From self-harm to self-empowerment: Using words & activism, not body, to be seen and heard

In this first piece for the online publication, Mad in America, I reflect – through feminist and constructivist, social psychology lens – on how using my body in efforts to be heard, seen, and fight against prejudice, I become an unwitting collaborator in my oppression. I look to re-storying (also known as “narrative therapy”) and social activism, as first steps to empowering myself in more healthy and self-affirming ways.

I also encourage you to explore Mad in America – a site founded by respected author and former journalist Robert Whitaker – which publishes articles and investigative journalism about “rethinking psychiatric care in the United States and abroad… and investigating the problems and deficiencies with the current, drug-based paradigm of care.”


From Self-Harm to Self-Empowerment: Liberation Through Words


In 12th-century China, an odd form of willful self-torture gained ascendance: the foot binding of girls and women. For almost ten centuries, mothers willingly broke their children’s toes, bent the foot double and bound it with a strap. The result: a miniature foot that was the only way for a subjugated gender to marry into power.

Today we can look back and understand why the women of ancient China mutilated their feet to try and obtain respect in an oppressive, male-dominated culture. Foot binding was just one of many social conventions utilized to increase a person’s status. But in contemporary U.S. culture, people who intentionally hurt their bodies are not extended the same understanding — rather than being considered “elite,” we are called “insane.” We may starve ourselves or carve ourselves, taking to the extreme culturally-embedded norms like thinness in an effort to fight against marginalization or cope with internalized shame. But instead of obtaining the voice or place in society we yearn for, we are further ostracized.

Susan Bordo has called the body a surface on which the rules, hierarchies, and metaphysical ideals of a culture are inscribed: bodies are a direct “locus of social control.1” For people who grapple with emotions, personalities, thoughts, and ways of being which fall outside the range of what’s considered “normal” in Western society, the struggle to be viewed as citizens deserving of an equal voice and rights can sometimes play out on our bodies, without us quite realizing it.

For me, this ongoing struggle has played out most visibly in starvation and, more intermittently, self-harm.

Psychiatry likes to use medical discourse to turn emotional and existential pain into pathology, branding differentness as “biologically-based mental illness.” As a result I’ve been slapped with a variety of DSM labels over the years, such as “anorexic,” “major depressive” and “treatment-resistant.” However, as feminist and constructivist social psychologists have noted, ruling classes often pathologize or criminalize individuals who are different because our nonconforming behaviors threaten these groups’ powers. Branding non-conformers as “crazy” is often a handy way to obscure the dominant ideology and status quo that ruling classes are trying to protect.2

A recent incidence of self-harm brought into sharp focus how, since acquiring the “master status” of “severely mentally ill” over a decade ago, I’ve turned even more to my body to try and cope with the lost opportunities and status that the erasure of my former, “normal” identity has wrought. Subconsciously, I started allowing mental health labels — and thus dominant groups’ oppression — to take control of my life and my narrative, never realizing I had a choice in the matter. As a person who’s always placed primacy on being an active, contributing and self-sufficient member of society, the seeming loss of agency over my life has brought excruciating existential pain.

The story I’m about to tell, which occurred about a month ago, is about how an act of self-harm I originally perceived as a strident shout that “I’m still here, and I’m still worth listening to,” was anything but. It’s a story of how I came to realize that in trying to be heard — and deal with my emotions — by continually abusing my body, I become an unwitting collaborator in my oppression.

By turning to a healthy outlet (this page) I stumbled upon epiphanies: the parallels between self-harm and anorexia and how, if I continue to resort to these forms of “speaking,” I will continue to be complicit in my own subjugation, just as a millennium’s worth of Chinese women were when they willfully and painfully mutilated their feet to obtain a “status” that was entirely illusory….

You can read the full story here

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