Living with self-harm scars means choosing between censorship and judgement

Published

Credit: Max Pixel

Niamh Canning
Writer

Niamh Canning explores the internal turmoil over whether or not to hide self-harm scars in public, and the consequences of doing so

Content warning: this article contains references to self-harm
I’m sitting in a bar, waiting for my date to return from the bathroom, and I’m debating whether to take my jacket off. I decide to go for it – it’s dark, we’re both tipsy, it’ll be fine. When he comes back and sits down, we’re a couple minutes into a conversation before he glances down for the first time. When it happens again, he trails off slightly. After a moment it starts: “Can I ask you something?” and before I know it, he’s holding my arm up to his face for a closer look. “I mean you’re clearly not trying to hide it.” People from the table next to us glance over, and I feel humiliated. This will be my first and last date with this tactless tinder boy.

The UK has the highest rates of self-harm in Europe, with an estimated 400 per 100,000 people suffering from it. It’s a notoriously secretive and isolating experience, with sufferers often hiding away evidence of cuts, burns and any other variety of self-harming behaviour. Even those who have left this painful time of their life behind them are sometimes left with scars which lead to awkward glances and questions they’d rather avoid. How often do you pick out your outfit in the morning with the question “can I handle the stares today?”

The decision of whether to hide or bare your scars can be a complicated one with a whole variety of contributing factors. Of the people I spoke to for this article, most were more concerned with the covering of fresh, unhealed self-harm marks for several reasons. One Glasgow student said:

“I do feel the need to cover fresh marks more, just because I know that seeing them can be triggering and I wouldn’t want to be the cause of that in people around me. I still wouldn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed if somebody was to see them, I just feel like it’s more considerate to take reasonable measures to prevent it.”

As well as the concern of triggering others with similar issues, some said they have covered up fresh marks to avoid upsetting friends and family as well as, more simply, to avoid infection.

A more complicated issue arises from the covering of scars, which will of course not fade away in a couple of weeks. Many learn to be fully comfortable with their scars, one student saying:

“They’ve been a part of my body for a long time and they’re one which I feel pretty comfortable with. Anybody who reacts badly to them isn’t somebody who I’d be well-suited to being friends with anyway, so I don’t worry about it too much.”

While they are a reminder of a painful time, few people I spoke to felt ashamed of or embarrassed by their scars, but this does not mean that everyone feels this self-assured on the very personal topic. I’ve become accustomed to awkward glances and stares from strangers, but the occasional straight up gawking look of disgust or attempt to question me, however rare, can be hugely difficult to deal with. Several of my sources mentioned stares from strangers and a feeling of safety in hiding their scars. One stated: “on days when I’m feeling anxious, it’s easier to just keep them covered and not have to worry about any stares or awkwardness”, and another said: “if I’m feeling bad or fragile I might also cover them just because I don’t feel up to potentially discussing them with strangers and how potentially receiving a bad reaction might make me feel”.

For some, the environment has a big impact on their decision. One student noted how being in university was freeing for them: “for me school was such a small bubble where everyone knew everything about each other, and something like me showing marks would be a huge deal. At college and university you’re so much more anonymous.”
Many noted their comfort in baring scars around friends and loved ones, although there were mentions of negative and insensitive reactions from friends:

“I’ve previously had a friend tell me to cover them up because seeing them made her feel sick, but I didn’t remain friends with her because of this… I’m not interested in being around people who make me feel ashamed or bad about it.”

While friends and family will likely be asking questions out of concern and curiosity, it is vital to remember what a sensitive topic this is. You may be burningly interested to know about how your friend came to get those scars, but they likely represent some of the most painful times of their lives. One person stated on the subject, “I can understand they’re concerned… but I do wish they would hold back from asking anything a lot of the time. It’s in the past and if I wanted to talk about that time in my life with them I would bring it up in the first place.”

Of course, it is natural to be concerned if you are noticing signs of active self-harm in a friend or loved one and they do not appear to be getting the help they need. If you want to offer support to someone in this situation, what is important is that you focus on the person and not the act itself. Do not give an ultimatum or simply tell someone “you have to stop”. You could approach them when you are alone and let them know you are there for them if and when they are ready to talk, and perhaps offer to assist them in seeking help (like through the university counselling system or speaking to their GP). Useful information for these situations can be found on befrienders.org, mind.org.uk, and many other websites.

If you are struggling visit The University of Glasgow Counselling & Psychological Services at:
https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/counselling/

Other important contacts: NHS 24 on 111, Breathing Space’s on 0800 83 85 87, Samaritans 0141 248 4488 and, in a medical emergency, always phone 999.