It is not unusual to have something Justin Bieber related trending on Twitter. It was however unusual to see the provocative #cut4bieber hashtag winding its way round the Twittersphere yesterday afternoon. The full story of this bizarre internet phenomenon can be found here – the long and short of it being that some folk set up the satirical hashtag in response to allegations that Bieber had been caught smoking marijuana. The implication was that Justin’s fans were threatening to self-harm if Justin didn’t stop his drug taking.
Whether anyone did or did not self-harm as a response to this is not really the point, and I’m not here to talk about this modern day satire on the cult of celebrity. I’m here to talk about an attack on the vulnerable, and the problems of mocking a behaviour that reveals deeply embedded problems with the way we as a society expect our youth to behave.
Self-harm is not in any way unique to females or teenagers – it is an issue that can affect anyone regardless of age or gender. This Oxford University study in 2009 put the ratio of female to male cases of self-harm at 1.5:1, but this is levelling out . Besides which, reliable statistics on self-harm are difficult to gather given the secretive and/or variable nature of the behaviour. Culturally, self harm has come to be associated with teenage youths and has become somewhat normalized through the media.
Stats about self-harming aside, my biggest question is – how have we arrived in a world where the idea of making youngsters harm themselves is amusing to anybody? The Internet provides yet another platform to bombard the youths of today with expectations of how to behave. Teenage girls are expected to identify themselves as potential partners from a young age – hit up the website of Mizz magazine, a stalwart of my youth, and its young readers have their own section dedicated to lads. Justin Bieber markets his own perfume under the title ‘Girlfriend’, encouraging all his fans to identify with him not as a role-model but as a partner, with all the implications that that entails.
Young women are still being raised to disconnect with their bodies – to view their bodies as tools with which they can attract the opposite gender, even if that is not what they want. Whilst boys are being encouraged to become strong, fit and healthy, to explore and sweat and discover the world, girls are being encouraged to look at their bodies and alter them until they fit the status quo. Have a look at this examination of this alarming and damaging dichotomy at work in the toy industry and tell me we are being raised as equals.
As girls develop this disconnect from bodies that become sexualised before their minds do, they are introduced to a world of self-harm for aesthetic purposes – eyebrows plucked, legs shaved, bodies disciplined. Yup, boys are expected to groom as well. That the self-harm statistics are evening it out suggests that we are simply expanding this hideous double-bind to everyone. Pinning down generic reasons for self-harm are obviously impossible, but we cannot escape the fact that is is related to how we perceive and value our bodies.
To raise children in a society which dictates how their body should behave and then condemn them for taking any control over it is abuse. People who self-harm are condemned for so-called attention seeking as they try to cope with a world that places individuals under impossible scrutiny. Justin Bieber’s fans are ‘trolled’ for sacrificing themselves for someone they are encouraged to idolise. Whilst the culture of celebrity certainly can always do with satirising and questioning, what the next generation needs is empowerment and encouragement. That some people sitting behind a computer found it valid to mock self-harm demonstrates to me the disconnect that we have formed between mind and body and paints an unforgiving picture of a society without compassion.