Getting a tattoo or growing your body hair is the same as self-harm (apparently)…
[TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of eating disorders and self-harm.]
Note: Eating disorders and self harm are exceedingly complex issues, with exceedingly complex and varied causes and motivations behind them. I am not a psychologist and I’m lucky to have only skimmed the surface of these problems in my life so far, so if I say anything relating to these issues below that you think is wrong or ignorant please feel free to call me out on it and correct me. - Becca
This morning Cherry Healey appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour, alongside Ellis Cashmore, Professor of Culture, Media and Sport at Staffordshire University, to discuss our society’s preoccupation with appearance, as is the focus of our upcoming episode of Cherry Healey: How to Get a Life (Wednesday, 9pm, BBC3.)
Professor Cashmore had some interesting things to say that I didn’t necessarily agree with, and felt the need to respond to. The segment will be available to listen to here for the next seven days, the section starts at around 10 minutes in, however I’ve also quoted the relevant parts below.
Professor Cashmore: “I get the impression that the men are managing their bodies in quite an instrumental way, almost rationally you might say, because they’re trying to achieve goals…”
Presenter: “Which implies that the women are irrational?”
Professor Cashmore: “Not quite, I think that the women as I saw them are on the same continuum as…anorexics and people who repeatedly self harm…they’re trying to empower themselves, Those Pesky Dames by growing hair all over their bodies and refusing to shave, and Delphine [a woman with numerous tattoos and piercings]…to set up [as] she calls it her own personal armour, against an outside world which she regards as very angry and hostile to her.”
So according to Professor Cashmore eating disorders and self harm are on the same “continuum” as tattoos, piercings and growing your body hair; the “continuum” of empowerment through body modification I assume. That is, unless they’re done as a means to an end, or perhaps only if you’re a woman as the implication stands. Getting a tattoo to impress your friends? That’s fine. Getting one for personal reasons relating to bodily autonomy and empowerment? That’s comparable to an eating disorder. Using potentially harmful unlicensed tanning injections in the hopes that it will make you famous? That’s fine. Refusing to live up to society’s demand that women painfully remove their body hair? That’s comparable to self harm.
There are however elements of truth in what Professor Cashmore had to say. Choosing to grow your body hair whilst living in a society that conditions you and expects you to mandatorily remove it can be, although need not always be, an empowering statement of bodily autonomy. A way of saying, “this is my body, and I will do with it as I please, not as you tell me to”.
However there is a vast difference between positively affirming acceptance and ownership of your body, in spite of a lifetime of messages to the contrary, and being compelled to change it, to ‘fix’ it, in a fruitless attempt to meet society’s often unattainable standards.
Professor Cashmore: “You talk in a particular point in the show about how one of her piercings went wrong and she needed surgery to put it back together, now I didn’t see that as so dissimilar to someone who feels they want to manage their bodies in a way that means cutting down their intake of food and getting to the point where we the rest of society feel that they’re endangering themselves.”
Professor Cashmore: “An anorexic doesn’t feel that he or she is harming themselves, they feel that they’re managing their bodies in a way that they have decided is appropriate for them.”
For many people with eating disorders there is an element of personal control, but that control is often strongly bound up in the messages society sends us. We’re continually flushed with images and ideas that associate being ‘fat’, in this instance a relative term, with being lazy, unhealthy and uncontrolled. Thinness is portrayed as good, healthy, as innately preferable, and as a display of strong personal discipline. Restricting food, purging, and exercising to extremes are not done as an act of empowerment, but as an act of showing the world that you are a Good Person, that you are disciplined, and yes that you are in control.
In this manner the parallels are much closer to Ryan’s motives (someone featured on the show for using unlicensed and potentially dangerous tanning injections in the hopes of becoming a reality TV star). His end goal may be to become famous, but I doubt he believes he’ll become so simply in virtue of having a tan. Rather, he believes that having a tan will increase his chances of becoming famous, more so than if he were pale. This is again because we often associate tanned (white) skin with health, with money, with taking care of yourself, and in this instance with celebrity. For Ryan, and for much of society, pale skin indicates that you care less about your physical appearance, that you put less effort into maintaining it, or that you cannot afford to do so; hardly the marks of a celebrity.
In contrast refusing to remove your body hair is making the opposite statement. Women who do not remove their hair are portrayed as dirty, lazy and unkempt, not to mention the apparently negative association with being a militant man-hating lesbian feminist (holla!). Again, as far as much of society is concerned refusing to remove body hair displays a lack of self control, a lack of self discipline, an act of ‘letting yourself go’. As feminists who choose not to shave, for personal and political reasons, we aim to challenge these assumptions and stereotypes, and in doing so change society’s attitudes towards women in whatever little way we can.
With your comparison of tattoos and piercings to self-harm again there may be a grain of truth; however once again you oversimplify and conflate the many positive and negative facets of personal control and empowerment. Self-harm is a method of control, but it is not empowering in the commonly used sense of the word. It stems from a place of desperation, of helplessness, a need for a moment of clarity, of recognisable feeling and stability. It is something that most people hide from others, and continue because they feel compelled to do so. On the contrary tattoos and piercings are usually an act of celebration, of rebellion, of adorning your body and making it look the way you want it to, regardless of society’s expectations.
[In response to the implication that the women’s motives are somehow worse than the men’s…]
Professor Cashmore: “I didn’t say worse, but in fact the women’s motives as I see them are…in response to what they feel are male dictated norms, the men are changing their bodies because they see…goals that they want to achieve and are organising their bodies in such a way as to maximise their chances of achieving those goals.”
No you didn’t say worse, you didn’t have to because your rhetoric implied it. You grouped women who modify their bodies together with those who do so because of mental illness, whilst exempting men for pursuing more “rational” goals. You drew that association, leaving listeners to interpret the obvious implication, then feigned innocence when challenged; “oh I didn’t say that, you’re reading too much into my words.” It’s a shady rhetorical trick.
You may also argue that you were only referencing the women and the men in the show, and wouldn’t dream of extrapolating the implications across each gender, but again you don’t have to, because the audience will do so for you.
That said there remains a point to be made in your sweeping rhetoric, which is that women do have more invested in reclaiming their bodies than men. We’re far more subjected to messages that they’re not our own, that they’re objects, with the primary purpose of provoking and attracting men’s sexual pleasure. We’re told we need to attend to our looks in order to ‘get a guy’, and then maintain them in spite of increasing age, circumstance, or personal well-being, or risk losing him and ending up as lonely old spinsters. And when it’s not about finding or maintaining a relationship, it’s for another externally mandated reason such as getting or keeping a job. You need only look at the way we treat women working in the public eye, obsessively analysing their weight, their age, their clothes, their hair, their make-up; but the same rules often apply to non-celebrities too, as plenty of women working in offices, retail and elsewhere will attest.
So yes there are parallels to be drawn, between acts of bodily control and empowerment, and between conforming to and consciously rebelling against society’s norms, but only insofar as we may compare good with bad, and light with dark etc. Your association of body modification with mental illness was crass, irresponsible and over simplified, and as I’m sure you’re well aware, it’s a bit more complicated than that.