Summer body image and self-harm

Summer is typically a time for looser, more revealing clothing, but for someone who struggles with their body image — the way they think and feel about their appearance — summer may be a difficult time. For people who self-harm or who have scars from self-harm, it can be even more distressing.

Trigger warning: Contains detail about self-harm


Having a negative body image can affect people of any age, gender, race and religion. However, people living with scars from self-harm or who experience self-harm related behaviours may be even more concerned about their appearance in summer, when self-harm injuries may be more visible.

It’s difficult to estimate the number of people who self-harm since it’s often done in private and not always shared. However, data suggests that 1 in 6 young people will have self-harmed by the time they are 18.

  • Studies show self-harm is most common among young people aged 13 to 24 years old.
  • In the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, 1 in 4 young women (aged 16 to 24) said they had self-harmed, compared to 1 in 10 young men.
  • Self-harm does not always mean injury that leads to scars, but the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey found that the most common form of self-harm does lead to scarring.

Summer, scars, and self-harm

When you live with self-harm scars, summer can be particularly distressing for some of the following reasons.

  • Wearing summer clothing might mean your scars are more visible, especially if you’re used to covering them. This might make you more worried about what people might be thinking or what they might say, or you might be worried about how you will respond if asked about them.
  • The appearance of scars might change and become more noticeable because cause an overproduction of melanin in your skin which darkens scar tissue.
  • You might worry or feel ashamed of others noticing you wearing clothing with more coverage, and feel potentially anxious about how you might explain why you’re wearing clothes that are seemingly ‘unsuitable’ for the heat, when other people are wearing less clothing.
  • Covering your scars with clothing could cause you to feel overheated and increase your perspiration, which might make you feel embarrassed. You might experience symptoms related to anxiety from the increased levels of heat.

People can feel many different ways about their self-harm scars. Whatever way summer affects how you feel about your self-harm scars – your feelings are valid. Explaining to others about your scars is entirely your decision.

Should you cover or show your self-harm scars in summer?

Covering or showing your self-harm scars in summer is a personal choice and depends on where you are in your mental health healing journey. Maybe you’re not ready for the possible questions or stares from passersby. If you aren’t, then this is a personal choice. If anybody does ask, you also don’t have to answer them if you don’t want to talk about it. You might want to tell them that you don’t feel comfortable talking about it, or you can tell them the truth but express that you don’t want to discuss it any further. How much you share is your decision.

Some people may be comfortable showing their self-harm scars in summer and answering questions about them, but this is ultimately up to them. Should you decide to disclose self-harm, you may wish to ensure it is with a person you trust, who will respect your feelings.

"I’ve never liked to take my children swimming because I feel I am being judged."

– Darren

What should you do if you want  to cover your self-harm scars in summer?

If you aren’t comfortable wearing clothing that could reveal your self-harm scars, there are steps you can take to stay as cool as possible in summer:

  • Wear looser and lighter clothing that allows for some air circulation, such as long-sleeved tops with flowing sleeves.
  • Natural fabrics such as cotton, linen and silk are more breathable than most man-made fabrics.
  • Stay well-hydrated with cool water and reduce the intake of alcohol as this can dehydrate.
  • If you feel overheated, try running cold water on your wrists until you start to cool down.
  • Use fans or air conditioning when possible and stay out of direct sunlight.

How do you treat self-harm scars long-term?

You don’t have to ‘treat’ your scars and many people live with them acknowledging that they represented a certain time in their life for them. However, if you do wish to treat your injuries, there are some things you can do. While some scars may not completely fade, it’s possible to reduce skin discolouration and appearance using scar cream or oils, or partially concealing scars using make-up.

If you want to reduce the appearance of scars, speak to your GP about the potential treatments available. There are a range of noninvasive and surgical dermatological procedures that can help to reduce the appearance of scars, though some of them may not be available on the NHS. More information on the treatments for scarring is available on the NHS website. You can also find support on how to deal with self-harm urges and behaviours.

Darren’s story

We spoke to Darren, who told us about how his experience with chronic self-harm affects his body image, and the activities he feels comfortable with, during the summer months.

“From as early as 11 years old, I was already self-harming, usually hitting myself and then making excuses for having black eyes, etc. By the age of 16 I was cutting. I’m now 53 and still cutting. Because I am a chronic self-harmer, it’s very difficult in the summer months; I’ve never liked to take my children swimming because I feel I am being judged. Luckily, I have never been asked about my obvious scars; it would be pretty rude for people to do so. Early on, I used to say I dropped a piece of glass or made up some other excuse.

Some people who I’ve encountered on my journey use vitamin E cream and some people have gone as far as getting them tattooed over. In some cases, foundation can help hide the scars. I look at them as all the times I’ve survived, not something to be ashamed of.”

"What people who self-harm need to remember is that every scar is a time you have survived."

– Darren

Find out more information about self-harm.

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