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Why This Model With Self-Harm Scars Doesn't Need a Trigger Warning

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Sarah Schuster, The Mighty’s mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

You’ll notice this piece, which explores why a model with self-harm scars doesn’t need a trigger warning, has a trigger warning. I’ll explain why in a bit. Trigger warnings are extremely valuable, and this is not an anti-trigger warning piece. We’re not here to call anyone a “snowflake.” This isn’t about telling people to “toughen up” or about dismissing anyone’s feelings. This is about letting people with self-harm scars know they can exist in the world just as they are, and that their bodies are nothing to be ashamed of.

Here’s what happened.

Online fashion company Goodbye Bread (which, by the way, is named after a song — not because they are morally opposed to bread. I asked.) shared a photo of a model with visible self-harm scars. This isn’t the first time they’ve featured this model, although in some pictures — depending on the pose and angle — the scars are more visible than others.

The company released a statement about their decision to leave the photos untouched, declaring the body positive movement should not be limited to body sizes, skin tones and stretch marks. Scars should also be part of this movement. Asimoula Georgiadi, co-founder and creative director of Goodbye Bread, said:

We believe that not editing body scars is an important step toward encouraging body positivity and self confidence. Showing to all girls out there that have been under a similar situation that they are beautiful no matter what they go through.

Photos of the model though, who Goodbye Bread told us is named Amy, started a heated debate in the comment section. Some claimed the photos glamorized self-harm or said the images needed a trigger warning.

View this post on Instagram

Let’z get wet bishes ????????

A post shared by Goodbye Bread (@goodbyebread) on

This, of course, is tricky. Images of self-harm scars can be triggering for people who self-harm. For people who struggle with self-harm or suicidal ideation, trigger warnings can be really useful before long, drawn-out suicide scenes (looking at you, “13 Reasons Why”) or when a topic will be discussed in-depth in an academic setting. It provides a nice heads up so people can make a decision about whether or not they want to engage with the content. Used well, they can make the world a safer place for people with a history of all sorts of things — not just self-harm.

But people aren’t entertainment. People aren’t chapters in a book. People are complex beings with their own minds, bodies and experiences. People with self-harm scars shouldn’t have to hide themselves to make others feel safe or uncomfortable. People with scars, people who look different or people with conditions that change their appearance shouldn’t have to issue warnings before they walk into a room. They deserve to take up space like everyone else, just as they are.

This means when it comes to trigger warnings and self-harm scars, context matters. Mighty contributor and advocate Alyse Ruriani, who’s in recovery from self-harm and lives with self-harm scars, told me she’s been on both sides of the table — she’s been triggered by images of self-harm scars and she’s been told her own scars might trigger others.

“I’ve been on the receiving end of having to cover scars for that reason while in treatment,” she said. “It caused a lot of shame. I understand trigger warnings and believe they are useful, but they also can’t be applied in every situation.”

A great example of when a trigger warning should be applied — or when an image depicting self-harm isn’t necessary at all  — was when JAMA, an international peer-reviewed medical journal, tweeted about a self-harm study with a graphic picture of self-harm scars. These scars were fresh, the picture included blood and the arm took up the whole picture. It was triggering, dehumanizing and ultimately, unnecessary. When this happened, mental health advocates spoke up. JAMA eventually deleted the tweet.

At The Mighty, we have guidelines about pieces that discuss self-harm. While we want people to get real about their experiences and be honest about their feelings, we limit graphic imagery, and typically don’t include the method by which the self-injury occurred. In these cases, the injury itself isn’t the point — we want to humanize and spread understanding about what actually drives this behavior. We can do this without graphic descriptions of what self-harm looks like.

If we feel like an article describes what self-harm is like in a way that may be triggering, we add a content warning with resources.

But articles are not people. Studies are not people. It’s OK, and in most cases, responsible, to add a content warning to potentially triggering content. This doesn’t apply to people living their lives with self-harm scars.

Some people choose to cover their scars, maybe with clothing or tattoos, and that is 100 percent OK. Some people want to go to the beach and rock a bathing suit even when their self-harm scars are showing, and these people should be able to do so without shame. As Ruriani told me:

I don’t believe bodies should have to carry a trigger warning. If the post was about self-harm and that was the focus, then yes. If it’s just someone living and they happen to be someone who struggled with self-harm, then no. We cannot tell someone that, because their body healed in a visible way, any photo of themselves that shows that must have a trigger warning. Context definitely matters in these situations.

Reacting to photos of Amy, others expressed this as well. Many said seeing a model with self-harm scars was inspiring — and gave them hope for their own recovery.

After saying all this, it’s important to remember that if you are triggered by these images, that is also OK. This is not about how you should or shouldn’t feel when you see someone with self-harm scars. Just like running into someone on the street with self-harm scars might make you think about self-harming, seeing a model with self-harm scars might be hard for you, too. It’s part of the journey. It doesn’t make you weak. That’s why it’s so important to have coping skills in your back pocket when urges like this emerge. The ups and downs of your healing are nothing to be ashamed of.

This piece has a trigger warning because this piece isn’t a person. I have the power to shape the discussion in the safest and most responsible way I can. I have the power to let people know what topics I’ll be discussing. I can provide resources in case anyone reading is in a bad place. This is something I can choose to do.

For people with self-harm scars, they can’t delete or edit their past, but they do have some control over their journeys ahead. As people, they deserve representation. They deserve role models. They shouldn’t have to hide. They can build skills to help them overcome setbacks. They can live, and they deserve to live, just as they are.

Lead image via Goodbye Bread’s Instagram

Originally published: July 11, 2018
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