At my high school, attention-seeking was up there with the other two worst things you could be accused of, which were being frigid or being a slut. We were not encouraged to express any needs at all.
(TW for self-harm in this post).
Last year I read an essay by Leslie Jamieson – ‘The grand unified theory of women’s pain.’ It’s a mouthful of a title, but christ, was it a relief to read so many of my own thoughts, written in such a succinct, intelligent, and frankly beautiful way.
I raved about it here, and I haven’t really stopped thinking about it since then. One of the reasons for that is this passage:
I do believe there is nothing shameful about being in pain, and I do mean for this essay to be a manifesto against the accusation of wound-dwelling. But the essay isn’t a double negative, a dismissal of dismissal, so much as a search for possibility—the possibility of representing female suffering without reifying its mythos.
“The accusation of wound-dwelling.” In other words, that old insult I’ve have leveled at me time and again during my short life as a woman: attention-seeker.
At my high school, attention-seeking was up there with the other two worst things you could be accused of, which were being frigid or being a slut. We were not allowed to be either of those. You had to enjoy male company – and only male company – at a strict quota, a secret number which completely eluded me. I was a virgin or a whore, depending on the week and who you spoke to.
Attention-seeking was of course what you got called if that number was too low or too high.
It was also what you got called if you spoke too little or too much, had different opinions to the majority, exhibited a sense of personal style, or betrayed any emotion other than a crush on a movie character or better yet, lethargic ennui.
And it was definitely what you were called if you showed, say, any signs of depression, tendencies for disordered eating, or self harm.
Yep, high school was a pretty fun place for me.
And it didn’t stop there. In my first year of uni, I flatted with a bunch of strangers in a college-owned apartment. My depression got the better of me. Despite my best efforts to conceal my behaviour, I accidentally left some blood in the sink one night.
My flatmates held an intervention. The message was: “You wouldn’t be doing this if you didn’t want us to see it. Get help, it’s making us uncomfortable.”
Being called an attention-seeker is an immediate deligitimisation of your feelings and the resulting behaviour.
It implies that you probably don’t even have those feelings. You just want people to think you do so you can manipulate them into offering you – gasp! – compassion. Friendship. Time.
What a horrific act! Unbelievable, that a young woman could want or need attention. We should crave to be ignored. We should seek to suffer in silence. We should learn, from the get-go, to cope alone with the shit-storm of emotions that make up our hormone-soaked teen existence.
I was never prepared to do that. I’ve always been a communicator, and I always sought connection. Yes, I hid my self-harm, sometimes well and sometimes not. But one of the reasons I did so was fear of the label. Instead of showing I needed help and being comfortable seeking it, I shut off. I suffered needlessly.
I’ve even had medical professionals question the “legitimacy” of my self-harm. “Are you sure you’re not just doing it for attention?” they asked.
“No!” I denied. But I was lying. Of course one of the reasons I was doing it was for attention. Because I needed bloody help. I needed someone to notice, and reach in, because damned if I was going to reach out and be told that that in itself demonstrated that I simply wanted someone to pay attention to me, and therefore my depression was a performed delusion.
The narrative is pervasive and harmful. It reinforces every unhealthy ideal around coping alone.
From the above essay:
A Google search for the phrase “I hate cutters”yields thousands of results, most of them from informal chat boards. There’s even a Facebook group called “I hate cutters”: This is for people who hate those emo kids who show off there cuts and thinks it is fun to cut them selves [sic]. Hating cutters crystallizes a broader disdain for pain that is understood as performed rather than legitimately felt.It’s usually cutters who are hated (wound-dwellers!), rather than simply the act of cutting itself. It’s the actual people who get dismissed, not just the verbs of what they’ve done. People say cutters are just doing it for the attention, but what’s that “just” about? A cry for attention is positioned as a crime, as if attention were inherently a selfish thing to want. But isn’t wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human—and isn’t granting it one of the most important gifts we can ever give? …
Hating on cutters—or at least these cutter-performers—tries to draw a boundary between authentic and fabricated pain, as if we weren’t all some complicated mix of wounds we can’t let go of and wounds we can’t help, as if choice itself weren’t always some complicated mix of intrinsic character and agency. How much do we choose to feel anything? The answer, I think, is nothing satisfying—we do, and we don’t. But hating on cutters insists desperately upon our capacity for choice. People want to believe in self-improvement—it’s an American ethos, pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps—and here we have the equivalent of affective downward mobility: cutting as a failure to feel better, as deliberately going on a kind of sympathetic welfare—taking some shortcut to the street-cred of pain without actually feeling it.
<insert somewhat bitter laughter here>. A shortcut to the street-cred of pain? Yeah, because living with this is brilliant, and exactly what I would have chosen for my life. I have no more credibility than a healthy person – in fact, I have less, because I must prove over and over that my pain is real and I am entitled to “attention.”
Self-harm is a legitimate expression of feeling, in and of itself. It does not have to be a suicide attempt to be taken seriously. It does not have to mean you want to die. It does not have to mean you are flooded with self-hatred. It doesn’t even have to mean that you want someone to help you. It may be something you do just for you.
And if you do want someone to notice, that’s ok. Attention-seeking is not a crime. Wanting to feel cared for, wanting concern for our well-being, doesn’t make us unlovable or weak. It makes us human.
I may no longer be “a cutter,” but I’m definitely an attention-seeker. I’m not ashamed of the fact that when I share my difficulties with people, and they express horror or concern, that makes me feel better. I sought that. I need that. Their reaction legitimises my feelings. It helps me cope.
Let’s tell more women to ask for what they need – attention, time, kindness, whatever it might be. God knows we can do with the encouragement.