The Sad Girls of Tumblr

[Content note: mental illness, depression, self-harm, suicide]

I’ve written before about the potential dangers of presenting depression and other mental illnesses as somehow attractive or appealing or more “real.” In a blog post dealing with the same issue, Spencer writes:

We love to romanticize depression. On Tumblr, browse the “#soft grunge” tag and you’ll find artfully edited photos of scars and Instagram-filtered pictures of cigarette cartons with phrases like “You’re going to die anyway” superimposed. “Soft grunge” treats depression and suicide like beautiful black roses–twisted, painful romantic ideals. We do it off of Tumblr too, like when we associate our favorite comedians’ or authors’ mental illnesses with their genius. Half the time, it seems, “tortured soul” is uttered in awestruck, not empathetic tones.

That post also links to another post, called “On Tumblr’s Romanticization of Depression,” by a blogger named Sarah:

Every time you reblog pictures of a computer screen that says “stupid sad girl” or Marlboro cigarettes with sticky notes pasted on them saying “because you broke my heart,” every time you contribute to a culture that makes depression seem like a quirky thing to add to your “about” section instead of a serious disorder with one of the highest death rates of any illness, you are actively making it okay for people to ignore their health problems and just be sad. That’s enablement.

People need to stop posting pictures of pills and tagging them #death, #suicide, #self hate, #soft grunge, and #pale. Trust me on this one, overdosing on pills: not really a good time. It’s nothing like the pictures of parties that are scattered all over your dashboard. A pretty blue-eyed boy will not come up to you when you’ve been lying in an ER bed for four hours because you can’t walk and tell you how beautiful you and your sadness are. Maybe that’s because you won’t be wearing pants at the time (I wasn’t), or maybe that’s because you’ll barely be able to speak because your mind is so distorted by the drugs. He won’t kiss your fucking scars. In fact it’s likely that nobody ever will, because seeing the mutilated flesh of someone you love is terrifying.

In a general sense, I agree. Spencer and Sarah make the point that seeing depression presented as sexy and alluring may discourage people from viewing it as an issue to work on, and while it should always be an individual’s choice whether or not to consider themselves “mentally ill” or to seek treatment for a mental illness, normalizing such pain and suffering probably doesn’t help.

But then I started thinking–how many of the people posting these things are depressed themselves, and how much moral responsibility should we assign to a person in the depths of mental illness to avoid presenting their own condition in a way that may encourage others to follow suit?

Sarah allows for this possibility, including a caveat:

Which isn’t to say that no girl with a soft grunge blog is actually diagnosed with depression (or any other mental illness), because I’m sure many are. And I think I can kind of understand the appeal. Feeling like you’re a part of something can be comforting, and so can seeing that other people feel the same way you do. When you’re in the healing stages of a mental illness, having support isn’t just important, it’s a necessity. But the soft grunge subculture doesn’t support the “Sad Girls” it idolizes, it enables them.

However, I’m not sure that really answers my question.

First of all, I take issue with the term “enablement” as used here. Professionals and others usually use this term to mean doing things that encourage someone else to behave self-destructively. For instance, someone may “enable” a friend’s problem drinking by constantly offering them alcohol or inviting them out to bars; a parent may “enable” a child’s preoccupation with getting high grades by grilling them about their grades and expressing disappointment at anything less than an “A.”

But I’m not sure what exactly Sarah thinks is being “enabled” here. If it’s depression itself, then that doesn’t make sense, because depression is not a risky or maladaptive behavior that can be enabled. It’s a mental illness. It could also be not getting treatment for depression, but I’m not sure that makes sense as a behavior that can be “enabled,” either. Not getting treatment for depression is, sadly, the default. True, if people’s Tumblr feeds were filled with age-appropriate, compassionate advice about seeking help for emotional distress, they might be more likely to do so. But in that case, the entire way the dominant culture approaches mental illness qualifies as “enablement.” In that case, every time a friend told me to “just cheer up!” or “just come hang out with us!” when I was feeling sad, they were “enabling” my behavior of not seeking treatment, because they were suggesting that depression is something that can be fixed by choosing to “just cheer up” or go to a party.

More to the point, I think that this view somewhat discounts the very realistic possibility that the people posting these “soft grunge” images are themselves depressed, and what this means about “enablement.” Who are they enabling? Themselves? Each other? Others who are more or less depressed than they are? Younger Tumblr users?

It’s complicated to me because I view this type of self-expression–the romanticization, the preoccupation with death, the attention-seeking (which I do not mean pejoratively)–as part of the mental illness itself. As a symptom, even. I haven’t seen any studies about this and have no idea which Google Scholar keywords could possibly help, but anecdotally, my experience with people who suffer from mood disorders is that some of them cope with the illness by viewing themselves and the illness in this way. Not all, obviously, but almost no mental illness symptom is shared by everyone who has that diagnosis, so to call something a symptom is not to imply that it’s a universal symptom.

It is sometimes comforting, especially when you’re scared and don’t know what’s happening to you and lack the knowledge to label it “depression,” to think of it as something special and even positive. This is especially the case when you’ve been steeped in a culture that glorifies a certain type of disaffected sadness, and ties it causally to greatness in art, music, and literature. So, even if the girls of the soft grunge subculture are enabling others, that’s only because they were first enabled themselves.

Some of it is a sort of sour grapes thing, too. You try to be happy, you can’t, everything hurts, and you think, fuck it, who wants that boring shit, anyway?

When I was in high school, I didn’t have a Tumblr (I don’t think it existed yet), but I definitely found these types of images appealing in some way. Maybe if something like Tumblr existed I would’ve even shared them. The reason they appealed to me was because they made me feel like the way I felt was a way of being more alive, not a way of missing things that other people got to have–joy, security, optimism, hope, self-esteem. And even if I didn’t meet the diagnostic criteria for depression at the time, I certainly did just a couple years later when I was diagnosed with it.

I don’t think that any of this necessarily makes promoting such memes and images ethically okay. Most of us have no problem condemning pro-ana/-mia blogs and forums, for instance, and this is really the depression/bipolar disorder version of that. (I suppose, though, you could argue that pro-ana/-mia materials are more dangerous than “pro-depression” materials, if you could even call these Tumblrs that.)

But it does mean that it’s not as simple as telling people to stop doing it.

I think the first step would be to start taking adolescent mental health seriously. It’s a serious issue. Most people know this, I think, on some level. But we still don’t take a preventative approach.

It’s expected that parents start taking their children in for dental checkups as soon as they have teeth. It’s expected to start seeing an ob/gyn for checkups as soon as you become sexually active. Why not taking that sort of proactive approach to mental health in adolescence–or even in childhood?

(Of course, all of that is bound up in issues of privilege and access, but even teenagers whose parents can easily afford and access mental healthcare often fail to receive it until things become very bad.)

So, yeah, in short, I don’t disagree with either of the perspectives I linked to. I just think it’s a little more complicated than I ever realized before. It’s easy to say, “Don’t romanticize depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.” It’s harder to say, “Don’t show symptoms of your depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.”

Viewing History Skeptically, Part 2: Beauty

Joan Jacobs Brumberg's "The Body Project"One of the first things one learns in a college-level history or sociology course is that the ways we define and think about various human attributes and qualities—sexual orientation, mental illness, gender, race, virginity—are never static. They vary geographically and temporally, and even though it may seem that the way we currently conceptualize a particular aspect of human experience is the “right” one, the one that’s accurate and supported by the research evidence, that’s pretty much what people always think.

This is what I discussed in a previous post, where I promised to write some followups about specific examples of this sort of thing. So here we go!

Beauty is a good example of shifting cultural attitudes—not only in the sense that beauty standards have changed over the decades, but also in terms of what meaning and significance we attribute to beauty as a quality. In her book The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, Joan Jacobs Brumberg discusses these shifting meanings. Brumberg notes in her chapter on skincare that in the 19th century, acne and other facial blemishes were considered a sign of moral or spiritual impurity. In fact, many people believed that people got blemishes as a result of masturbating, having “promiscuous” sex, or simply having “impure” thoughts. She writes, “In the nineteenth century, young women were commonly taught that the face was a ‘window on the soul’ and that facial blemishes indicated a life that was out of balance.”

By the mid-20th century, however, Americans had already started to think of beauty very differently. Brumberg writes of perceptions of acne in the postwar period:

Although acne did not kill, it could ruin a young person’s life. By undermining self-confidence and creating extreme psychological distress, acne could generate a breakdown in social functioning. Acne was considered dangerous because it could foster an “inferiority complex,” an idea that began to achieve wide popularity among educated Americans.

Facial blemishes were no longer considered a sign of inner weakness or impurity; they were a potentially dangerous blow to a young person’s self-esteem. They were something to be dealt with swiftly, before they could cause any serious damage:

In magazines popular with the educated middle class, parents were urged to monitor teenagers’ complexions and to take a teenager to a dermatologist as soon as any eruptions appeared: “Even the mildest attack is best dealt with under the guidance of an understanding medical counselor.” Those parents who took a more acquiescent view were guilty of neglect: “Ignoring acne or depending upon its being outgrown is foolish, almost wicked.”

Whereas worrying about one’s appearance and trying to correct it was once viewed as improper for young women, it was now considered acceptable and even productive. Even state health departments issues pamphlets urging young people to make sure that they are “as attractive as nature intended you to be.” It was understood that beauty was an important and necessary quality to have, not only because it opened doors for people but because it was just another aspect of health and wellbeing.

Today, our views on beauty seem much more rife with contradictions. Obviously beauty is still important. Women (and, to a lesser but growing extent, men) are still encouraged and expected to spend money, time, and energy on improving their appearance. We know from research that the halo effect exists, and that lends a certain practicality to what was once viewed as a frivolous pursuit—trying to be beautiful.

At the same time, though, we insist that beauty “doesn’t matter,” that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts.” It’s difficult for me to imagine a modern middle-class parent immediately rushing their child to the dermatologist at the first sign of pimples; it seems that they would be more likely to encourage the child to remember that “beauty is only skin deep” and that one’s “real friends” would never make fun of them for their acne. (Of course, I grew up with no-nonsense immigrant parents who rejected most forms of conformity, so maybe my experience was different.) Nowadays, costly medical interventions to improve teenagers’ looks are more associated with the upper class than the middle class, and we tend to poke fun (or shudder in disgust) at parents who take their children to get plastic surgery and put them on expensive weight loss programs.

It appears that our culture has outwardly rejected—or is in the process of trying to reject, amid much cognitive dissonance—the idea that beauty is a good way to judge people, that it reveals anything about them other than how they happen to look thanks to genetics or their environment. No longer do we consider beauty a sign of purity and spiritual wellbeing, as in the Victorian era, or of health and social success, as in the postwar years.

Of course, that’s just outwardly. Although we’re loath to admit it, beauty still matters, and people still judge others by their appearance, and we still subscribe to the notion that anyone can be beautiful if they just try hard enough (which generally involves investing a sufficient amount of money). While people are likely to tell you that beauty is a superficial thing that shouldn’t matter, their actions suggest otherwise.

An interesting contrast to this is Brazil, where plastic surgery, or plástica, is generally covered by the state healthcare system. As anthropologist Alexander Edmonds describes, many in Brazil believe that beauty is a “right” that everyone deserves, not just those who can afford it. One surgeon says:

In the past the public health system only paid for reconstructive surgery. And surgeons thought cosmetic operations were vanity. But plástica has psychological effects, for the poor as well as the rich. We were able to show this and so it was gradually accepted as having a social purpose. We operate on the poor who have the chance to improve their appearance and it’s a necessity not a vanity.

Brazilians, too, have been influenced by Alfred Adler’s concept of the “inferiority complex,” and in this sense the meaning of beauty in that context is similar to that in postwar America, although with a few differences. Like Americans in the 1950s, many Brazilians believe that improving one’s appearance is an important form of healthcare that heightens self-esteem and confidence. It’s not a matter of vanity.

However, unlike Americans, Brazilians (at least the ones profiled in Edmonds’ study) believe that self-esteem is important for the poor as well as for those who are better-off. In the United States people tend to scoff at the idea that people living in poverty need (let alone deserve) entertainment, pleasure, or really anything other than what they need to survive, and in the postwar years the focus on adolescents’ appearance seemed to be confined to the middle and upper class. But in Brazil it’s accepted as a “right”–a right to be beautiful.

Looking at how Americans in the past viewed beauty, as well as how people in other cultures view it, exposes the contradictions in our own thinking about it. Our outward dismissal of beauty as vain and unimportant clashes with our actual behavior, which suggests that beauty is quite important. This tension probably emerged because we have abandoned our earlier justifications for valuing beauty, such as the Victorian view of beauty as a sign of morality and the postwar view of beauty as a vital component of health. Now that we know that beauty has nothing to do with morality and relatively little to do with health, we’re forced to declare that it “doesn’t matter.” But, of course, it does.

 

[Forward Thinking] What Would You Tell Teenagers About Sex?

Libby Anne and Dan Fincke are doing this cool thing called Forward Thinking where people blog about values. This week’s question is, what would you tell teenagers about sex?

I have a lot of perspectives on this. As a teenager, I wasn’t really told anything about sex–good or bad. A few things, sure. I picked up a lot from the surrounding culture but by that point in my life I’d learned to be extremely skeptical of anything I see on TV or hear from a classmate.

The beginning of what I would tell teenagers about sex would actually be to teach them from early childhood to practice that sort of skepticism. It saved me from what I can only imagine would’ve been years of either feeling shame about my sexuality, getting into sexual situations I didn’t really want, or both.

But skepticism only gets you so far, and sometimes it can take you much too far–as soon as you start questioning people’s lived experiences and demanding to see proof, you should know you’ve wandered into hyperskepticism.

Besides that, it’s unreasonable to expect teens to seek out everything they need to know all about sex on their own. If I’m ever in charge of any teens, there are things I’d want them to know right off the bat. So, here–starting with the most obvious and then wandering into what’s probably less obvious–is what I would tell teenagers about sex.

Ask first. Consent is hot, assault is not.

Credit: The New School

1. Basic health and safety stuff.

How to use condoms, dental dams, and Plan B. How to obtain and use hormonal birth control. What IUDs are. How pregnancy works and what options you have if you become pregnant. What STIs are, how they are transmitted, and how to tell if you have one. What sorts of medical exams you need to get, and how often. How to find a gyno.

(This is where most non-abstinence-only sex ed seems to end.)

2. Sexual ethics.

A lot of things fit into this, starting with consent. Teens should know how to ask for consent and tell whether or not it has been given. They should also know how to communicate their own consent. They should understand that coercion is wrong; if someone doesn’t want to do something with you, stop asking. They should know how to discuss sexual and relational preferences, as well as STIs and other factors that affect sexual decision-making. They should know that cheating is wrong, but seeing multiple people with the consent of everyone involved is just fine.

3. Sexual harassment and assault.

As unpleasant and scary it will be for teens to hear about this, it’s something they need to understand. Sadly, there’s a good chance they do already, either from personal experience or hearing about it in the media. Teens should know what harassment and assault are, that it can be perpetrated by anyone of any gender upon anyone of any gender, that there’s nothing you can do to cause sexual assault except sexually assaulting someone, and what options and resources there are for someone who’s been assaulted. They should also know about the cultural factors (victim-blaming, alcohol, gender roles, etc.) that contribute to the prevalence of sexual assault and what they can do to help reduce them. They should know when and how to safely intervene if they think someone is about to violate someone’s else’s boundaries.

4. You don’t owe anyone sex or intimacy.

Even if you’ve had sex with them before. Even if you said you would. Even if they’re your significant other. Even if they’ll be sad if you don’t.

Relatedly, if you ever feel uncomfortable in a sexual situation, get out of it if you are able to, as quickly as possible. Even if the other person hasn’t “done anything” to make you uncomfortable. You don’t owe it to anyone to stay in a situation that you feel weird about.

4. Sexual/gender diversity.

I think it’s important for kids to know and understand the different ways in which humans experience gender and sexuality. Although it’s obviously impossible to be exhaustive with this, I would talk to young teens about being gay, lesbian, or bisexual; being trans*; being asexual; being intersex. Once they’re older, I would talk to them about kink and polyamory. Giving names to what might be their own desires will help them come to terms with their own experience and find like-minded people, but even if they turn out to be the most straight, cis, vanilla, monogamous people ever, it will help them accept others and support queer/otherwise nonconforming friends.

5. Masturbation.

It’s a great way to learn about your own sexual needs and preferences. It’s definitely not something you have to stop doing just because you’re hooking up with/seeing someone regularly. Masturbating doesn’t mean you’re “lonely” or “pathetic”; it just means you enjoy experiencing sexuality independently.

6. Finding more information.

I don’t think it’s the responsibility of parents or teachers to tell teens everything they will ever need to know about sex. They should know about some of the well-known and trusted resources that exist, such as Scarleteen, The Guide to Getting It On, and What You Really Really Want. They should also know how to tell whether a resource is trustworthy or not (really, that’s an essential skill for skeptical teens in general).

I would also remind teens that if they need help or have questions, there are adults they can ask. I’d be one of them, but there are certainly others. Don’t be discouraged if you ask an adult for help and they judge you or refuse to answer. Being an adult doesn’t automatically make someone right.

7. As long as you’re being ethical and safe, there’s no wrong way to be sexual.

Despite what others–even other adults–will tell you, it’s nobody’s business what you do with consenting partners. It’s also completely okay if you don’t want to do anything with anyone at all. There’s no “order” that sexual acts are supposed to progress in, and the bases analogy is crap. It’s also total crap that you have to be a certain way sexually just because of your gender. (Or race, or anything else, really.)

8. Related: sex serves different purposes for different people.

For some, it’s something you do to express love for a significant other. For others, it’s something fun to do with friends. Some don’t attach any “meaning” to sex at all. Sexual relationships tend to work best between people who are both looking for the same thing, so that’s something to consider when planning to get involved with someone.

9. Sexuality isn’t separate from society.

Sexuality is affected–and affects in turn–everything from media and pop culture to law and foreign policy. It’s also important for understanding systems like beauty standards, sexism, racism, and poverty. Although it wouldn’t necessarily be my job as a parent or teacher of teenagers to explain to them exactly how all of these things work (who even understands that in its entirety?!), I would hope to at least make them curious about it. I would want them to start thinking about how different types of people are viewed sexually, and how political institutions determine what is sexually permissible in a given society.

10. Porn and sex work.

Two complicated subjects that most adults would rather keep teens sheltered from, to be sure. But we all know that doesn’t work. I would want to talk to teens about the ways in which porn and sex work misrepresent sexuality, and the ways in which capitalism, sexism, and other systems have created a society in which porn and sex work can be deeply exploitative and dangerous. If you’re going to participate in either, it is your responsibility to make sure that you’re doing so as ethically as possible.

11. Virginity.

It doesn’t really exist. Really! I’d love to get teenagers to read Hanne Blank’s brilliant history of virginity, but since that’s probably impossible, I’d just tell them that what we call “virginity” has changed so much over the centuries that it really doesn’t even matter. Consequently, your “first time” doesn’t have to include candles and rose petals; it might be awesome or it might suck or it might be anything in between, and that doesn’t say anything about you as a person or your sexual future. If someone has a problem with you “being a virgin” or “not being a virgin,” the problem is with them, not you.

12. Question everything.

Question your desires: might they be influenced by the surrounding society?

Question what you see in the media about sex.

Question what your friends tell you.

Question what adults tell you.

Question what I’m telling you.

Question research studies.

Question laws and policies.

Question tropes about sexuality: that asking for consent “ruins the moment,” that you “need” alcohol to hook up, that sex is something “special” and “sacred,” that having casual sex means you don’t “respect yourself,” that only penis-in-vagina is “real sex,” that being a virgin makes you a “loser,” that saying “no” is always easy, that men can’t “control themselves,” that if someone’s nice to you and wants sex, you should give it to them.

Questioning everything doesn’t mean discarding everything. It means understanding that sexuality is subjective, that desires and attitudes are always influenced by external factors. Just because the way you want to be sexual was probably influenced by your culture doesn’t mean that it’s invalid or that you should try to change it, but it’s good to be aware of how malleable human sexuality is.

Some people would probably claim that teenagers are too young (their frontal lobes aren’t developed enough) for this type of thinking, but I strongly disagree. We sell teenagers short all the time. The fact that people don’t encounter this type of thinking until college (if they even go, and if they even encounter it there) doesn’t mean teens can’t do it. They just need to be encouraged to.

I also think that kids and teens can benefit greatly from being told things that they may not fully understand yet. It encourages them to view knowledge and learning as a process rather than an achievement, and reminds them not to get too cocky about what they know.

Sex is much too important a subject not to think critically about.

What would you tell teenagers about sex?

The Problem With “Teen Angst” and Why You Should Take Teens’ Mental Health Seriously

[Content note: depression and suicide]

There’s a disturbing and pervasive idea out there that the psychological troubles of teenagers are inconsequential and unworthy of attention because they’re just a part of “teen angst” or “growing up” or whatever.

I’m thinking about this now because last night I ran across this Facebook page. It’s called “No Respect For Suicidal Teens,” and please don’t click on it unless you’re prepared for the hateful victim-blaming that it promotes. (If you can, though, you should go and report it.)

First of all, it’s completely false that teens can’t “really” be depressed and suicidal. Although the age of onset for depression and bipolar disorder is most commonly in the late teens and 20s, many people report that their chronic mood disorder began when they were teens. (Count me among them.) Left untreated, mood disorders often get progressively worse, or they remit on their own but then keep recurring.

Painting all teenage mood problems in a single shade of “teen angst” can prevent teens with diagnosable mood disorders from seeking help, because they either second-guess themselves and conclude that what they’re experiencing is “normal” (read: healthy) or they try to get help but are rebuffed by well-meaning adults who tell them that this is just what adolescence is and that they’ll grow out of it.

And then, of course, they find that it doesn’t get better after adolescence, and sometimes they tragically conclude that they must simply not have “grown up” yet. (Again, count me among them.)

Second, mental issues do not need to have reached clinical levels to be unpleasant, troubling, and inconvenient. Any time you’re unhappy with some aspect of your emotions, moods, thoughts, or behaviors, that’s a good enough reason to seek help from a therapist. Seriously. Either the therapist will help you accept aspects of yourself that you’d been bothered by, or they will help you change those aspects. Whether or not those aspects have a fancy name in the DSM isn’t really relevant.

So a teenager whose emotional experience is characterized by “angst” can benefit from seeking help even if they don’t have a “Real Problem.” All problems are real; the fact that they can vary dramatically in scope and magnitude doesn’t make them any more or less so.

And what if every teenager needs help managing their mental health during adolescence? Doesn’t that mean we’re making mountains out of molehills and inventing problems where none exist?

Nope. Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every teenager (who can afford it) goes to a dentist and has their wisdom teeth checked and probably removed. Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every female-bodied teenager (who can afford it) starts seeing a gynecologist when they become sexually active. Nobody thinks it’s weird that people of all ages regularly get physicals and get their eyesight and hearing checked.

It is expected that everyone will need (and, hopefully, receive) treatment for some sort of physical ailment over the course of their lives. Yet the idea that even a sizable minority of people will need treatment for a mental problem still gets many people ranting about how we ought to just “snap out of it.”

Are some teenagers actually “over-dramatic” (whatever that even means)? Probably. But it’s hard to tell who’s being over-dramatic and who isn’t, which is why that’s a decision best left to a professional. I was constantly accused of being “over-dramatic” when I was a teenager. Not to put too fine a point on it, but everyone changed their minds very quickly once I became so depressed I could barely function and thought about suicide constantly. Perhaps that could’ve been prevented had I gotten help earlier rather than taking everyone’s analysis of my “over-dramatic” personality to heart.

If a teenager mentions or threatens suicide, take them seriously and help them get treatment. If they turn out to have been “over-dramatic,” a therapist can help them figure out why they threaten suicide hyperbolically and find a way to stop. That’s a therapist’s job, not a friend’s, teacher’s, or parent’s.

The belief that the thoughts and feelings of children and teenagers are not to be taken seriously is widespread and dangerous, and goes far beyond just mental health. It is far better to take someone seriously and get them help when they didn’t really need it than to ignore someone’s call for help and attention when they do need it.