I self-harmed for the first time because I wanted to hide the tiny stretch mark on my hip. I had a growth spurt at 14, so stretch marks naturally sprouted on my hips and thighs. I'd grown up thinking that stretch marks were ugly, so I decided I'd rather have cuts on my body. It turns out I am not the only girl who self-harmed because of stretch marks.
In fact, non-suicidal self-harm is a phenomenon among teenage girls.
Though stretch marks are completely natural for women, there's long been a myth that stretch marks signify bad health, ugliness, and weight gain. This is extremely ostracizing in a society that values thinness and a specific body ideal. As a study in the academic journal "Sex Roles" found, women's bodies are often scrutinized to see if they meet beauty standards.
"Because most women do fail, the consequence has been the experience of body dissatisfaction," the researchers wrote. Body dissatisfaction is so pervasive, in fact, that it's considered normal.
Black girls and women are especially vulnerable because there are misconceptions about who eating disorders and body image issues affect.
Little research has been done to analyze eating disorders among girls of color because some researchers think girls of color are immune to them. Eating disorders have long been branded a "white-girl issue."
Evidence shows women of color in the United States are suffering from disordered eating. However, there has been little research conducted on eating disorders in women of color. A January 1994 survey from Essence found that 71.5% of Black women want to be thinner and 46% feel guilty after eating.
However, the National Eating Disorders Association found that there are three reasons why Black girls and women don't seek treatment for eating disorders: acculturation, sociocultural factors, and reporting bias. Stereotypes about Black girls and women wanting to be curvy have also prevented them from being diagnosed and treated for eating disorders.
An article published in The British Journal of Psychology found that Black girls at most risk to self-harm, but are the most likely to receive inadequate care.
Khayla Carvin, a 17-year-old Black teen from New Jersey, told Revelist her issues with body image began during her freshman year at a performing arts high school.
She thought the other girls were more beautiful than her because they fit into the media's ideals of beauty — skinny and petite.
"I'm thrown into this school with all these smaller, cuter girls with more talent than me and I'm just this weird, gross person. Seeing all these people and comparing myself to them made me insecure," she told Revelist.
Her low self-esteem coupled with depression eventually led her to self-harm. "Its been on and off. It was more an impulsive thing I did when I felt angry or sad or disgusted with myself," she said. "Usually it started with me being upset but then it escalated to everything else that I wasn't happy with, including my appearance."
Carvin wouldn't eat and felt "like a fat disgusting pig" when she did.
Recent studies show that girls who don't like their bodies, or who have experienced depression, low self-esteem, and anxiety, are also more likely to harm themselves — and the media perpetuating mostly thin women may be to blame.
As the "International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education" found, most women wear a size 16 or 18. Yet, smaller celebrities are still promoted as the pinnacle of beauty, though they do not look like the majority of women.
For instance, most television shows don't feature plus-size women. A 2003 study found that 90% of women on television are "normal size," though 67% of Americans are considered plus-size. There are some shows, like "This Is Us," "Mike & Molly," and "Empire" that do feature women of size, but those characters are often obsessed with their weight, as The Washington Post pointed out.
Young women's self-esteem, which has traditionally been low to begin with, are harmed by these images. Self-esteem coupled with unrealistic beauty ideals can lead adolescent women to extreme measures — like self-harm, according to researchers Donald E. Greydanus and Roger W. Apple.
Mia, a 23-year-old woman from Austin, Texas, began struggling with a binge-eating disorder at the age of 7, after her younger brother passed away.
"I was always a chubby kid and I had always felt very intensely that my worth was related to my appearance. It was definitely an emotional thing and the other feelings of inadequacy came later. Then, because binge eating makes you gain weight, it kind of fed into itself like a feedback loop," she said.
Mia said she'd been teased for being a chubby kid, so she would eat "far past the point of being comfortable and into complete discomfort to inflict some sort of self-punishment." She started harming herself to get relief from the taunting and the grief.
"I always thought to myself, 'At least I'm not eating.' I always felt more instantly relieved with self-harm compared to eating issues, when you're just searching for some vague form of fulfillment," she told Revelist. "I'd always complain that people thought self-harming was worse than eating. At least other people couldn't see I was struggling via me gaining or losing weight rapidly. It was so much easier for me to deal with."
The extremes that young women go to conform to body ideals have long had a detrimental effect on their psyches.
I had a brief experience with self-harm: It lasted six months. I realized I didn't need to self-harm in order to feel comfortable with my body. I began accepting that stretch marks are a natural part of everyone's life—including mine
Healing from the toxicity of self-harm has been easier after learning about other women of color who've also harmed themselves. Not only did it make me feel like I had a community I could turn to, but it made my experience seem more normal.
This is why we need to talk about body-image issues in Black girls. It's time we normalize this issue so we can help girls still struggling to stop harming themselves.