Artist statement

  This is a series of individualized portraits of girls who struggle with self harm. It focuses on the phenomena of cutting, girls who self mutilate as a form of coping with emotional struggle. I stumbled into this after working with several girls on unrelated photo projects; girls who I noticed were scarred from self injury. I began to wonder what could possibly makes someone tear and cut at their own skin. I decided that the most revealing answer would come from the subjects themselves. As a part of this project I asked each girl for writing that would provide insight into their reasons for self harm. I received poems, diary entries and letters from everyone who participated in the series. I chose to photograph each of the subjects with sensitivity and dignity, without sensationalizing their condition. I wanted a truly collaborative effort. Toward the end of making these photographs I realized that what this project was really about was love and understanding and the complexity of human struggle.


 Trigger Warning:

The following images and associated writing could be triggering to some individuals.


I am a cutter. I'm not sure how or why it ever started. Like any drug, you do it because someone somewhere discovered that it felt good, or that it helped, or whatever.

Knowing that I had the ability to not feel pain, that I wasn't a slave to discomfort or hurt, that I could slice into myself and bleed and bleed and feel no pain at all, that I could repress and rise above the human-ness of feeling pain. I was able to tolerate it, I could do it. It felt almost like a super power, like it somehow made me feel stronger. That I had like this secret power to be numb, to be super-human, and not succumb to weakness. 

mar 14, 2007:

i just want to get my life back.. the more i sit here and do nothing, the more suicide starts becoming a viable option again.

i want to starve.. wilt. instead of cutting the life fresh and healthy out of me, maybe it would be easier to die inside first and let the rest follow. hollow out my insides and the rest won't matter so much. i really am just looking for the easiest way out. that goes back to me being a pathetic excuse for a human being. i am more like an animal. my vision is shaking.

mar 15, 2007:

tonight i hit the bottle and cut my foot.. i even wrote a half-assed suicide note to a friend, but he won't be seeing it. i mean it's pretty obvious it was the booze that wrote the note, not me. i always intend on just having a bit of fun, and the drink carries me away to killyourselfville. it's obvious now i'm too much of a coward to cut enough anyway. it's like i cut through one vein and i bleed and bleed and bleed but it's never enough. i can never open it any farther and it's so much effort making another hole. i'm fucking useless, woo hoo! i used up all my gauze last month, so i stuffed a cotton ball in there and taped it over. not exactly the best thing to bandage with, ahhh dorm life.

i just want to sleep.. i want ambien.. lots and lots of ambien.. i'm going to drink the rest of the booze and see if that helps. it barely did earlier. i was so drunk but i just kept laying there dizzy. once i finally got to sleep i kept having the same dreams about math and shit. it's 7am. i can see the sunlight peeking through the trees already. i need to crash before the sun comes up or i never will.

mar 16, 2007:

i'm so lazy! why can't i get up and do something? anything! it's like fear dominates my life. and i keep making excuses to keep it there. because it's easier? i'm so USELESS! listen to me, "oh i'm too depressed to get better, get a job, get a life, i may as well just give up. and cut some more" what kind of a person.. a WOMAN.. acts like that? i want to occupy my time with something other than sitting around reading and cutting my body up.

today i realized i am by far the most fucked up person i know. sometimes there are people who are truly fucked in the head, like they really can't emotionally handle anything because of some severe trauma. i can't really say all that much bad has happened to me. i grew up not much different than anyone else. but for some reason i have just always been obsessed with death. tonight i painted a picture. i cut a small hole in my foot and blood didn't just gush this time. it literally sprayed out. 3 feet. a tiny little stream. it was a source of amusement and made me giggle for about an hour. i filled cups and plates. i threw it all away. except for the painting. it's drying. it smells terrible.

mar 24, 2007: 

so i've reached my lowest low. it started with me painting my nails and ended up with me huffing rubber cement and on the floor staring at the same comic book frame for 35 minutes.

april 26, 2007:

what do i do tonight when i sober up? what the fuck am i supposed to do then? face life with all these cuts on me? all these things that just never heal and show how weak i am, all the time? things that prevent me from getting certain jobs, wearing certain clothes, meeting and keeping certain friends? what am i really trying to do to myself? it seems like i am just trying to eliminate opportunities in my life one by one, until there aren't any left. so then i can really justify going through with killing myself. i mean, doesn't that make the most sense? isn't that how it always ends up? isn't that what i really want to do most in the end? there is just no solution to this... i can try all i want and try to find some perfect thing i should be doing with my life... but i think the harder i try, the further i get away from.. i don't know.. being okay. i just can't be okay..

-I don't want to be loved. I don't want to be anything. I feel ruined already. What's the point. Nothing's gonna change. I've been starving myself and cutting myself for too long, I don't know why I think I have a shot at getting any better. I can't be anyone else but this. Just because I don't remember how to be.

It’s so typical of you to do this all the time cause your mother died. Just go on with your life. Maybe they should tell you when you move on with your life that it’s going to suck. You’re not going to want to go on. Maybe it’s not worth the long haul. God doesn’t tell you about your drunk father or the best friends that will never understand you. God doesn’t tell you that nights are never going to darken and you’ll be up all night, crying, burning, seething, pounding, still living. God doesn’t mention the days that never lighten. Days you can’t stand to get out of bed at the risk you might have to relive it again. 

Journal Entry from 5-1-06

(After having decided to quit)

Goddamn it fuck shit bitch! I want to cut myself so bad! I want to slice and rip and tear and bleed just a little bit. To let out some of this shit – this dirt, this waste and grime and smut that sits inside of me. Mother fucker cock shit fuck. I’m pissed that I gave this up. I am fucking PISSED OFF!  And I’m fat. Being scarred is better than being fat. Goddamn it. Fuck.

Journal entry from 8-16-06

(After relapsing)

One of the most beautiful things, I think, is blood-tainted water running down your arm and trickling into a cloud of tinted puddles on the shower floor. And it pools and flows around your toes and finally drifts to the drain and slides down.

It’s beautiful.

I want the blood to run

Feel the throbbing emotional pressure release

I want to set it free with the glowing edge of a blade

Metal and red, shining in the dim lamp light

Breathe in the salty sweet smell of my demons

Disintegrating into tissues-

On white sheets of paper

There is no feeling more bittersweet than that tug and tear,

The flutters in the deepest part of my body

Rippling up to my brain-clenched like a fist,

Forcing my eyes to shut in rapture

Chest to heave in and out with bliss

The tension...gone

The poison...gone

A gorgeous, cathartic ecstasy with every

Hot bead of blood that slips down my leg

I never felt so beautiful

I never felt more alive


To a debut

Branching from my marrow

Wildly washing out to you

My dear

I doubt you get what I feel.

I doubt you sit through your classes shaking,
trying desperately not to scratch at your itching cuts.
Your mind is whirling and the only thing you can think about is your own demise.
I don't even want you to kill me,
I'd much rather do it myself.

I didn't make a new years resolution this year, only because I know that I cannot keep them. Anyone else would expect me to resolve to stop cutting. But I don't want to. If anything, I want to get crazier this year. And I want to start over.

I cut so bad today.

An hour ago actually.
And it meant nothing to me.
I wasn't even upset.
I just cut because I could.
Because I love it.
I sat on my floor with my music blasting,
and let myself bleed onto a towel.I don't even care anymore.

Not at all. 


I will never be the girl I want to be. I will never be the mysterious girl. I will never be perfect. I should just die.


I want to stab myself into little tiny pieces. I want to cut up my feet so I can't walk. I want to run my scalpels through my heart. I want to tear my eyes out and shred my tongue. I want to slice off my fingers and leave little bloody stumps. I want to ram my knives into my gut and chop up all the little bits of me into mush and pulverize my organs. I can't fucking take this right now. Maybe I can't take this ever. I fucking suck I messed everything the fuck up. My mom knows it. I fucking know it. ---- [name omitted] won't admit it but he knows it. I fucking hate this I hate that he will never forget this I am fucked I fucked us over god fucking damn it I want to slice my whole body into tiny tiny bits. I WANT TO FUCKING DIE!!! RAPE ME WITH KNIVES. RAM THEM INTO MY DEAD BODY'S DIRTY FUCKING CUNT AND HURT ME. HURT ME AFTER DEATH. HURT ME IN FUCKING LIFE AND RUIN MY CORPSE. Fuck me over. Fuck me dead. Dead and fucking gone. I hate me. You hate me. You have no reason not to trust or believe me but you do. I hate me. I fucking suck. Rape me rape me rape me punish me hurt me torture me kill me. Die die die die die die die die die die die die die die DIE!!! Die you stupid whore girl! Die you stupid mother fucking slut bag prostitute asshole bitch cunt dirty sleazy faggot lesbian pussy whipped fucking crack slut shitface cock sucking cum guzzling diseased burned bleeding scarred disgusting ugly fat dirty nasty commenting copying lying piece of dog shit monster girl. Die you DESSA! DDDDDDDDDDIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!! I HATE YOU!!! I HATE YOU!!!!!!!!! … I messed everything up and I hate myself for it. I hate myself. I hate my dirty fucking disgusting whore slut fat nasty sleazebag nasty awful wretched monster girl bitch floozy Dessa Dessa Dessa. Dessa fucking Fell deserves nothing. She deserves less than shit. She deserves to die. Put her out of her misery. I hate her. Make her gone.

The most inspiring times in my life were when I had no answer - when I went to a place that was wrong, terrifying, or foolish. When I self mutilated, I was alive again. There was an emptiness inside of me that I can’t quite explain, and all that I know is that remarkably, it was filled the more I bled. Every time I made a cut, I felt like the truth inside of me had been revealed. The emptiness grew less numb the more I continued to scar my body, covering it with light wounds that I prayed would heal before the musicals went up.

I started losing my friends, I was kicked out of shows, I was constantly missing class to go to counseling. I kept doing it though, not only through cuts and burns but through formulating dangerous eating habits and spending a lot of time alone in my room. I was eleven the first time I did it, following the habits of my mother, and I remember being alarmed at such an interesting sensation. Abused as a child, I had grown numb to being beaten, but the sensation was different. I felt an instinctive rush, and a ridiculous focus came afterward, one that eased my depression and allowed me to live. Sometimes I cut mindlessly, getting lost in the scenarios in my head, and occasionally pushed down deeper to give myself a thrill of anger or sadness or love. 


Why cant I see it?

Nothing is working right now. Nothing. The tears came out of nowhere. I tried going outside and I tried focusing on something else, but it’s not working because I want to focus on the lies. The lies seem so real. The old tapes don’t seem so old because they are so familiar. I like familiar. It’s something I know. Its comforting. I don’t want to feel ugly anymore. I feel so ugly. I would do ANYTHING to see something beautiful in the mirror. I would do anything to feel beautiful. If I was beautiful I wouldn’t feel like I have to compete with the world because it wouldn’t matter. If I was beautiful I wouldn’t have to try so hard to catch up with all these other beautiful women.
If I was beautiful I wouldn’t be doing this. THIS. Writing about THIS. The same old story over and over again. It gets old. Even for me. I always feel like I would eventually get use to being so ugly. That I would just embrace it and not care that Im so fucking ugly. BUT I CAN’T.
I want to know what it feels like to walk down the road and turn heads. I want to know what it feels like to feel beautiful when I look in the mirror. I want to know what it feels like to truly feel beautiful when someone compliments me. Instead, I feel like everyone lies to me. They lie because they feel bad for me. Because they see the same thing I do. My flaws.
I out on a skirt today hoping my bf would notice and I got nothing. Is he getting tired of me? Its because he knows my flaws…and he thinks they are as gross as I do. I just wanted him to notice. I wanted to feel beautiful. I wanted to feel sexy. Instead I feel just like I always do. Gross. I feel like he only touches me because he feels bad…but when are together I don’t feel like that at all. When we are together, when we FUCK, I feel sexy. I feel wanted. I feel at times…flawless.
I want to be okay with that.
I want to be okay with the fact that I’m covered in scars. I’m tired….of feeling like every day is a competition. I want to wake up and feel like everything is going to be okay. Instead…each day feels like I need to worry about how I look.
I obsess and obsess and obsess and it has gotten to the point where, some days…it’s all I know.

I fucking hate being me. I hate every scar. I hate the curves I wish I had. I hate who I am. I fucking hate being here. I HATE BREATHING most days. Why can’t I look like them? I just want to know what it feels like to walk down the street and feel beautiful. Why is that too much to ask for?

I want one day to feel beautiful. I’m sitting here wondering how I can get it. Just once. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to feel anymore.
I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO. It pisses me off. Looking in the mirror pisses me the fuck off. I’m trying so hard NOT to reach rock bottom….
I just want to be pretty.
It’s all I want. Its ALL I WANT. Fuck personality. Everyone likes my personality, but they fucking cheat because I don’t look good enough. I never will. No. They cheat because Im fucking crazy. Even I know that. If I just looked good enough maybe I wouldn’t be going through this. WHAT THE FUCK IS IT LIKE?
What is like to be beautiful? I just want to know what it’s like.

" i've been wondering how people would react if they saw my leg. probably not as strongly as if i tried to tell them the way it looks is exactly the way that i feel. but the scars on the inside are harder to recognize. i'm back in the pit i was climbing out of. i felt better. then one domino hits and i'm back, prying blood drops onto the bathtub. the sadness, the emptiness of what i feel inside can't be matched to how i feel outside. the numbness that i feel in my leg would have to stretch and reach through my entire body for me to feel that my outside matched my insides. i cut pretty deep today. there was the most blood there's ever been. but my foot is kind of numb and my leg feels heavy. i wonder what it feels like to bleed out. " ~ winter 2007

Remember how you hurt me? Remember when you lied? And you lied again? And again? Remember when you cheated on me? From day One? Remember how she was in your bed while I was breaking down? Remember when you called me a dirty, disgusting whore? A fucking slut? A cunt? Remember when you told me you’d kill yourself if I apologized one more time? Remember when you locked me out? Remember the night you left me on the ground in the parking lot? Remember when you left me alone to go visit her? Remember when you fucked her in front of me? Remember when you screamed at me? When spit came flying out of your mouth in rage? Remember when you told me ‘I don’t give a shit if you’re here or not’? Remember when you choked me? Remember when you hit me? Remember when you cut me? Remember when you made me abandon all my friends? Remember when you forbid me to talk to anyone before or after class? Remember how you punished me? Remember how you controlled me? Remember how you hated me? Remember how I took it? How I took it all?

Remember when I ended it?

Remember when I never let you speak to me again?

Remember when I got stronger?

Remember when I stood up?

I do. I remember it all.

And then I grew a backbone


For me, cutting is a release for emotions that are too overwhelming. The physical pain is nothing compared to the emotional pain.

I had kidney surgery when I was seven which left me with a large scar on my right side and a few smaller scars in my pelvic area. I came to identify with my scars. They set me apart from others as do the scars on my arms. They make the emotional pain real, tangible. They are a reminder of my pain. It saddens me when they fade. It is like a piece of me is disappearing. I feel if they disappear completely, so will I. They are proof of my emotions and existence.

-After pouring out everything I had, after dragging on the life that I had in me. I truly believe that I am finally empty.

All I do now is lie in bed, motionless. Leaving occasionally to get armfuls of food to binge on. And on a special occasion, I’ll get up, go sit by my heater to warm up, then cut.

How rewarding this life is.

We all have scars, wounds we’ve licked shut, deep cuts we’ve reopened again and again, the difference is just that mine are on the outside.

I look at my daughter, and pray to myself that maybe the pain I’ve felt in my life is somehow, some way a free pass for her. That maybe I’ve suffered my share so that she can live more easily. Maybe my scars will be like little sponges that soak up all her hurt and keep it away from her- maybe they will be like shields that will repel and deflect any suffering. That maybe I carry all of this pain, so that she won’t have to …

Maybe she will think that I am a mighty warrior, bearing my scars, won through battling a terrifying darkness, a darkness I fought long and hard, so that she would never have to see it. So that she would be safe.

What will she say, what will she think? Those questions haunt me, every day. I know the day will come when she asks me, and I will tell white lies for as long as I can, but a day will come she will realize exactly what they are. That I did it to myself- that I was once very unwell and that I used to be destructive and so fragile.

Will I still be her hero? Will I still be someone she looks up to? Will she be disgusted? Ashamed? Will she think I am a monster? A freak?? Will she lose respect for me? Will she be scared of me?

I want her to know my story- I want to be a role model, I want to be an example of success, I want her to learn from my mistakes- but also I want to learn from my mistakes. I cannot teach her or guide her to a healthy life if I don’t have one myself. I cannot show her how to love herself, if I don’t first love myself…

I touch her perfectly smooth, soft skin, I kiss her little hands- and part of my heart twists deep inside with fear that she would ever cause herself the harm I caused myself. I never want those beautiful little fingers to hold something so hideous a razor blade, I never want to see her flawless flesh, flesh of my flesh, be marred- my stomach turns to think of her ever feeling that kind of pain…

And my heart breaks for my mother and how seeing my scars must make her feel- I understand now-as parents there is nothing in this existence more important to us than the health and happiness of our children- and knowing now, feeling the love and awe when I 

kiss my daughter’s skin, when I see her smile and laugh- it would break my body in two to find that she ever felt such deep sadness and pain; to know she could ever use those hands to disfigure and mutilate her perfect little body—because that’s how we will always see our children; a teenager or young woman may stand before us, but in their eyes, we see a precious infant, a beautiful perfect child, that we feel such tremendous love for, into who all our hopes and dreams went. And when we hug them, nearly as tall as we are, our arms remember holding that tiny bundle, and this is how we will always remember our children; innocent, pure, perfect.

That is what my mother sees, and if I saw my daughter, and saw her pain carried out on the surface that way- I’d be brought to my knees with the devastation. Her pain is my pain, and I’ll carry it, so that she won’t have to. Always. 


Little white lines pucker up between

Peach skin, disgracing a part of me

That should have been sexy-

The delicate curve of the thigh gliding

And blending over the pelvis to form

That beautiful arch the would spread

Upward to become the hipbone-

But no, there in that fragile valley are rifts-

Thin and long, short and puffy,

All straight across, marring

The surface of my flesh-

I want it to be smooth again

Even and unhurt

To tingle at the soft touch of a finger,

Rather than cower

I want to undo the tiny rivers

And make gone their haunting wakes

I want to look down at my body

And see beauty, not destruction

All images copyright © William Pearce Cox No use without prior authorization
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