Self-harm & judgmentality, or Why don’t you love your body you fucking bitch

by on Sep.10, 2010

1.

I subscribe to a body modification blog and while I don’t want to like some sort of outsider anthropological tourist fetishize and potentially exploit body modification culture, at the same time I do.

I MEAN LOOK AT THIS SHIT. (Click link for GRUESOME PICS!)

It’s cool. I have some tattoos.

Here’s the personal narrative from the post linked to above, in which the author describes their experience of an eyelid and lip sewing ritual:

The sewing ritual helped me come to terms with the fact that events in my life are not always within my control, and that sometimes I am subject to the uncontrollable forces of the world. After understanding and accepting my own lack of control — and that it’s okay — I realized my ability to overcome my own fears and physical pain by focusing my mind and its thoughts. Intense concentration on my mental processes, I learned, endows me with an ability through which my mental conceptions and ideas are manifested outside my mind and into the physical world — my fear and pain are not real, expressing and personifying these thoughts only hold me back. Through mental concentration I may conquer any limitations and constraints that I create and perpetuate in my life.

The comments on this post are almost overwhelmingly positive with the exception of two or three detractors. Here’s a sampling:

Damn, that’s pretty awesome. I think I’d freak out in that situation, definitely wouldn’t have the guts to do it. Respect, respect!

very respectable.

Eyelid sewing was probably one of the most mentally intense and emotionally challenging rituals in my entire life. Complete resignation of control… kudos. Takes balls, and she definitely has them.

You can do this or get into a motorcycle accident and spend eight weeks as a patient in a trauma center; that, if anything will give you an appreciation of the fact that events in your life are not always within your control. You may or may not be able to come to terms with it, but you will definitely appreciate the fact.

Makes perfect sense to me. It’s the opposite of what athletes do, physically, but similar mentally, i.e. focusing your mind to overcome a constraint on your body.

this takes real guts and i admire that. props dude serious PROPS

Fwiw, while this sort of ritual is extreme, it’s temporary and permanent scarring is rare.

A ton has been written about body modification culture and I haven’t read most of it; nor am I part of this community, which is the main thing. I will venture to suggest, though, that, while body mod culture is not without its own hierarchies, it largely resists judgmentality, constituting a space where people can inscribe themselves/their bodies with few or no questions asked.

Body modification culture is itself interested in distinctions between self-mutilation and self-harm — and the comments on this post of a photo of a DIY scarification are particularly interesting in attempting to address these questions, with the conversation moving back and forth between judgment and judgment of judgment (e.g., “sad fucking day when a community that’s supposed to being about self-expression and open-mindedness can be so shallow and judgemental about something like this”; “if this is self-harm in it’s nature, who are we to say that he should deal with his pain in a different way?”). There are tons of potent connections between body mod culture and mental illness, or rather between body mod culture and practices of self-harm that have been deemed symptomatic of mental illness.

2.

Pro-ana sites attempt to create a similar kind of non-judgmentality for those who choose to live an anorexic lifestyle. I’m not making a one-to-one relationship here: body mod and pro-ana cultures are NOT equivalent, and moreoever neither are monolithic. But there are comparisons waiting to be made.

Whereas body mod culture seems fairly self-contained (although recent co-option by media and reality shows may change that), pro-ana sites are not, having been already subjected to sensationalism and fetishization by media deeming the pro-ana community sick and immoral, etc. In her thesis on pro-ana sites as virtual sanctuaries, Karen Lynn Dias argues that while certainly plenty of pro-ana sites do proliferate eating disorders in troubling and problematic ways, pro-ana communities also produce alternative knowledge that defies mainstream narratives of eating disorders, providing non-judgmental support and understanding that complicates simplistic conceptions of EDs. Because of media exposure of this subculture, she explains, many sites were/have been censored by the hosting sites. The URLs are rarely stable. And there are almost always lurkers and trolls, outsiders who heckle the performers. The comment thread below, from a pro-ana forum, is taken from Dias’s research (given the instability of these sites, it’s been hard to find a similar more recent example):

I would really like to talk to you threw email, I’ve been ana for 6 years now! And wanting to talk to someone else who feels the same as I do. No one understands me for what I do…. I hope you email me back.

You seriously have some mental image issues. Even worse you are shearing them with other people who might trust you and start starving themselves as well. You need to see a counciler or child worker the things you’re saying are disgusting. SHUT UP!

I think your doing a great job. When I want to binge I just go online and surf here and it goes away. Keep up the great work.

I want to smoke to distract me from eating, but then I feel I can’t exercise as hard. Any suggestions?

HOW DARE YOU! How dare you put up things on here to make girls do this! This is truly evil and I hope god helps you all!

Just because some homosexual clothes designer wants some skeleton to wear his rags own a stupid catwalk in paris every girl in the world wants to be a fucken skeleton, its fucken pitiful. Wake up.

Thank you — someone understands.

This is a fucking sick site!!! Do you know what anorexia does to people, it kills them! You’re a fucking stupid bitch! You should love your body how it is and don’t listen to a word this anorexia bitch says Anorexia is not a good thing I lost my sister to it!

This site brought me to tears. I almost died from this disease. However, I think it’s a great site. This is the sad truth about anorexia.

8/16/02-8/26/02 AnOrExIc AdDiCt Website  (Dias 50-51)

Anorexic body management practices are different from a discrete eyelid/lip sewing ritual, of course: anorexia’s not (necessarily) a temporary condition; it’s potentially lethal; may or may not be perceived as voluntary, depending on who you’re talking to; and more people on the whole have connections with or perspectives on eating disorders and eating disordered individuals, so there’s more of a sense of familiarity that entitles judgment. Still, the vitriol and self-assured moralizing of some of these comments is astounding.

3.

There’s a section in my manuscript (novel-in-progress) when my protagonist Matilda steps into an interview with Kathy Acker published in Re/Search #13: Angry Women. Matilda, who in the novel waffles between anorexia and bulimia, becomes the interviewer and also, in moments, ventriloquizes Janey from Acker’s Blood in Guts in High School. The idea is to expose the hierarchy that Acker establishes between body modification and anorexia.

In the interview, Acker agrees with Andrea Juno that women are “taught to channel anger, rage, feelings of insecurity–to channel what would-be ‘negative’ energy masochistically…so we’d hurt ourselves.” Later she makes a clear division between classes of body modification:

The difference between the liposuction/anorexic behavior of certain women, and women who get tattooed or do very extreme body modification is: the first class of women are just looking to come as close as possible to certain norms that they’ve internalized. They’ve taken an image out of a magazine or they’ve taken a number of images and thought, “This is how I should look; this is how I should be.” Whereas the second class of women are actively searching for who to be, and it has to do with their own pleasure, their own feeling of identity–they’re not obeying–they’re not obeying the normal society.

What would Simone Weil say? What would Chris Kraus say?

In my novel, Acker runs over my protagonist with her motorcycle, failing her utterly.

I can quote Chris Kraus. She would say “‘The Girl’ was right,” where ‘the girl’ is the hysteric misinterpreted by Sartre.

(I have since forgiven Kathy Acker and tattooed an image from Pussy King of the Pirates on my arm. Still it saddens me that someone so transgressive and radically feminist could have felt entitled to judge women’s bodies and choices in this way.)

4.

In October of 1999 a mentally competent man in Milwaukee severed his arm with a homemade guillotine, and then threatened to sever it again if surgeons reattached it.

5.

On January 19th, 2002, nearly 60 detainees in an Australian immigrant camp sewed their lips shut in protest of the slow processing of their visas. (In media coverage this was deemed a hunger strike.) The protest did not turn violent and none of the detainees were in need of medical treatment. However, one guard needed medical treatment after detainees hurled rocks at him. He had tried to stop one of the migrants from harming himself.

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10 comments for this entry:
  1. Jackie Wang

    jackie wang here

    this is a really good post. i’ve actually been working on an article/zine about feminist approaches to eating disorders, specifically orthorexia. i have written a lot, but i set it aside because i was so conflicted about every thing i was saying (even though i was challenging the dominant paradigm of women with eating disorders as vain, manipulated, hysterical, irrational). i tried to do research at the hopkins library, specifically looking for feminist discussions of eating disorders, but came up with very little. this one feminist anthology had the typical women-as-easily-duped-by-patriarchy approach, which bothered me. maybe you could point me to some sources or read over my piece when it’s done? i want it to be readable/accessible to a very general audience. feel free to email: loneberry at gmail.com

  2. Meryl

    A thought-provoking post. I appreciated hearing about how these ideas play out in your own creative work.

    As someone who writes about tattoo iconography and culture, I’m trying to understand how tattoos are relevant to the discussion here. I suppose they do alter one’s appearance and they do hurt (a little). But in terms of the body, tattoos are much less invasive than the procedures mentioned here and they heal more rapidly. Tattoos are so tame by comparison they are practically wholesome.

    I often see tattoos grouped with bod mod in ways that puzzle me, like for instance Acker’s pairing of tattoos and EXTREME bod mod. Perhaps it’s just a dated perspective; tattooed women used to be a scandalous sight. But frequently I think these groupings indicate a kind of “outsider anthropological tourist” perspective that looks at the ancient origins of tattooing instead of the contemporary community.

    Either way I’ve come to believe most comparisons between bod mod and tattoos stem from a perspective out of touch with what tattooing is today: vibrant, contemporary, artistic, image-based, and widely accepted in terms of appearance. There are certainly overlaps between the two communities, but they are as different in character and makeup as the two practices are in technique.

  3. megan milks

    jackie – orthorexia, wow – would love to read your approach to it. i’ve been working on something similar, let’s trade! will email you. i have some sources you might find useful.

    meryl – thanks for these comments. you’re right, it seems odd that tattoos and certain mainstream piercings still get lumped in with extreme body modifications – and yeah, that interview with acker is from 1991. but, even though tattoos are more widely accepted, they ARE permanent body modifications, they DO scar the body, they ARE bloody and depending on location somewhat painful — and i think their increasing acceptance points back to the issue of what’s *deemed* acceptable versus what’s deemed fucked-up/symptomatic of mental problems, and also the legal components of all of this (which i didn’t get into here). (there are also interesting connections with cosmetic surgery that i didn’t touch on.) what kinds of issues do you take up in your writing on these topics? i’d love to learn more about your work.

  4. Joyelle McSweeney

    Great discussion going here– I love the connections you draw, and how, with the last section, we inch back into (the perhaps more politically comfortable?) idea that a self-directed violence can have an outwardly ‘legible’ political instrumentality. But outside of these contexts, in conventional body modification situations (is taht phrase an oxymoron?), there’s no easily legible politics and in a a sense maybe this ‘re-writing’ the body through body modification creates an unreadable text. Maybe in body modification the ‘surface’ is hard to locate– whereas the more politicized acts of sewing the lips shut or the Bobby Sands hunger strike locates teh text and its context more stabely/conventionally… I might even wonder whether the kind of writing (if it is writing?) that sews== teh stylus goes in and out of the body– so where is the body’s surface now? Does the body have a surface? is it an interior surface rather than a ‘deep’ interiority? Or is it another kind of paradox– a deep surface?

    Another issues that’s interested me here is the issue of the pro=ana sites– teh autopedagogy of eating disorders. That is, it’s impossible to have a website ABOUT anorexia, even an earnestly ANTI-anorexia website, that doesn’t in fact promote it by being detourned by readers into a how-to manual. In this sense the readers ‘rewrite’ the text of the website as they rewrite their bodies in a whole separate narrative than that given to them by mainstream culture? Maybe? Become their own avatars in a world ruled by different physical rules… At the same time, the autopedagogy of EDs is fascinating to thing about… is it like the rogue DNA (or is it RNA) some viruses carry and can splice into the mitochondria of other cells? A kind of technology?

    JM

  5. Johannes

    Another interesting case might be these immigrant children in Sweden who go all catatonic, as if shellshocked. I have read all kinds of possible explanations for this – from right-wingers who think it’s because they’re being coddled, or that they’re trying to fake out the welfare system, to people who think it’s a reaction to having been in war zones etc. I’m not really up on that discussion, but it does seem to relate to the illegible writing of the body. Maybe.

  6. Meryl

    My poems about tattoos center around image, but also how the skin serves as a boundary between self and Other, internal and external… and a gateway to sense experience.

    This idea of “rewriting the body” interests me. My husband is a tattoo artist and he frequently sees clients who want to change their lives by changing their appearance. For example, one guy came in to get his daughter’s name tattooed on his arm. Later we heard through the grapevine that he hadn’t been paying child support for several months, but plunked down probably a week’s worth for the tattoo. Now he appears like a devoted father, but will he change his actions to live up to the tattoo?

    The issues of control in the bod mod narrative are salient. The author feels out of control over events in their life and so creates a situation demanding “complete resignation of control.” This resignation is illusion, or at least a symbolic performance, as they remain in control throughout and could call off the ritual at any point. I am no expert on eating disorders, but they seem to also involve issues of control.

    I don’t think it’s quite the same with tattoos… but this discussion has given me lots of food for thought. Best wishes for your work and future projects.

  7. Erin Lyndal Martin

    I started to write a whole treatise on my experience with self-mutilation (the only body mod I have is a single tattoo and grown-over piercings in nose and ears). But even though this is totally self-serving, if anybody wants to read more biographical/theory hybrid on the subject, here’s an essay I published for Genders a while back:

    http://www.genders.org/g46/g46_martin.html

  8. My Favorite Detritus: 2 - Montevidayo

    […] (BIID); BIIDs refer to themselves as "Wannabes." Here's George from Milwaukee, as mentioned in Megan's post, from the documentary […]

  9. Sarah Fox

    Excellent post Megan! Do you know about another RE/Search title (#12), Modern Primitives: http://www.researchpubs.com/books/primprod.php, which, among other fascinating profiles, includes Andrea Juno’s interview with the amazing bod mod extremist, self-proclaimed “Father of the Modern Primitives Movement,” Fakir Musafar: http://www.bodyplay.com/ ?

    I have many thoughts about your post but am (as usual) late for class! More soon. Thanks for opening this discussion!

    S

  10. megan m.

    hello! sorry to have stepped out of the convo for a while; this past week was killer.
    erin, thanks for pointing me in the direction of your essay. i’m gonna have to do the ole printout, read carefully thing. excited to take some time with it. cutting seems very much relevant to the points joyelle makes above about inscription/writing/text – i wonder how you’d conceptualize it (probably you already have, in this essay).
    and joyelle, totally, totally – thinking about the autopedagogy of EDs brings up all sorts of questions. i like karen lynn diaz’s conception of pro-ana sites as subjugated knowledge, but there is a ton more going on there (which she recognizes but doesn’t emphasize). i think this is why pro-ana sites are actually quite important, bc many of them (not all) are interested in harm reduction whereas anti-anorexia websites are not going to present any info to help readers live with anorexia – and sometimes present the worst cases, and the most extreme examples of anorexic behavior that then gets incorporated into ana living. (i uh, don’t have evidence to back that up, but it’s something to investigate.)
    johannes, haven’t heard about the immigrant children in sweden; i wonder how reactions to them might connect with reactions to salem ‘witches’ – and other examples of collective reactions or manifestations of ‘abnormal’ behavior.
    sarah, i do have a copy of Modern Primitives — i haven’t looked at it in awhile, but yeah, it would be useful to reference w/r/t these topics. also need to watch SICK: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist — won’t have time for awhile, i’m afraid.
    in all, to all, thanks for these comments, and for reading.