Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“When Should I Tell Men About My Scars From Cutting?”

I’m 30 years old and I have been in psychotherapy and on medication for the past year to address depression. As part of my long history with depression, I have committed self-harm on places on my body that aren’t visible in everyday outfits. For example, I need to wear swimsuits with full short bottoms, instead of a bikini bottom. For someone to see the scars, I would essentially have to be in my underwear.

I have come clean to some of my friends about the depression, but I feel very uncomfortable talking about my self-harm and have not told anyone about that. I feel quite conflicted about this because I am interested in dating! I have not dated or had sex in years, so no man has seen my scars. This is the first time in ages that I’ve felt emotionally ready to be in a serious relationship, thanks largely to the therapy and medication. However, I am very nervous to talk about this one aspect, and I am unsure when to raise it. Is this something I discuss prior to being intimate with a man and before he sees me naked? Do I proactively raise it before that? Or do I just try to address it after having sex for the first time?

My fear is that I will “turn off” a man if I raise this too far in advance, since there is a stigma around depression and self-harm. Do you have suggestions on how to talk about my scars? Should I raise the subject before my date sees them, or address them after we’ve had sex? — Ready to Date

Congratulations on addressing your depression and getting the treatment you need to manage it and move forward with your life. It’s wonderful that you feel ready to date again and are thinking about how best to navigate that world, especially in regards to your history with depression. As for your cutting scars and when to mention them to new men, you’re going to have to go with your gut and what feels right. Maybe on a date the topic of your depression will come up organically and you can take the opportunity to mention your self-cutting and the scars then. (And when I say that this may come up organically on a date, I don’t mean on a first date. I’d wait at least two to three dates before discussing something like that, not because it’s anything to be ashamed of but because it’s too intimate for a first date when you’re simply gauging chemistry and getting to know some basics about each other).

If the topic doesn’t come up organically on its own, you could bring it up yourself if you’re vibing with a guy and think there’s potential that he’ll actually see your scars. Or, you could mention it after he’s seen them (but not during: mood-killer!). Or not at all (or not for a while)! Honestly, it’s all about is what’s comfortable for you and what feels right to you.

When I was 19 (I’m 38 now), I had a breast reduction that left some minor scars. Of course, since I was only 19 and still single, there were times when I had to consider the same question about when/whether to mention the scars. It was awkward early on, but, by the time I met my now-husband ten years later, it was such a non-issue for me that I can’t remember if I even thought about it. You may find that that’s the case for you.

My situation was a little different in that there wasn’t some stigma or even much of a story attached to my scars and I didn’t have to engage in a conversation further than explaining that I had elective surgery, then end. In your case, when you share the story of your scars, it potentially invites a deeper discussion about your mental health and everything around that. So, you do need to feel some comfort and trust with a guy… which is something people should hopefully feel before they get intimate with someone anyway. In that sense, the scars can be a dating tool. If you don’t feel comfortable discussing something as personal as your self-cutting, then maybe you aren’t ready to move the relationship forward yet.

I think that you’re going to find that, unless you’re a pretty bad judge of character, the men you choose to share that part of your personal history with are going to be accepting and supportive and honored that you trust them. And then you’ll move on and the scars will become an after-thought (if that).

***************

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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com.

34 comments… add one
  • avatar

    Seattleite August 17, 2015, 9:39 am

    Keep in mind that depression and self-harm may not be completely unfamiliar to the men you date. My son is in his 20s and had at least one friend in high school who was self-harming. He was compassionate and understanding toward her. Maybe there’s a stigma attached in your family of origin, but once you figure out which friends, male or female, you can open up to I believe you will find greater acceptance. Depression isn’t a character flaw. You have nothing to be ashamed of.

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  • avatar

    joanna August 17, 2015, 9:41 am

    Honestly, most guys are not overly critical of your body and probably won’t notice “imperfections” until you point it out. When you feel it’s time to mention them, you can point them out as “battle scars”. You’d be surprised to learn how not everyone’s body is in utterly perfect condition either.

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    • avatar

      joanna August 17, 2015, 10:36 am

      To clarify what I mean by battle scars, I mean your battle with depression. The one you are currently winning.

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  • avatar

    keyblade August 17, 2015, 9:49 am

    Great response. Lots of people are self-conscious during sex and leave the lights low or wear lingerie at first. Honestly, I doubt most guys would bring it up even if they did notice. If they asked what happened you could always just say it isn’t that interesting of a tale and you’ll tell him about it sometime when you’re ready. I think the biggest hurdle is just being okay with yourself and your history. Everybody I know has some kind of scarring somewhere. A lot of people have stretch lines or tattoos they regret. You just have to accept yourself, history and all. Anyone that is incapable of getting past a history of depression doesn’t sound very emotionally mature, anyway.

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  • bittergaymark

    bittergaymark August 17, 2015, 9:56 am

    What? Do you all think guys are THAT clueless? Of course they are going to notice them. And ask about them. So just be honest. But saying nothing — or being absurdly vague, “battlescars, etc…” and just hoping for the best is hilariously bad advice, you first few commenters…

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    • Diablo

      Diablo August 17, 2015, 10:30 am

      Oh, i think you must mean gay guys, Mark. We straight guys are notoriously oblivious. I dated a girl who had only one breast, and i didn’t notice for two months. Then one day…. “Hey! What the….?!” In my defense, the one she had was awesome, and very distracting.

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      • avatar

        Cleopatra Jones August 17, 2015, 11:29 am

        Lol.

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  • avatar

    Moe P August 17, 2015, 10:01 am

    I think that your history with depression is something that should come up relatively soon. I also think it is important to think about HOW you bring it up. Usually, if we are discussing hard time, I might say, “Anxiety is something I have struggled with for a long time, but I have learned good ways of making myself feel better.” As time goes on, you might mention the cutting, but what I wouldn’t do, is sit him down on the second date and say, “We need to talk about my life-long depression and how I cut myself and the shame about showing people my scars.” It can be scary to get back into dating! The trick is to take it one date at a time. I also think many guys would get a sense of what had happened even without telling them. I know I have.

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  • avatar

    keyblade August 17, 2015, 10:07 am

    Okay, I have a serious question for the commenters. Do you really comment on the flaws or weird birth marks, less sightly areas, etc.. of a new lover? How, when, and why would you bring it up?

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    • bittergaymark

      bittergaymark August 17, 2015, 10:19 am

      Look, I never remark on birthmarks, but if some one had a bunch of obviously self induced scars — yeah, that WOULD definitely merit a conversation.

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      • kare

        kare August 17, 2015, 1:10 pm

        Guys always comment on my birth mark on my thigh. I don’t even remember it’s there, but the first time I wear shorts, people will inevitably ask me about it. I have a variety of scars though that never seem to be noticed – small scars from surgery, a huge strip down my hand from a cooking mishap, scars from piercings, etc. Realistically with time and vitamin e, many scars fade and aren’t super noticeable to people.

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    • Lianne

      Lianne August 17, 2015, 10:28 am

      Yeah I am with Mark on this one. I don’t think someone would necessarily comment on the scars in the moment – they might! – but I do think this is part of who the LW is and her history. I mean, she wrote in to DW on advice about this topic and how to broach it. I think being intimate with someone includes talking about her mental health, and what goes with that – when she is ready. If it were me, and I was looking for a LTR, I would want this to be out in the open before getting physically intimate. Especially if the person I was going to do that with has any issues. I would want that out on the table beforehand.

      Of course, if we’re talking casual sex, that’s a different story. In that case, I would probably skip over it. But I don’t think that’s the question at hand.

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      • avatar

        keyblade August 17, 2015, 10:37 am

        I think you make some really good points. Maybe it depends on whether sex comes before assessing LTR potential or not. I agree if things are casual, I’m not sure why you would say anything.

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    • avatar

      keyblade August 17, 2015, 10:35 am

      Question for Mr. Bitter, would the conversation be more about having warnings about the scars so it doesn’t throw you off or more about disclosing a history of depression because it might be a potential complication or red flag for you?

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      • bittergaymark

        bittergaymark August 17, 2015, 11:02 am

        Honestly? I think anybody who has a history of “cutting” rather obviously has a history or depression — so it’s all one and the same. I simply don’t see how can have one without the other. Oh, you can have depression without “cutting” to be sure. But “cutting” without depression? I think not.

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      • avatar

        keyblade August 17, 2015, 11:21 am

        Sure. But would you want to know that there are cutting scars/ a history of depression before having sex because it might change your decision to have sex with the person? I guess I’m wondering what role sex plays here. If we weren’t talking about sex would you still want to know that someone was previously a cutter? It’s true that having sex might force you to know. So is wanting a conversation before hand more about having a preference on how you would like to find out about cutting or about making a decision not to get involved at all. Just curious.

        FWIW, Lianne won me over that its worth bringing up a history of depression with someone who might have LTP early on. Especially because the treatment is currently ongoing and it is a relevant issue in the present and future of the letter writer. I regret calling people who can’t deal with a history of depression as immature. I think a lot of people struggle with depression at some point in their lives and it is a bit naïve to think you will never have to deal with it in your partner just because it hasn’t happened, yet. But not everyone has the emotional reserve, empathy, or willingness to start a relationship with someone with a long history of it. I hope the letter writer won’t feel too discouraged by another persons incompatibility with her or over-personalize rejection based on it.

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      • bittergaymark

        bittergaymark August 17, 2015, 11:24 am

        If the scars are so noticeable that they will be noticed — yes.

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      • avatar

        keyblade August 17, 2015, 11:29 am

        I appreciate your honesty. Thank you for satiating my curiosity.

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      • avatar

        dinoceros August 17, 2015, 11:50 am

        Along those lines, it would matter to me how recently the self-harming happened. If these are scars from a long time ago, that’s one thing. If they are scars from a month ago, I’d be concerned about how ready that person was for a relationship at that time. I think it’s similar to substance use — I’m not going to encourage a person who has only been sober for a month to start a relationship with me.

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  • Diablo

    Diablo August 17, 2015, 10:26 am

    We’ve all got some damage, if we’re over the age of 15 or so. We’ve all been hurt, sometimes by ourselves. Getting to know another person is getting to know their scars and tender spots, both physically and emotionally. Most of the time that would be more metaphorical, but it is often literal, too. I am missing the tips of my middle and ring fingers on my right hand, from an industrial accident when I was 18. More obvious, you might think, but I have sometimes found out that friends did not notice until after they have known me for years. I wouldn’t be in any hurry to talk about it before you are comfortable. Even after you “share intimacy” for the first time, that doesn’t necessarily give someone a free pass to know all your damage. My wife still keeps a few things that she will not tell me about, and we have been together a long time. i don’t necessarily need to know. We have all gone through some things in this life. The little details make us all different and make us who we are. you don’t have to “explain away” anything about yourself. A compassionate friend will want to understand. anyone else can get lost.

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    • avatar

      keyblade August 17, 2015, 10:42 am

      I can’t remember explaining everything about my body to my husband early on, either. I do remember feeling really self-conscious and telling him I had areas of which I didn’t feel proud. But I was extremely thin at the time and had lost a lot of weight. He was patient with me and supportive and always made me feel good when I was with him. That was part of how I knew he was right for me.

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    • Lianne

      Lianne August 17, 2015, 10:58 am

      “Even after you “share intimacy” for the first time, that doesn’t necessarily give someone a free pass to know all your damage.”
      .
      I agree, but I do think the depression is something that will always be there, even if it’s just lurking in the wings. Mental health is an ongoing decision to be good. The LW is feeling good now – and that is so so amazing. I am sure it was a long, difficult road to get there! But anything could trigger that depression, or something else, again. And if she’s with a partner, this isn’t just something from her past. It’s apart of her, and anyone else who suffers from mental health issues. So while I think the spirit of your comparison is directionally valid, I do think it’s a little apples to oranges (of course, that’s without any knowledge of what your wife hasn’t shared with you).

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      • Diablo

        Diablo August 17, 2015, 11:47 am

        I don’t find it apples to oranges, but rather a continuum. I have never been diagnosed or treated for anything, but i live with the scars of psychological damage from my childhood. It is definitely germane to who I am and to anyone having a long-term relationship with me. It is also not anyone’s business until i tell them. About one person in three (over the whole lifetime) is affected by a mental health issue. Sure, if you have been recently suicidal, i think you should be fair to your partner and let them know that. Likewise, while i am happy for the LW to feel good right now, she must also decide if it is fair for her to offer herself for dating, and if she is in a good place to do that. As to what is not shared, let’s just say that many women in our world face traumatic experiences which they should not have to endure. M does not want to talk about the details of some of these, and i am fine with that.

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      • Lianne

        Lianne August 17, 2015, 12:00 pm

        Ok, I can see more what you are saying – and I agree completely that details do not need to be divulged to have a conversation about someone’s mental health. I am just of the opinion, when we are talking about potential long term partners, I think that’s something important to discuss. If depression, bipolar, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, etc. are apart of your life, that is important to talk about. The specifics of what that entails may also be important – particularly if there are triggers, etc. But I don’t think that means you need to tell all of the gory details. I just think this type of transparency is key to a healthy, long term relationship. I struggle with anxiety and it’s important that I am able to talk with my husband about it when it flares up. I dunno, maybe that’s not the case for everyone.
        .
        Again, if it’s just about sex, that’s a different story.

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  • avatar

    SasLinna August 17, 2015, 10:54 am

    It depends on how visible the scars are. I’d say if they’re clearly visible, mention them before getting naked with a guy – so you can relax and enjoy being intimate rather than being worried about his reaction, and also so that he’s mentally prepared. Personally, I would have no problem with scars but would prefer to know beforehand so I’m not surprised by seeing them.
    If it hasn’t come up in conversation at that point and you find yourself fooling around with a guy, I think it’s OK to “ruin the mood” and tell him about the scars. In my experience first-time sex often involves some conversations about bodies – what you like, what you don’t, what positions are comfortable etc, so it’s not that different to also bring up stuff like scars.

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  • avatar

    BG August 17, 2015, 11:07 am

    I actually have scars in similar areas from self harm (as well as some in more obvious places). I have not told people and I have told people. Usually other people are not in a hurry to have an in depth conversation about them. I can say “I used to cut myself. I haven’t done it for a while now.”

    People aren’t generally eager to dive into that topic more until they know you better. I have fully disclosed to close friends who have seen me in a bathing suit and to my husband. Once you say it the first time it starts getting easier.

    The people I have not mentioned it to who I casually slept with either didn’t ask (I’m sure they noticed, they just didn’t ask), or asked and I just put it off, “oh, they’re from a long time ago.” And change the subject.

    Good luck and have fun!

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  • avatar

    Catastranaut August 17, 2015, 11:21 am

    Thank you so much for writing in. It takes courage to talk about mental health because so many people hold stigma or inaccurate ideas about disorders, their symptoms and esp self mutilation. Good for you that you took time to work on yourself in therapy. I wish you the best in dating. Remember to establish your boundaries from the start and to continue doing daily self care!

    I have a history of self mutilation. I have cigarette burn scars and cutting scars on my thigh and arms. I agree with Wendy it depends on when you feel comfortable self disclosing. You’ll know when it feels right. Don’t rush to do it, make sure you feel safe with the person.

    I feel comfortable being transparent about my self mutilation, bipolar and PTSD. But I try to choose wisely who I disclose to and how much. That’s mostly bc I want to have good boundaries for myself and pace how intimate I get with lovers. Sometimes I offer that up while getting to know someone and sometimes I don’t. When i have sex most of the time people don’t ask about my scars. It is my body and I have no obligation to explain it to anyone. I’ve never had a lover be critical or judgemental about my self injury scars. At the least they kept it to themselves.

    I’m more likely to self disclose when I’m into someone romantically. But sometimes even with casual lovers I’ll briefly acknowledge my scars. When I talk about my history it’s for myself. I don’t want to carry shame or feel like I need to hide parts of me. I am proud of my journey to mental wellness and the pain and trauma were necessary for the evolution of my consciousness.

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  • avatar

    dinoceros August 17, 2015, 11:41 am

    I think in your case, since you are self-conscious, it might be good to mention when you feel that sex is going to happen soon. You don’t owe them the explanation, but I know that for some people, like myself, it would distract me thinking about what they might be thinking. Sometimes even the nicest people don’t do well with surprises, so if a person has time to prepare, they might be less likely to have an awkward response.

    I think it also depends on what sort of relationships you plan to be in. If you are looking for something more serious, then I imagine that you might be paying more attention to compatibility up until the point of sleeping together and may be sharing more about yourselves. So, in that case, I’d say that it might come up in the course of learning about each other. If you’re looking for something more casual, then it’ll be more of a personal decision about how much and how early you want to share.

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  • FireStar

    Firestar August 17, 2015, 8:40 pm

    Isn’t it true for all confidences? You tell when you’re comfortable? I’m pretty private So I can’t imagine telling a guy on a second date anything truly personal. Telling a partner sure. But a partner is a long way from a second date. If he asks after sex then address it but you don’t have to talk about your medical history. I don’t see anything wrong with dismissing it and saying “Long story” or ” I’ll tell you about it sometime”… when you want to talk about your depression and how you deal with it then do that. But don’t let sex make that decision for you. Sex doesn’t give someone the right to peak into your soul unless you want them to. You have scars. Lots of us do for various reasons. But it isn’t like you’re a conjoined twin and there is another person in the room or you have an illness that could affect someone you have sex with. Those things upfront. Your medical history that affect no one bit you is your business until you share it. Like everyone’s history. It just is. Nothing to be ashamed about. When a guy earns that level of intimacy then tell him then.

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  • avatar

    trixy minx August 17, 2015, 9:52 pm

    When people ask about my scars I shrug and just say it’s my past and leave it as that. No one has ever asked for more information.

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  • avatar

    Ems August 17, 2015, 10:20 pm

    I’m not totally sure how much helpful advice I can offer, but my husband has cutting scars on his arms (so, obvious when he wears a t-shirt) and I definitely would not have noticed if he hadn’t pointed them out. I think that people tend to come as they are and accept people, even if they don’t think they will be accepted. I feel like I could have put that better.

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  • avatar

    Jennylou August 18, 2015, 11:50 am

    My brother and I both have scars from cutting as teenagers; mine have largely faded, but are still noticeable. Like you, mine are only noticeable when I’m wearing a swimsuit or lingerie. I’ve never brought it up to new boyfriends. If they asked, I would just tell them I struggled with severe depression when I was younger, and that I recovered and have a healthy outlook now. That simple explanation has always been enough for them. My husband (we’ve been together going on 2 years now) has never commented on my scars.
    My brother’s scars are super obvious – he used to cut and burn his arms. He wears sleeveless shirts and totally owns his scars (I prefer to keep mine covered up) 🙂 I’m not sure if people ever ask him about them (I’ll have to ask him, I’m curious now!).
    Honestly, most guys you date might be a little curious, but they don’t need to know the nitty-gritty details; they really just want to know that you’re OK. So the level of disclosure is really up to you. You don’t owe it to anyone to bare your soul, especially before you’re ready for that level of emotional intimacy.
    Also, congratulations on your recovery!!

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  • avatar

    Becky August 19, 2015, 2:07 pm

    There is such a thing as too much disclosure too early on. First, wait until these men are your boyfriend before you have sex with them. Second, wait until these men are in love with you before you bring any of this up. The reason I counsel this is because a lot of budding relationships don’t make it past the one-month or three-month mark because people over-share on personal issues that really have no relevance to who they are today. I commend you for therapy and medication and for the progress you’ve made. However, you don’t need to worry about “laying it all on the line” at this stage. This cutting was a part of who you were. It formed who are you today. But you are not the same person you are now (that you were then). Spend time getting to know someone new and let them spend time getting to know the you that you are today. If you decide to share this, you will share it because you will a) be committed and b) be in love. If it is a real love and commitment, this will not scare them away. It will bring you closer together.

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    • avatar

      keyblade August 20, 2015, 8:00 am

      I think she should bring up her history with depression when it feels right. She isn’t currently struggling. She has been successfully seeking treatment. My guess is she has worked really hard on herself and probably has some wisdom to show for it. I think its something of which she should feel proud. I’m guessing there are a lot of people who would be attracted to someone with such self-insight who is willing to work for genuine happiness and health.

      It’s true that disclosing too much can scare off potential prospects. But I don’t think that should necessarily be a factor in determining when things feel right for her to talk about herself. It might not make sense to talk about heavy stuff on a second date but I don’t think she has to wait until she is in love and in a relationship before sharing this part of herself if she doesn’t want to wait. Personally, if I thought I was starting to develop really strong feelings for someone I would want them to know. If it was too much for them, I would want to move on rather than hook them into a relationship. I would feel more confident and safe being with someone who I knew could value and respect my past.

      I see the value in saving sex for someone you trust and love. I think its good advice. But lots of people experience some degree of physical intimacy before that point. For some, its a determining factor for if developing a relationship is right or not. I think what you described could work nicely, but I think there are other ways that could work nicely, too.

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