Little Details12/11/08

Cutting edge

Dec. 11, 2008

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper


I didn’t notice the ambulance at first. Rhythmic flashing lights eventually lured me to my office window.

“It’s one of our students,” I thought. My stomach felt queasy.

Working at an alternative school for at-risk kids, I’ve witnessed youthful resilience in the face of trauma and loss. Many of the youth we serve come from homes lacking traditional family supports. Children who’ve been emotionally bruised and battered or physically abused have a harder time in traditional classrooms.

Kids whose caregivers have had their parental rights terminated for neglect or abandonment are left with a chasm of loneliness that may take a lifetime to restore. Such children are far more likely to experience psychological and learning challenges.

I’ve learned it’s not unusual for youthful survivors of abuse to lash out in anger as an expression of sadness. Desperate cries for help, manifested by a broken window or a fist punched through drywall, represent feeble attempts to numb emotional pain.

On this day, a teenage girl at our school, in a moment of privacy in the bathroom, cut herself. The depth of the cut and the constellation of emotions surrounding her act of self-mutilation required a trip to the emergency room for stitches and psychological bandaging.

A teacher, reflecting on the traumatic experience, expressed with sadness, “You could see the relief wash over her face — after she cut herself. The stress of the new school year was too much for her. It’s so sad.”

Self-injury is defined by Wikipedia as “deliberate injury inflicted by a person upon their own body without suicidal intent.” Self-injury may take the form of cutting or burning oneself with matches or cigarettes. Razors dug deeply into human flesh leave scars that may represent a true mental disorder linked to depression or other emotional duress.

Self-harm is not limited to youths from challenged circumstances. It affects boys and girls from across the spectrum, although girls are disproportionately represented. Girls with good grades, healthy friendships and supportive families may cut to ease the pain of unrealized aspirations of perfection. Young people with depressive tendencies may cut as a coping mechanism, realizing temporary relief from overwhelming waves of sadness. From a physiological perspective, the pain of cutting can release endorphins, triggering a release of opiate-like hormones that reduce the sense of pain. For some, it may be an intentional way to draw attention. For others, it’s a carefully guarded secret.

I share this story in light of the current controversy surrounding Burton Snowboards’ Primo line, which some interpret as glamorizing self-harm. Burton brings creative, quality jobs to Vermont. Burton is a generous corporate citizen, lending resources to myriad causes. The company funds programs that teach kids from less affluent circumstances the thrill of snowboarding. They support numerous environmental and women’s causes.

As a strong proponent of first amendment rights, I wanted to look for myself at the Primo board to assess the controversy. A delicate balance is required to protect freedom of expression while also promoting healthy societal values.

Graphics on the Primo boards read like distasteful comic strips with bloodied razors, hammers, nails and staplers used to disfigure the human hand.

Let’s walk through one of the Primo boards. The first image is of a hand, healthy and intact. The second image shows a pair of scissors cutting off a finger. The third image shows a finger being cut off from a pair of gloves. The fourth image is of the glove’s finger being stitched by hand onto the stub of the mutilated finger. The concluding image is of the hand with its new appendage fixed in place — Frankenstein-style — with thread dangling and what appears to be blood at the intersection of the stitches.

Knowing what I know about the power of images and the impact violent images can have on young people — from video games, movies, music, magazines and, yes, snowboards, I am troubled. Burton has done so much good in our community. I invite Burton to rethink their stance on this issue. Glamorizing self-mutilation — even in a tongue-in-cheek manner — sends the wrong message, even if it sells boards.


Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or