the therapist. While I do not deny that processing the circumstances surrounding self-mutilation has a therapeutic effect, the pressure to account for each specific detail of the act always feels shameful and unnecessary. In well over ten counselors, I have never been informed of the significance of the specific mechanical questions. No therapist has engaged me in dialogue about the significance of my usage of tools, the shape of the scars, or other details. While I do not have the training of a therapist and cannot assert their reasons for such questions, it is problematic that the reason for these questions has always been kept from me. I am also troubled that the questions asked in such a presumably therapeutic environment serve only to reinforce my feelings of shame, otherness, sickness, and being a spectacle for medical examination.

[18] Beyond the problem of forcing me to feel shame again, the standard therapeutic model of cutting-related interrogation heightens the secrecy of the act, which thereby heightens its power. The ritualistic privacy of the cutting act is one reason the habit is a hard one to break. Writing the secret shame incurred in therapy into the cutting act only heightens the self-loathing that helps generate mutilative behavior. Such secret shame is exacerbated by the way psychotherapy mimics confession, both in the liturgical sense of forcing absolution and in the criminal sense of requiring allocution of trespasses. Foucault addresses the way in which confession always presupposes a power relationship:

The confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement; it is also a ritual that unfolds within a power relationship, for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console and reconcile. (Sexuality62)

[19] Foucault describes the translation of confession’s power relationship to the biopolitical world, writing that the “obtaining of the confession and its effects were recodified as therapeutic operations” (67). It is not simply the act of confessing that reinforces power hierarchy, but also the fact that only the disempowered will need to seek help and therefore confess. While I neither want to claim psychotherapy is inherently sexist nor reduce this essay to such a claim, it is important to consider psychology’s gender bias as another cause of the pervasive nature of self-mutilation among women. Ceremele et al. write about gender portrayal in the DSM-IV Casebook. One aspect of their study is a quantitative analysis of appearance-based descriptors of clients. Discarding clients whose conditions related to weight or appearance (such as eating disorders), the authors still reference female clients’ weight or appearance overwhelmingly moreso than male clients. Positive attributes noted in women included cooperativeness and pleasantness, while men were complimented on being frank and articulate. Such data necessarily warrants alarm: the very field assigned with the task of liberating people from toxic habits and thoughts is actually perpetrating those very disservices. I do not raise this to vilify psychotherapy but to indicate that the roots of female self-mutilation reach far beyond isolated incidences of the I-hate-myself-and-want-to-die blues. Rather, men and women are held to such different standards of mental health that such goals further the problem. A woman who equates health with being small and cooperative will necessarily be denied agency, thus forcing her either into depression or expression in the form of self-destruction.

[20] Since self-mutilation is so often practiced by women who are survivors of sexual abuse, turning the victim into a spectacle, the object of a medicalized gaze, further problematizes the realm of self-mutilation. Its discourse is overseen by typically masculine and “scientific” fields in order to maintain the image of the self-mutilated body as sick rather than reactionary. Shaw reports on the physical restraints, threats of abandonment by doctors, and other punitive abuse levied against women who continue to self-mutilate while in treatment. In addition to the obvious damage of such “treatment,” those behaviors necessarily reinforce the prevailing cultural conceits which generate self-destructive behaviors. The punishment of women by treatment personnel is simulacrum for the reality that women who fail to conform to normative femininity will be punished in society as a whole by being neglected, denied protection, and restricted access to opportunities. Physical restraints mime literal and metaphorical girdles, pharmaceutical sedation mimes the silencing of women’s discontent, and so forth.

[21] Other forms of less dangerous treatment for self-mutilators often include such seemingly benevolent measures as pacts against self-mutilation. When I have made such agreements in the past, I eventually became depleted of my agency by them. If I felt the impulse to cut and did not, it was about wanting to win my therapist’s approval, not about overcoming the desire. Rather than giving me alternative coping measures, such pacts utilized my fear of disappointing authority figures, thereby increasing the guilt and paranoia that had always fed my self-mutilative behavior.

[22] Moreover, simply stopping the act of cutting should not be mistaken as amending the unhappiness that leads to self-destruction. As Foucault writes, the “madman’s body was regarded as the visible and solid presence of his disease: whence those physical cures whose meaning was borrowed from a moral perception and a moral therapeutics of the body” (Madness 159). The moral therapeutics that inform anti-cutting pacts are built around the unspoken idea that stopping discontent is not nearly as important as stopping evidence of it. Since such pacts are also designed to prevent a certain corporeal behavior, they also act as restraints, further depleting women’s autonomy.

[23] Agency is removed from the female body this way and through other sorts of discursive, tactile, and spatial gestures. In The Woman in the Body, Emily Martin writes about the ways in which women are kept separate from their own medical treatment. She cites the submissive posture used in gynecological exams, inconvenient management of labor, impenetrable medical vocabulary, and passive voice used to discuss women’s issues as ways in which the medical field mimics the cultural controls over women’s bodies. Given these and the many forms of physical and linguistic violence which attempt to remove women from their bodies, is it any wonder women often cope by destroying their bodies? And is it any wonder, then, that women look to medical professionals to cure their own self-mutilation? After all, those professionals, as transmitters and generators of knowledge, are given control over women’s bodies.

[24] Self-mutilation, then, is both a repetition of and a protest to the ways in which women are taken from their bodies. Women seek to reclaim the bodies which were stolen in acts of violence or medical invasion. Pain, as a uniquely personal experience, draws boundaries between self and not-self. Although self-inflicted violence is mimetic of other violence enacted upon women’s bodies, it is also a way for a woman to mark it as her body, her pain, and to distinguish that body from those who have invaded or inscribed hers. Self-mutilation often happens as a result of feeling dysphoria, a sensation often described as feeling like one is outside of one’s own body. Cutting creates a wound that is also an entrance back into the body in which one lives. It draws boundaries as if they were sacred circles and puts women safely inside them.

[25] With such discord between women’s perception of their minds and bodies, attempting to overcome self-mutilation through verbal confession is a weak emphasis. No amount of dialogue can restore corporeal sensation; no elaborate diagnostic vocabulary can integrate the phantasmic and corporeal self. Even self-mutilation, an obviously corporeal act, has the body’s agency robbed from it as it is placed in theoretical disciplines: “it is a commonplace to say that ‘theoretical’ […] is synonymous with ‘profound’, ‘serious’, ‘substantial’, ‘scientific,’ ‘consequential’, ‘thoughtful’, or ‘thought-engaging” (Minh-ha 263). I am not suggesting that self-mutilation be abandoned as a subject of medical study; nor am I suggesting that it be embraced as a valiant act of subversion. Rather, I want to place it among other “medical” phenomena such as hysteria and frigidity which illustrate the pathologization of women’s bodies.

[26] In this way, my understanding of self-mutilation aligns with Bordo’s work on anorexia, which recognizes the starved body as both an effect and a resistance to biopower: “But we must recognize that the anorexic’s ‘protest,’ like that of the classical hysterical symptom, is written on the bodies of anorexic women, and notembraced as a conscious politics, nor, indeed does it reflect any social or political understanding at all” (105). Theorists like Julia Kristeva have argued that the set of impulses constructed as the “self” is never reflexively transparent. Therefore, the masculinist science which attempts to treat self-mutilation as isolated symptoms of illness will never fully understand the context. Since so much psychotherapy revolves around standard assumptions of gender and the products of confession from an opaque self, the conclusions drawn from those efforts are fruits from a poisoned tree. “Paradoxically–and often tragically–these pathologies of female ‘protest’ (and we must include agoraphobia here, as well as hysteria and anorexia) actually function as if in collision with the cultural conditions that produced them” (105), Bordo elaborates, redefining those pathologies as grim parodies of the female normativities which inform them. Anorectics, agoraphobes, and self-mutilators are especially frightening, yet fascinating, to dominant culture because they extrapolate the feminine scripts of denying hunger, staying in the home, and maligning the body to such frightening data that society is forced to confront itself. Pathologizing women’s health issues is necessary for society to avoid the devastating reality that those conditions are not atypical of normative society, but, rather, logical effects of it.

[27] Self-mutilation is also a form of protest in its connection to sexual violations, particularly childhood sexual abuse. Marring the body’s surface is, in part, a way of making the body less desirable. A male acquaintance and recovering self-mutilator once confessed incidents from his past that may be linked to his later habit of cutting. He was a particularly cute toddler, and a babysitter used to tell him he was so cute that he would have to be careful that he did not get molested. He therefore took the burden upon himself to avoid getting molested by covering his face with dirt and undertaking various other methods to avoid looking cute. In order to maintain the power hierarchies which create rape-able subjects, victims necessarily receive blame. As recipients of desire or violence enacted upon them, sexual abuse survivors often blame their bodies. Several scripts play concurrently which make cutting predictable. One is the desire to negate the body’s attractiveness and therefore discredit it as a candidate for sexual attention. Another is the desire to reclaim a body stolen through the sexual transgression. Self-mutilators often speak about wanting to punish themselves as well. [28] At the age of fifteen, I was repeatedly propositioned and harassed by a much older male mentor. While I do not recall specifically feeling dirty or loose to have brought on his attention, I remember this being a time of intense self-mutilation. Cutting myself was the only way I knew to cope with the feelings brought on by both the harassment and the earlier abuse it caused me to relive. One night, after receiving an email revealing his habit of thinking of me while masturbating, I poured a hot candle onto my stomach. I still have a scar there somewhat in the shape of a pawprint. It is where the wax burned me, but also where my own shame turned me against myself. I was confused about my body’s role in the sexual economy to which my young age had forbidden access. The secrecy surrounding sexuality became conflated with the secrecy of sexual abuse, and the pressure I sensed to keep this secret culminated in my mutilative act.

[29] Self-mutilation by survivors of childhood sexual abuse is also a way of attempting to reclaim the body as one’s own. Choosing to harm one’s body brings a sense of agency. Self-mutilators can choose tools, select areas of the skin to harm, and even plan certain words or images to carve or burn into the flesh. The mutilator then gets the oddly therapeutic sensation of feeling her or his own pain. Pain, as a corporeal sensation, can never accurately be expressed or shared in words. To feel pain is to identify with a body: “there is no language for pain, it, more than any other phenomenon, resists verbal objectification” (Scarry 12). Feeling pain is a way of personalizing the subjective experience of inhabiting one’s body. “The existence of the self-mutilator is verified in two ways: she injures and she is injured” (6), Janice McLane writes. Self-mutilation is just as much about realizing the ability to create a wound—or act at all—as it is about receiving a wound. A woman who inscribes her flesh, either in a mutilative or artistic act, is not only the receiver of the wound but also a giver of it. Rituals of self-inscription are ways for woman to have a dialogue with herself, much like Irigaray utilizes the metaphor of the labia stimulating one another. In the same way that every suicide is also a homicide, every scarred woman is also a scarrer, a maker of meaning. The meaning’s value does not negate its act as a corporeal speech act whose expression is the foremost essence.

[30] Perhaps it is only viable to propose self-mutilation as a form of protest because of the way language and embodied experience have been culturally posited as opposites: “Feminists and philosophers seem to share a common view of the human subject as a being made up of two dichotomously opposed characteristics: mind and body, thought and extension, reason and passion, psychology and biology” (Grosz 30). Language is associated with the intellectual (and therefore anti-body) male, and bodily experiences with the frail, corporeal experience of the female. Hence, language co-opts women’s bodies through phrases like “throwing like a girl” or “screaming like a woman.” To “take it like a man” is to endure physical pain bravely without being reduced to girly expressions of agony. Such similes underscore the way in which bodily experience is always construed as inextricably female, and therefore eternally less than that of the purely intellectual experience. Were constructions of the self not so focused on a hierarchical dualism, would self-mutilation occur? Cutting the skin is a way of interweaving so-called “emotional” pain and so-called “physical” pain, tangling the mind and body.

[31] Mary Douglas writes that the “physical body symbolically reproduces the anxieties of the social body” (Braunberger, “Sutures”). While I applaud the sentiment, such a comparison reifies the mind-body dualism which creates and perpetuates somatophobia. Moreover, pain is never distinct from the lived experience of it; the word “pain” encompasses all disharmony and does not necessarily refer more to the purely physical aspects of pain. “It is not simply accurate but tautological to observe that given any two phenomena, the one that is visible will receive more attention” (Scarry 12); cutting gives visible form to the shapeless, indescribable sensations of emotional pain. While it is impossible to fully comprehend the pain of another, ascribing the status of pain to a feeling is a way of using language to make sympathy possible. For some reason, the language of “physical” pain has been more refined than that of “emotional” pain. Specific terms for corporeal phenomena (such as “headache” or “cramp”) abound, and these terms multiply exponentially with the addition of modifiers such as “throbbing” or “constant.” Meanwhile, terms for mental discomfort are often vague and used to foreclose further investigation of the discomfort. One grave instance of this is the development of “neurasthenia,” a word developed to describe emotional distress that eventually grew so vague it was applied to nearly every war veteran and housewife alike. Pain, already impossible to express, becomes somehow more impossible when the pain is attributed to the psychical dimension rather than the corporeal one. Therefore, self-mutilators borrow language from the only discourse about pain available. “If self-hatred, self-alienation, and self-betrayal […] were translated out of the psychological realm where it has content and is accessible to language into the unspeakable and contentless realm of physical sensation it would be intense pain” (47), Scarry writes. I argue that pain culturally localized as emotional is often less accessible to sympathy, if not language. A person with a bleeding head wound would doubtlessly receive attention and care in the middle of a grocery store, whereas a person contemplating suicide would not. While medical care requires terms to help treat pain, the concept of pain should not be forced to fall squarely into the realm of either physical or psychical, and both realms (as they are constructed now) need to be understood sympathetically while not undermining the uniquely subjective experience each pain brings.

[32]The pain of self-mutilation responds to societal derision surrounding women’s bodies. The popular imaginary conceives of the female body as a blank surface onto which cultural values are inscribed. Cultural values consistently privilege the masculine, theorizing man as the writer of all relevant texts. By extension, men in dominant positions (i.e. white, heterosexual, able-bodied) are able to write onto the surface of women’s bodies. Such writing, however benevolent it may appear, is always a force of power that seeks to create, normalize and regulate the lived bodily experience of women; “To claim that discourse is formative is not to claim that it originates, causes, or exhaustively composes that which it concedes; rather it is to claim that there is no reference to a pure body which is not at the same time a further formation of that body” (Butler 10). Self-mutilation, like other body projects, allows women to be the authors of their bodies by literally inscribing their own flesh. Both behaviors resist the masculinist impulse to unify and organize the female body into a single, holistic slate for the proscription of gender performance. Theorists like Grosz discuss the multiplication of Cartesian dualisms into still currently prevalent ideas which mark the body as a unified, organized, interior whole. Whether the body is reckoned as a tool, a means of externalizing the internal, or an organism whose attributes are easily farmed out to various disciplines of life sciences, most theories presume the body as a unified organism marked by its tangible contours and signifying interiority. Grosz also references more poststructuralist theorists such as Merleau-Ponty who see the body as “never simply object nor simply subject” (87).

[33]Postmodern feminist theorists have sought to reconfigure the body not as a single, nonproblematic entity which incubates the soul, but as a fractured, polymorphous, fluid set of effects, subjectivities, perceptions, and actions. This self is constituted both by its own internal trafficking, external perceptions of the body, and the various trajectories of the body’s endeavors. If the body is consistently plural, then the body can never be under the sole control of the machinery of dominant ideology. Admitting the multiplicity of the self is a means of asserting control, not a confession of adequacy: “Gathering the fragments of a divided, repressed body and reaching out to the other does not necessarily imply a lack or deficiency” (Minh-ha 259). Rather, selves must be understood as interdependent, a thought which challenges the imperialistic urges of phallocentric discourse.

[34]Self-mutilation enters into this discourse by questioning the construct of the body. It is a point of convergence for the plural bodies that exist: the female body as desired object; the body which the self resides in but does not feel; the sexed body which is denied ubiquitous motility; the body trying to make meaning of itself; the body that means pain; the body punished for its bodyness. Until there is a place for embodied female selves, self-mutilation will continue as an extrapolation of all the discourses which shape female bodies.

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