Thousands of teenagers across the country are using knives and razors to injure themselves. Nicci Gerrard reports on this alarming new blood cult.
The Observer, Sunday 19 May 2002
The 13-year-old girl rolls up her sleeve. She takes the blade in her right hand and draws it across her left wrist. She watches the blood start to flow. Then she does it once more.
This is not a suicide attempt. The girl is sitting in a classroom at her school, surrounded by other pupils, some of whom look across to see her injure herself. She has taken the blade out of her pencil sharpener (another time, she might use her compass to puncture her skin, or even the end of her plastic ruler, gouging it back and forth across her wrists). She has cut herself, but not deeply.
When healed, the marks up her arm or on her inner thighs may resemble the scratches made by a cat, or brambles, and perhaps you would think nothing of them. Anyway, she wears trousers and has long sleeves, and is careful not to let her cuts show.
This is both public display and private self-abuse, a morbid secret and a public confession. And it is simultaneously very serious and weirdly casual – a cross between Sylvia Plath and wearing your baseball cap backwards.
All over the country, teenagers are cutting themselves, and in some schools it has almost become a group-led gothic kind of fashion-statement: a grungy display of hardness (look at the pain I can bear) and softness (look at the pain I am feeling inside).
They are usually but not always girls, and aged between 13 and 15. Very often their parents have no idea what they are doing, nor do their teachers. Their peers do not seem to see the self-abuse as profoundly disturbing, more as something that is ‘stupid’, ‘ignorant’ and ‘sad’ in the sense of pathetic.
Their sense that cutting is not extraordinary is echoed in the culture that surrounds them. In the Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks, one of the characters, Lisa, is cutting herself. Her father is seriously worried and her friends are concerned. She wants to stop but can’t.
In a recent issue of the teen-magazine Mizz, there is a feature about a teenage girl who is cutting herself. A full-page picture shows a pretty girl cradling her injured arm as if it were a baby. Teenage fiction deals with issues around cutting. And in Emma Forrest’s new novel, Think Skin, a film star called Ruby cuts her arms, legs and belly with knives. The character is drawn from the author’s own battles with depression and self-harm.
The habit of cutting can be, as the nurse at one school where it takes place put it, ‘catching’. Margot Waddell of the Tavistock Clinic, author of Inside Lives, a book about adolescence, says there are ‘cutting schools’ and ‘anorexia schools’, so strong is the tendency to mimic behaviour. And Sue Sherwin-White, a therapist who has studied the phenomenon, agrees: ‘In some schools, it is fashionable, exciting and even rather competitive – and it has the added advantage of scaring teachers and parents.’ What starts as an experiment can become a perverse gratification that is hard to give up.
Adolescents have always been known to self-harm, to attack their own bodies in a cry for help and as a sign of psychological disturbance. They may cut themselves, burn themselves, bruise themselves, even, says Sherwin-White, break their bones. They may become anorexic or bulimic (often, eating disorders accompany other forms of self-abuse). Sometimes, they take overdoses, and end up in casualty.
Girls are much more likely to harm themselves than boys (boys and young men attempt suicide far less often than girls, but succeed far more often: they intend to die whereas the girls are trying to get help). In prison, women turn their rage and pain inwards, against themselves, mutilating their bodies, while the men more often harm each other.