Kelly Holmes: No prizes for confessing

The last thing teenagers need is another self-harming role model.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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‘We tend to think that great Olympians are super-human, super-heroes. This has shown that they cut and bleed like the rest of us.’ (1) Where on Earth do they get these people from!

In this case, the Daily Telegraph had got Michael Caulfield, ‘a leading sports psychologist’, to comment upon Kelly Holmes’ confession to the News of the World that she had slashed herself with a pair of scissors during a period of depression 14 months before the Athens Olympics, where she won two gold medals. But such trite homilies on human frailty are ten-a-penny. Today’s disturbed culture is quite comfortable with the idea that superheroes ‘cut and bleed’ – it is rather less comfortable with the idea that some people just succeed. And so it is not surprising that the likes of Kelly Holmes, whose strength and stamina make them inspirational, also feel compelled to flaunt their weaknesses to the world.

Catherine Bennett, writing in the UK Guardian, confesses that her initial reaction to Dame Kelly Holmes’ revelations ‘was to wonder if, by any chance, she had a book coming out’. And indeed, her forthcoming autobiography, Black, White & Gold, has figured prominently in reports of her cutting episode. As Bennett explains: ‘After so many tales of victimhood, by boys called “It”, and girls called Alice Sebold, perhaps the public appetite for misery can no longer be satisfied by straightforward tales of adversity and deprivation; we require the stronger stimulus of mental illness and breakdown, and the more floridly expressed the better.’ (2) To promote one’s autobiography through offering up a juicy tidbit of self-loathing is a tired old trick, already overdone by Princess Diana and Geri Halliwell, and we shouldn’t still be falling for it.

The fact that Holmes’ confessional is predictable doesn’t make the response to it any less disturbing. She has been lauded for her courage in speaking out, and mental health charities have welcomed her revelations for raising awareness of ‘almost an epidemic’ of self-harm among young people. But in a world where victim status has become a highly prized asset, one wonders how much courage it takes to reveal one’s past moments of misery; and it is hard to imagine how the appearance of a self-harming role model is going to make cutting one’s arms with scissors or razors any less fashionable among the nation’s youth.

When it comes to self-harm, there are two things going on. There are some cases of severe self-harm that are related to people suffering from serious mental health problems; and there is a cultural epidemic of stories about self-harm, which is about presenting a sordid teenage fad as a major public health problem. If Holmes’ confessional has any impact at all upon the reality of self-harm, it will be to fuel the grim cultural fantasy that everybody is at it, and those who are not are somehow lacking in sensitivity and personal ambition.

The growing concern about self-harm is a relatively recent phenomenon, and began, as many such things do, in the USA. The theory, such as it is, bears striking similarity to the theory of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia: that those who self-harm are likely to be teenage girls, often bright and ambitious, who cut or otherwise damage themselves to a means to controlling their distress or anger (see Self-harm: cut it out, by Josie Appleton). Self-harm is clearly distinguished from attempted suicide, as the aim is not to end one’s life, but to gain control over one’s life. Rituals such as the use of antiseptic swabs to clean the wound and long sleeves to cover it up mean that it is not always obvious when somebody is self-harming – which, of course, makes it an ideal candidate for discussion about a ‘hidden’ epidemic.

As with eating disorders, self-harm is clearly a real phenomenon, which requires the attention and sometimes intervention of mental health professionals in some individuals’ lives. But it would be naive to ignore that there is a dimension to this that is driven by fashion, by a victim culture that is fascinated by self-harm, and which therefore glamorises it, encouraging people – and in particular, impressionable teenage girls – to adopt a ‘damaged’ persona, which they express through a limited amount of self-harm. In this sense, this nasty, nihilistic activity becomes just another part in the teenage rite of small rebellion.

This was skillfully illustrated by the 2003 film Thirteen, which dramatises the transformation of a young girl from a sweet, helpful, hardworking adolescent into a teenager desperate to be cool. She finds a new best friend to lead her astray, and starts messing about with sex, drink, cigarettes and drugs, dressing in black, piercing her belly button, screaming at her mother and, in the emotional climax of the film, it is discovered that she is cutting herself with razor blades. Thirteen is a difficult, dramatic age for this girl, as it is for many teenagers – but the horrible ways in which they act out do not generally come from their internal psyche, but from the current modes of cool self-expression. The more cutting is presented as a high-profile, mainstream problem, the more it comes to be seen as cool.

That’s what happened with eating disorders – which were as talked-about in the 1990s as self-harm is today. Despite the overblown warnings that pictures of skinny models would lead teenage girls down the route to self-starvation, the epidemic of anorexia never materialised – because nobody, ultimately, starves oneself to death because of fashion. What did happen was a surge in the number of cases of bulimia nervosa, where people binge-eat and force themselves to vomit. Why? Some now suggest that this was because of the ‘awareness raising’ given to bulimia by the true confessions of Princess Diana.

Research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry earlier this year found that rates of bulimia rose in the early 1990s – when news of Diana’s illness appeared (3). In 1990, there were more than 25 cases of bulimia per 100,000 women in the population aged 10 to 39. This more than doubled over the next few years, reaching a peak of around 60 per 100,000 in 1996. Diana’s death in 1997 coincided with the beginning of the decline in the rate of the illness.

Commenting on the research, Steve Bloomfield, spokesman for the Eating Disorders Association, told the BBC that he believed that the incidence of bulimia hasn’t changed: ‘What’s changed is the number of people who’ve reported to their GP that there is a problem. Seeing people like Diana talking about their illness does encourage people to come forward.’ The study’s researchers agreed that this might have been part of it – but added that rising rates of bulimia may have been due to increased recognition and detection efforts given to a new and ‘fashionable’ diagnosis.

None of this is to imply that cutting oneself, or bingeing and vomiting, is a conscious activity deliberately undertaken by people who want to express themselves as damaged. It is about a more subtle process of cultural transmission, where the twisted morality of our victim culture entices people, and particularly younger people, to act out their frustrations in highly individualised, self-destructive ways, through indicating that to do so is normal and somehow to be expected of them. This is a new trend. Compare the introspection of Thirteen, for example, with the 1970s cult movie Grease, in which teenagers played by twentysomethings smoke, drank, had sex and wore leather. Grease was seen as uber-naff by teenagers of the time – now it seems like an expression of extrovert rebellion, of young people looking outwards and growing up.

We should be worried about the prominence of self-harm in today’s society. But we need to separate the activity of serious self-harm from the cultural epidemic of stories about self-harm. Those individuals suffering from serious mental health problems and who do themselves a great deal of damage, like those children seriously ill with anorexia, are not helped by the trite popularisation of cutting as the bulimia du jour. Indeed, the more attention is focused on raising awareness about a potential epidemic of self-harm among the everyday teenage population, the more these individuals will find their problems trivialised, and their care under-resourced.

For the rest of the young population, we should recognise that the self-harm is not, as most commentators on the Holmes confessional have argued, that those who do it feel misunderstood and stigmatised, and will be helped by a superhero speaking out. It is that we live in the kind of culture that sees this kind of activity as somehow something to emulate. Such a shame, that a woman who was an icon of sporting excellence is now presented as yet another morality tale of human weakness and self-loathing.

(1) Holmes is ‘classic case’ of athlete’s depression, Daily Telegraph, 30 May 2005

(2) The benefits of headline therapy, Guardian, 31 May 2005

(3) Diana linked to bulimia increase, BBC News, 1 February 2005

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Topics Politics


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