my skin is not a safe space

What is fertile in a wound? - Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

I always know what first impression I'll make. I've long stopped taking care to cover my arms, and in summer or in stuffy Oxford rooms, my body is my clearest biography. On my left arm: a Sylvia Plath tattoo, a series of silver-white scars from six years ago. On my right: a mass of scar tissue, so many that the skin seems prematurely wrinkled; higher up, an impulsive stick and poke that reads fire walk with me, and newer scars, still red and violent. I watch the eyes of people I've just met flit from my face to those lines as we speak. The effect isn't always the same: some will treat it as confession, opening up to me and sharing deeply personal parts of their lives, or else seeking advice as if I'm qualified to give it. For some, I assume the role of damaged damsel in distress or fucked up manic pixie dream girl in need of saving. Others pity or condescend. But whatever the particulars, my skin always introduces me.

Seeing my skin recalls violence; you can't look at a scar without imagining the instrument that made it. This initial act of violence against the self is embedded in the skin to be replayed again and again; a memory made physical. An endless loop of wounding and woundedness.

My body is triggering. My body triggers just by existing.


How to care for the injured body, / the kind of body that can't hold / the content it is living? / And where is the safest place when that place must be someplace other than in the body? - Claudia Rankine, Citizen: an American Lyric


For years, I used trigger warnings on my selfies. I knew first hand how triggering it could be to see scars, especially ones which were bigger or more numerous than one's own. I'd relapsed a couple of times after viewing pictures of scars or being around friends with severe scarring. Trigger warnings were something I did without thinking, always wary of hurting someone else. 

When I developed PTSD, I started to think about triggers in more complicated ways. The thought of my body being a threat to another horrified me. I didn't want to trigger warn for my body; to be classified by my capacity to harm rather than by my continued existence in the face of harm.

Skin has such an important role in trauma. The barrier between you and the world. The physical boundary of the self. A boundary which, having been crossed, takes on additional importance. Through violation, skin becomes felt; experienced where before it existed unnoticed. In my trauma memories, details - faces, names - were cloudy, but his hands were crystal clear. I felt every touch like it was burned into my skin.

What, then, does it mean not only to carry violence in your skin as trauma, but to enact violence through your skin, just by being seen? How could any space be safe when my body was the site of so much unsafety?
The request that people with scars or eating disorders apply trigger warnings to our own bodies can feel like a mirror of what we hear everywhere else: that our bodies are shameful, disgusting, and should be hidden. Even in radical spaces, there is the inescapable idea that our bodies shouldn't be seen. For all attempts to avoid this truth, the notion of a "trigger" is value-laden - what is triggering is bad, upsetting, dangerous. To trigger is to hurt. Worse, there is the idea that by refusing to cover up or to apply trigger warnings, we are deliberately causing harm. Our body positivity is violent.

I want to suggest that living involves a dialogue of violences. Accidental violences, nervous violences, violences of absence (because a wound at its simplest level is the absence of tissue). To move through the world is to wound. For wounded people, this is sometimes even more the case. Our bodies, hypervigilant, make others feel ill at ease. Our speech may be sharp and guarded, faltering at the requirements of harmonious conversational exchange. Our visible wounds, where they exist, disturb and trigger. We send signals that our bodies are not sites of peace or safety.









This is, of course, bound up in a larger conversation about the capacity of traumatised people to traumatise others, perhaps to re-enact the abusive behaviours they endured or to harm others with uncontrollable trauma reactions. There's a line that says it's insulting to imply that survivors can harm others. But this would be to mistake violence for stopped motion, to see an act of violence dying at the body's boundary. It is more meaningful to see violence as living in the skin, kept alive in continual, ever-changing motion. This is the hardest thing about trauma. To carry the violence done to you and to know that you may pass it on, in some diminished or changed form, to someone else, maybe to someone you love.

But it's a truth that has to be lived with in all its complexity. It's possible to understand the pain of survivors whose greatest fear is to harm someone else while also understanding that this isn't a completely groundless worry. To extend empathy without insisting on dichotomies of innocence and evil, where only the latter is ever capable of inflicting harm. To understand that wounds are more than empty space: that they fester or heal, that new tissue grows, that they continue to live and to take on lives of their own.