Dear '13 Reasons Why,' Tattoos and Self-Harm Aren't Interchangeable

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Sosie Bacon as Skye Miller in '13 Reasons Why'/ Netflix

There are many things that Season 1 of Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why did phenomenally well.  It was an unflinching look at the oft-dismissed hardships of being a teenager; it was an examination of the lack of assistance for young rape survivors; and it understood that, even when kids come from loving, supportive homes, they don't necessarily know where to go when they're in trouble. What made the show even more vital was that it was a major, unexpected conversation-starter among young people and parents alike.

Season 2 knows this, and, as a result, is far more heavy-handed about, well, everything. In addition to the sexual assault themes started in the first season, we now have heroin addiction, school shootings, a Brock Turner-esque court case, and self harm, courtesy of Clay's heavily tattooed love interest, Skye.

When it comes to the teenage personalities in the show, Skye represents the laziest caricature. She's not the only tattooed person in 13 Reasons Why, but she is the only one almost entirely defined by them. Her first appearance in the new season is literally at a tattoo shop, where her ability to handle pain is contrasted starkly with Clay, who passes out halfway through getting a semicolon tattooed on his wrist. It's a preamble to Skye's next appearance, in which Clay discovers she is still self-harming (a subject that was only briefly touched on in Season 1).

When it comes to Skye, 13 Reasons Why repeatedly draws a misleading and damaging parallel between body art and self-harm. Skye herself puts them in the same category, during an exchange with Clay that occurs after he is too emotionally distracted to perform sexually.  “Are you ashamed of me?" she asks. "It doesn’t have to do with the way that I look? Or that I have tattoos and piercings and cuts all over?” After Clay reassures her that he doesn't "care about that stuff," she gets out of bed, visibly upset and says, "You don't care." Here, her body modifications and cutting are one and the same -- a cry for help. She promptly goes home and hurts herself to such a degree that she winds up in hospital.

The end of Skye's story arc sees her inside a mental health facility, very much on the road to recovery, in a better mood and committed to healing. It's no coincidence that, in these scenes, her lip piercing has been removed and all of her tattoos are covered up. It's symbolic of the fact that she's no longer screwed up, angry, and hurting herself. Here, she expresses a desire to "hit the reset button," and covering her body art seems to be part of that.


Given how seriously the series takes itself in terms of getting real-life help to real-life kids who need it, 13 Reasons Why's commitment to drawing a parallel between tattoos and poor mental health doesn't just do a disservice to tattooed people, it encourages stereotypes about who is mostly likely to self-harm. It also doubles down on old-fashioned, conservative ideas about the kinds of women who get tattooed. ("Think of poor, frail Amy Winehouse, her emaciated limbs decorated," implores the Daily Mail.)

Big Tattoo Planet points out the difference between tattooing and self-harm in these handy lists:

• Pre-meditated and considered behaviour
• Results usually for purposeful display
• Primary attention gains
• Proud of results
• Result is key focus

• Reactive, compulsive behaviour
• Results not usually for display
• Secondary attention gains
• Not proud of results
• Process is key focus

In an article for Psychology Today, Tracy Alderman Ph.D. backs up those differentiations, writing that "overwhelmingly, self-injury is a distinct behavior, in definition, method and purpose, from tattooing and piercing… Self-injurers go to great lengths to cover and disguise their wounds and scars. Self-injurers are not proud of their new decorations."

That's not to say that self-harmers don't ever get tattooed. In a 2008 study, researchers found that, in a survey of tattooed people, "Twenty-seven percent of the participants admitted self-cutting during childhood," but "most people who partake in body modification clearly do not do it because they have any psychological problems."

In fact, tattooing is frequently employed by ex-self-harmers as a sign of closure and healing, as with the woman in the BBC video below. Her artist, Poppy Segger notes: “For a lot of people that I've tattooed, especially over scarring from them self-harming, they do have a whole new outlook after because that’s a part they can just put to bed now. Let it go.”

Another ex-cutter told Vice: "After years and years of hiding that part of your body, all of a sudden you're proud of it. I wanted to show people. It changed my life." Another interviewee said: "It is something that was a decision: Did I want to have my body on display as a harmed thing or did I want to display it with something I had chosen?"

2005 study conducted by the Wiley Library backs up the anecdotal evidence. In relation to patients with eating disorders, the conclusion was drawn that "piercing and tattooing seem to reflect more self‐care, and might protect some patients against more self‐harm."

Back in 13 Reasons Why-land, the idea that Skye would get a lot of tattoos in parallel with her self-harm, then cover them up as part of her recovery, is in direct contradiction to reality for the vast majority of real-life self-harmers. Portraying her character in this way is likely to strike fear in a lot of parents of alternative kids, while also encouraging assumptions among teens and young people about their tattooed peers. The fact that 13 Reasons Why just gave bullies extra ammunition to harass weird kids isn't just ironic, it's irresponsible.