Female Self-Mutilation

Patricia A. Adler, University of Colorado - Boulder
Peter Adler, University of Denver

Based on in-depth interviews with an opportunistic sample of female college students, this research investigates the seemingly growing phenomenon of female self-mutilation. We begin by looking at the ways that young women hear about this practice and their initial reactions to it. We then examine some of the factors that lead them to overcome their early revulsion to the practice and think about experimenting with it. Rather than thinking of it as self-destructive, most participants regard it as empowering. They seek ways to gain control over forces in their lives that leave them feeling confused, upset, and frustrated. Cutting gives them a way to focus their emotional turmoil on a discretely physical act, location, and sensation. We explain the phenomenology of the cutting, and the decision to cut again. We then look at the consequences of cutting, at how people act to conceal the stigmatizing scars that result. Various stigma management strategies are discussed. We conclude by examining this trend in light of other destructive deviant practices in which young women engage in American society, especially eating disorders, that serve similar functions, and how these engage with the female gender role.

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Updated 05/20/2006