Seeing Self-Harm As An Embodied Social Practice

Image: Samuel Zeller

Tuesday 26th February, 2019

By Amy Chandler

In this blog I want to reflect critically, and seriously, on the notion – currently circulating (again) following the tragic death of Molly Russell – that looking at images of self-harm on the internet might shape individual practices of self-harm, and suicide. I write this reflection holding two deeply entwined identities in mind: that of a sociologist and researcher, who happens to specialise in studying experiences and accounts of self-harm and suicide; and that of a person who has self-harmed, who has spent many years engaged in different self-harming practices. In both of these positions I have looked at self-harm content on the internet, for different reasons, and with different effects. This blog is not about those experiences, though it is undoubtedly informed by them.

Instead, I want to sketch out an argument that allows for the idea that looking at images of self-harm on the internet might shape self-harming practices, but asks what this might mean, and why this affects such divisive and extreme responses in ‘others’: the media, charities, public figures, as well as among those of us who have self-harmed. Further – and following many of the other blogs in this series – I want to show how even if social media content does shape self-harm, that banning it will not stop self-harm (or indeed suicide). Indeed, one of the biggest problems with the enduring narrative about self-harm and suicide being driven by social media is that it can serve to detract from what are (I would suggest) far more significant issues.

There are some interesting positions held in relation to the idea that social media might shape self-harm. Among those who do self-harm (myself included), there is a tendency to side-step the issue, to point out that self-harm existed before the internet (which it did), to point out that self-harm communities online can be a source of support (they can), and can provide information on staying safe (absolutely – as indeed did paper based information in the time ‘before the internet’).

However, there seems a reluctance to address the idea that looking at images of self-harm on the internet may well also shape how self-harm is understood, practiced and responded to. A recent study by Nina Jacob, Rhiannon Evans and Jonathan Scourfield reported a range of different accounts among people who had self-harmed, and who also described looking at online images. Some of the accounts suggested viewing self-harm online was a significant part of their practice. Interviewees spoke of drawing on online information to experiment with different methods of self-harm, and that seeing images of others’ self-harm was associated with their own practice becoming more severe – deeper wounds, more frequent cutting. Further (and I relate strongly to this) participants reported powerful physical reactions to seeing images of self-harm – these are, affective, embodied processes: they move us; but not always in the same direction.

The effects of viewing self-harm may be practical – seeing self-harm on others (whether on or off line) provides resources to imagine what self-harm ‘is’ – what it ‘should’ look like, how it might be enacted. Self-harm is, for me, – as a sociologist and someone who has self-harmed – a deeply social practice. Though understandably framed as individual and private by many; what self-harm is, how it is done, what it means – these are socially shaped; and may be further shaped by our responses to self-harm on the bodies of others.

A sociological perspective on these issues, then, would question how viewing self-harm, as well as reading accounts of self-harm, seeing self-harm portrayed in films, on TV, hearing it referred to in songs, could not affect how we experience and view self-harm. Crucially, though, for sociologists such a question would not be the final word: we would question how cultural accounts and artefacts of self-harm are responded to, and, as Jacob and colleagues did, we would speak/listen to people about their experiences. Cultural narratives about self-harm, as enacted in these various forms, are undoubtedly powerful – they give us the words and stories through which we make sense of our own practices – but the way that cultural narratives are taken up, how they are used, adapted, responded to by individuals in different social locations, is various, is not straightforward. We cannot assume what the effects are.

Acknowledging potential effects, though, does not require that we endorse the calls for ‘banning’ self-harm content on the internet. Self-harm is part of contemporary culture; it is part of the social landscape; references to self-harm – and suicide – are wide and deep. As such, removing access to self-harm on the internet will not remove self-harm.

Instead, other questions should also be asked. What are the social, cultural, historical and political contexts in which self-harm (and suicide) makes sense, becomes a possibility? How and why do some people ‘take to’ self-harm more easily than others? Why is self-harm discussed more readily when it is found on some (white, female, ‘attractive’) bodies rather than others?

Experimentation with our bodies is common place, but not all of us will go on to routinely cut, burn or injure ourselves in ways that are labelled ‘self-harm’. Similarly, not all of those who ‘self-harm’ will contemplate death. The relationship between self-harm and suicide is complex, and contested. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, some of the media coverage addressing this most recent case, skips easily between self-harm and suicide, avoiding entirely the rich and diverse meanings that these practices have for different people, in different places, at different times. As some of the other blogs in this series show, self-harm can be understood and experienced as an act of survival. Equally, though, it would be remiss to suggest that self-harm for some is not tied up with thoughts of suicide, of death, and of confronting how to live in what can feel like an unliveable world. Diminishing and attempting to erase such contemplation would – as Brigit McWade has noted – be a form of violence. Instead, perhaps our attention should fall to the unliveable world that many people – young and old – struggle to exist in.

Amy Chandler is Chancellor's Fellow in the School of Health in Social Science, University of Edinburgh. Her research draws on qualitative, narrative and arts-based approaches to explore meanings and practices of self-harm, suicide and drug and alcohol use, with a particular focus on embodiment.

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