Adolescent psychology

The following paper will deliver research on the area of adolescent psychology with the theme of self-mutilation or self harm that occurs with adolescent girls.  This concept of masochism will be dissected in the essay using peer reviewed journal articles.  The psychosis behind this action will also be explored and the impetus of the problem will also be given in this paper.  The history of the subject will be given as it relates not only psychologically with adolescence but also some sociology will be incorporated into the paper to give it a fair balance of prognosis.

Adolescence is a period of socialization where children develop relationships outside of the family.  These relationships further fuel or enhance their perceptions of the world, their bonding with surrounding society members and their view of human interactions.  In an environment where there is a distant mother or absent father, where the child is found to have problems acting socially normal with other people, the person is defined as a deviant.  Not everyone who has been subjected to the above findings will go on to become a self-mutilator, but these types of adolescent girls are or have been defined by these terms.  Body image in the media is intended to represent a product and to sell that product.  The media gurus choose thin models not as attesting to how women should look but rather as a tribute to how they want their product to appear to the audience.  The idea of thinness is misconstrued on the idea that women’s bodies are too thin and thus those too thin bodies present to the advertising world what their body should look like, but this is not true.  Thinness is in the eye of the beholder, “When individuals evaluate their appearance, they can either concur or disagree with other evaluators.  If dissensus occurs its direction can be either self enhancing or self-denigrating” (Levinson 1986; 330).  It becomes apparent then, that early childhood development is essential to creating an identity and furthermore to creating a sound human being who is not prone to acts of aggression

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Thus, the act of bloodshed is art, thereby attributing self-mutilation as a means of reinvention of self, not only as punishment but an endeavor to transform the self due in part to low esteem, predisposition, or other abnormalities.  Often times this sacrifice of the adolescent’s blood is equated with Christ’s sacrifice for redemption of humankind, thus, the mutilation is cleansing of their sin (Hewitt 1997; 104).  The adolescent girl is using this pain and sacrifice for the importance of self expression.  Thus, mutilation becomes associated with salvation.  Masochism becomes equated with sacrifice, and blood is equated to a necessary part of this ritual.  The adolescent girl feels more human, less mundane when mutilation occurs, and thus she feels as though she were finding an inner truth to herself, one that the pedestrian tantrums that other adolescent girls indulge did not deliver to her.  (Hewitt 1997; 104).

In Pipher’s studies (1994) she recognizes that female deviance is formed not only from interaction or lack of interaction from family, but also to the deliverance of aggression from friends and kids at school.  Girls will call other girls sluts (the manifestation of anger through verbal outbursts) and do mean things to them while they ‘aren’t looking’.  Boys do not verbalize their malice but act upon it by physically abusing their supposed assailant.  These two areas of socialization are prevalent in the various typological profiling for self mutilation.  An abusive environment will generate different responses from men and women.  Men, with an abusive childhood will transgress their behavior in terms of killing, raping or violent crimes.  Women are more likely to internalize their reactions and become self-destructive, turning to drug abuse or prostitution.  The internal deviance of women causes most people to disbelieve their capability of being hands-on violent or self aggressive.  Thus, mutilation becomes associated with body image, and control.  Dittmar and Howard go on to state that roughly 20% of models in the fashion industry are underweight which in turn clinically diagnosis them with the condition of anorexia nervosa.  These conditions give further rise to other women’s problems.  Since the cultural idea of thinness as perpetuated by the media and the fashion industry is to have increasingly thin body types, the average woman or man tries dieting and exercising to keep up with the ‘standard’.  When the average woman or man finds that they are still not ‘normal’ according to the cultural guidelines of the word, they begin to be dissatisfied with their bodies which leads to low self-esteem, “Thus it stands to reason that women are likely to experience body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem and even eating disorders if they internalize and strive for a beauty ideal that is stringently thin and essentially unattainable” (478).

Adolescent girls use pain as a gateway of understanding life.  Common mutilations practices include the performance of burn their limbs and slicing themselves with sharp razors.  In more dire, or ritualistic mutilations, the adolescent girl will use her own blood and outline her physiognomy on the plane of a mirror, at which she is peering.  She would take blood from her sliced open eyelids and trace her face in the glass.  By performing in this fashion the girl was able to visually and metaphorically re-engineer the product of artistry in her shedding of her own blood which in turn become a dichotomy of both process and product (Hewitt 1997; 103).

Patricia Pearson, in her book, When She Was Bad, describes early acts of aggression by women as being a verbal attack demonstrating manipulation to an astounding degree.  Name-calling is the epitome of this action or lack of action.  Women are renowned for the pressures they present each other in early adolescence.  This verbal act of abuse is amplified in self mutilation through their indirect aggression to the themselves,

Self-mutilative behavior (SMB) refers to the direct and deliberate destruction of one’s own body tissue without suicidal intent.  SMB is a pervasive public health problem occurring at a rate of 4% in the genera adult population and 21% in adult clinical populations.  Adolescence is a period of significantly increased risk for SMB, as is evidenced by rates of 14%-39% in adolescent community samples and 40%-61% in adolescent psychiatric inpatient samples (Nock & Prinstein 2005; 140).


The sociology involved with delinquent girls can be linked most especially to peer associates and to the culture at hand for delivering a message of women as “Other” and viewing women as unable to commit such a heinous crime as serial killing. Social bonding is more prevalent for females than males, and because there is a lack of support for women to be aggressive or to commit crimes then there are less female criminals if one is to believe serial killing is a cause of socialization.  Passivity is a ‘trained’ female trait, which enables them to not break out into fits of rage but to internalize the problem (and if aggression is addressed it is done so verbally).  Women are not seen as aggressive or as criminals.  Culture would believe that female serial killers are against nature. Men are the war makers, the abusive husbands, and the dirty side of society waiting to pounce on victims from the crevice of a dark alley. Men are the hunters and women are the gatherers as is historically thought for agriculturally based societies.  But this kind of thinking is phallic and has been thought too long.  Although self-mutilation is thought of as control over the self, the fringes of this definition incorporate the less noticeable mutilation of eating disorders.  Anorexia and bulimia are also forms of control over the self through the vehicle of the body.  The detriment of this fact, the fact that thinness is amounting to such problems as anorexia nervosa raise many social and cultural issues.  The cultural issue may best be summarized in Dittmar and Howard’s article as they quote Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer, both spokespersons for top models, “…(s)tatistics have repeatedly shown that if you stick a beautiful skinny girl on the cover of a magazine you sell more copies…Agencies would say that we supply the women and the advertisers, our clients, want.  The clients would say that hey are selling a product and responding to consumer demand.  At the end of the day, it is a business and the fact is that these models sell the products” (478).   Thus, the opposite side of the spectrum is arguing that businesses or model clients are merely representing something that already exists within the cultural dynamic.  The argument is that thin models represent what people want to see and so the products the models are advertising sell more copies.  The clients of the modeling agencies are merely tied into the vicious cycle of believing what they want to believe.  Although this point seems somewhat valid, the validation stops when such perpetuating leads to serious illnesses (in some cases anorexia or bulimia have lead to death).

It can plainly be deciphered from the above text that body image is created by the media, as Guttman quotes in her article “Advertising, My Mirror” in an interview with Christian Blachas, “That image comes to us from the fashion world.  People like to say advertising starts trends like the recent wave of ‘fashion pornography.’ But this came straight from designers and fashion journalists.  The job of advertising is to pick up on trends.  It’s rarely subversive because brands don’t gain anything from shocking people too much.  Advertising’s a remarkable mirror, but it doesn’t start fads” (25).  Consequently, Blachas is stating that if fault is to be placed anywhere for the over correction of dieting, then the blame is not on the fashion industry but on advertisers who are the ones who pick up trends and allow these trends to filter down to every consumer; thus, while 20% of models are diagnosed as too ‘thin’ this relevant percentage can be related to the American public.

Women and men are sensible enough to know what is too thin to be realistic; often times media transform their model’s bodies and digitally enhance or decrease the model’s body thus presenting a false image.  This is not done in order to impress upon young girls that their bodies should be thin but merely in keeping in mind with the best possible way to present the product of the advertisement.  The fact that such images are digitally enhanced in one way or another is no secret and therefore the justification that such images produce too thin body ideals does not hold against the argument that they indeed do,

I mean we can alter that body shape definitely…I mean the computer can pretty much do anything.  You can alter it…they don’t tend to …but its kind of up to the model editor…You make ‘em…sort of squish them together to make them look thinner (Milkie 2002; 851).


Another argument against the too thin body image presented in the media is that this is more of a cultural attitude.  In The body of the beholder the authors highlight that more often than not Caucasian women have poor images of themselves while African American women do not; this is attributed to culture and not to media; in other words, the body image is in the eyes of the beholder and not in the eyes of the media, “Quite commonly researchers restrict samples to white subjects or ignore race as an independent variable in their designs.  However, existing anecdotal and case studies report that blacks assign positive qualities of well-being and power to heavy-women” (Levinson et al. 1986; 331). This argument however is hard to accept since the media drenches the advertisting world with continuous images of the thin model as is seen with CK models, Victoria’s Secret models, and especially in layouts of Sports illustrated.

The adolescent girl sheds blood in order to be human, to physically feel something because often times the emotional part of the brain is cauterized from one event (i.e. divorce, death, disassociation, etc.).  The adolescent girl sees the body as a vehicle, a tool of expression through pathological masochism.  Thus, she is making a succinct statement to society and the self, not only of sacrifice and redemption but also in an egotistical fashion she is stating that her arms are hers to do with what she pleases.  If she wants her arms to be scarred then that is how they will be and this message is delivered to herself or society as control.

Adolescent girls engage in SMB for a myriad of reasons which may entail doing it for personal boundary definition, to relate to power in being the one to penetrate which involves various other sexual reasons behind SMB, and it also relates, or could relate to the sense of mastery of death (Nock & Prinstein 2005; 140).  These reasons all point to one fact; control.  The adolescent girl becomes affluent in SMB in order to gain control or have some sense of control over herself and what is done to her body.  With the changes that are natural during this period of an adolescent girls life SMB correlates for psychological reasons that the girl wants to combat nature and individualistic if masochistic in order to have control.

Thus it may be surmised that SMB is automatic, that is, there is little socializing that contributes to the action.  On the contrary however socialization, especially with adolescent girls, is an area in which they definitely feel as though they are not in control of their environment or themselves.  Self mutilation can be done using cutting, burning or by inserting objects under one’s skin (Nock & Prinstein 2005; 141).  The participants in Nock and Prinstein’s study included 66 girls ages 12-17 who were studied for a period of twelve months.

The results discussed in this study included the participation in SMB while not indulging in alcohol or drugs.  The participants reported that they felt no pain during self mutilation, even with lack of alcohol or drugs; what further perpetuated the act of SMB as Nock and Prinstein report, “A substantial proportion of adolescents reported that their friends had also engaged in SMB.   Friends’ behavior may increase adolescents’ access to SMB through prming as apotential strategy for achieving automatic and social contingencies.  Results indicated that the number of SMB incidents among friend was significantly associated with a social positive reinforcement function of SMB suggestion that some adolescents may believe that their friends’ behavior was successful in eliciting specific social behaviors from others in the interpersonal context” (Nock & Prinstein 2005; 144).

SMB is often also seen as an escapist route for adolescent girls.  With the fact that they feel no pain when they perform SMB it may indicate that they will increase their cutting or burning in order to feel something or also in order to exude proper control of their neuron stimulus.  When this is achieved adolescent girls often times experience a period of euphoria because they exerted complete control not over their emotions but over their physical threshold of pain which signifies to them a certain strength.  If an adolescent girl indulging in SMB is able to continual to do harm to herself without feeling pain or without stopping the performance of self infliction then she is exhibiting to herself that what physical torment she can endure.  Followed by euphoria and coupled with the body’s natural adrenaline levels and its ability to produce natural relaxers in times of stress, the adolescent girl feels as though she has accomplished a goal.

As Nock and Prinstein state the act of SMB may be an unintentional act to begin with but the symbolism of control through inflicted pain and the threshold of that pain are too enticing for an adolescent girl and she indulges increasingly in SMB, “The initial act of SMB may occur nonimpulsivley , but subsequent acts may occur without substantial planning.  Examination of antecedents to initial SMB episodes as compared with factors that serve to maintain or reinforce ongoing SMB is a high priority for future research…this impulsiveness and lack of physical pain is of high concern as this suggests SMB is difficult to prevent and treat given the limited time frame for intervention and the lack of naturally occurring aversive consequences” (Nock & Prinstein 2005; 143-144).

Adolescent girls who participate in self mutilation often have associate feelings of emptiness, detachment, anhedonia, and ‘a restricted range of affect may increase the likelihood of engaging in SMB for automatic positive reinforcement to generate certain sensations of feelings’ (Nock & Prinstein 2005; 144).  Thus it may be surmised that not only is SMB a reason enforced with the concept of control but it also alludes to adolescent girls trying to engage in the bridge between sensation and reality.  Adolescent girls want to feel something through their act of SMB; although this may seem contrary to the above statement of adolescent girls wanting to have control over their pain, it is subsequent to this reason in that adolescent girls participate in SMB to both have control over how they feel but also to initiate some sort of feeling.  Often times if pain is the only feeling which becomes synonymous from SMB then they are achieving their goal even if they remain stoic during the process.

Ingrassia & Springen further emphasize that white culture teaches that it is okay and even normal to have an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, but in black culture these are even more of a phenomenon as black girls do not succumb to this masochism since their culture does not present it as a strong factor to be considered normal, “Black teens don’t usually go to such extremes. Anorexia and bulimia are relatively minor problems among African-American girls. And though 51 percent of the black teens in the study said they’d dieted in the last year, follow-up interviews showed that far fewer were on sustained weight-and-exercise programs. Indeed, 64 percent of the black girls thought it was better to be “a little” overweight than underweight. And while they agreed that “very overweight” girls should diet, they defined that as someone who “takes up two seats on the bus.””  (Ingrassia & Springen 1995; 66).

The origins of self-mutilation arrive to the Western world from ritualistic practices in which body scarring and tattooing were emphasized.  During these rituals the person having the scarring done to them or the tattooing had to exhibit complete control of emotions and not let on that they were in pain.  This was a mark of pride, this theme of control.  The adolescent girl’s delivered message to society is found inside the fact that she does not exhibit pain nor fear during her mutilation, but complete control.  This action thereby makes the body a canvas, a conduit of self, masochism, and deliverance.

Despite the strength that these adolescent girls surmise that they may be gaining from building up a threshold for SMB, the fact remains that it is a serious health detriment.  These adolescent girls are becoming habitually reliant on an insalubrious action whose causes are imbedded in detached human emotions and controlling psyches.  This paper has presented the facts of the socialization of adolescent girls and the genderizing of them as well as has dedicated its research to the automatic causes of SMB as well as the initial stages of the disorder which to reiterate are within oneself or else outside of oneself and thereby in society.  The impulse to be masochist resides in the fact of both following the peer influences crowd under the guise of fitting in and having a proneness to commit SMB because that is what friends are doing , as well as SMB being committed in order to achieve a personal goal.  That goal, for adolescent girls resides in the fact of them building a threshold of pain and dominating themselves through cutting, or burning.  SMB is thus both a psychological as well as a sociological phenomenon.