I'm Not Sorry That You're "Annoyed" By My Semicolon Tattoo

POST UPDATE Feb. 25/16

Just an FYI for those who have called me fake, catty, and disrespectful because of the following blog post: Emma and I have talked, and there is no bad blood.

We both shared our own opinions on the semicolon tattoo, and there's a lot of things we have in common (like our passion for change), but also some things that we disagree on. And we both recognize THAT'S OKAY. You don't always have to get along or be "on that person's side" to respect that person and debate a topic. We both speak from our personal experiences, and were able to get this topic in front of a lot more eyes because of the "controversy", which at the end of the day is what's going to get people interested in taking action. I'm grateful for all those who supported my opinion, but I also want to say that Emma is a strong, outspoken, and thoughtful person and my rant was not intended to "personally attack" her, just as hers was not intended to "bash the mental health community". IT'S ALL GOOD PEOPLE.

Read On: 

Last weekend, the Wear Your Label team got semicolon tattoos in support of Project Semicolon, and as a fundraiser for CHIMO Helpline. The semicolon represents a story that could have ended, but didn't; you are the author, and the story is your life. It's a small reminder to anyone who's struggled with mental illness, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts that "your story isn't over". It's also a subtle symbol to the world that you support mental health awareness, and that you "get it". The concept has gained worldwide momentum in the mental health community over the past couple years. 

I remember being in first year university (2011) and stumbling upon the semicolon idea on tumblr. A couple years later, The Semicolon Project was one of our first collaborators at Wear Your Label (2014). So it's been a meaningful movement to me for a while, and for a number of reasons (like my own struggles with an eating disorder). 

This morning, while scrolling through Facebook in bed, I read this blog post entitled "The Problem with the Semicolon Tattoo". My friend Emma goes on to write her frustration with the mental health "trend", the disregard for rare physical health problems (like her own Crohn's disease), and finishes by stating the need for a shift in conversation. The last point is about the only thing I agree with in her entire article: there is a significant need for shift in conversation around mental health. The way Emma writes her article proves this. 

Here's why:

In her blog, My Beautiful Messy Life, Emma talks about the "origin" of the semicolon tattoo coming from the Crohn's and colitis community, and that the symbolism in the mental health community is, parallel to, "cultural appropriation". So, my ranting heart has exploded into an open letter to Emma below.

The semicolon tattoo came about in the Crohn’s and colitis community because well, many of us (literally) have semi-colons. These can be in the form of bowel resections, jpouches, or in my case, no colon at all. The semicolon was a neat symbol... But it’s only been getting noticed now that it’s been taken by the mental health community. Now MH awareness is great. But Crohn’s/colitis is so often swept under the rug. Basically our symbols have been appropriated by a more “desirable” group.
— My Beautiful Messy Life

Dear Emma,

To start, I'm sorry that you feel unrecognized, or improperly credited for the "origin" of the semicolon tattoo. But I'll be blunt, your comparison of this issue to cultural appropriation is otherworldly ridiculous. You said so yourself: "(Cultural) appropriation is when a symbol (a hairstyle, a piece of clothing, a type of music) is adopted by a group in which it did not originate.  This often happens where the adopter has little to no knowledge of said symbol’s original meaning or purpose." If we want to talk about origins, the semicolon symbol did not originate from the Crohn's community. Nor the mental health community. It's a goddamn punctuation mark. Whether interpreted literally as a semi-colon (like the Crohn's community has claimed) or symbolically for it's grammatical meaning, at the end of the day, it's original purpose is as a punctuation mark from our alphabet. The Crohn's community did not design the semicolon as a specific community symbol that has now been "taken" and misappropriated. It's been in the English language for hundreds of years, and along the way, different groups of people have used it differently and attached their own meanings to it. I'm not discrediting the meaning the Crohn's community has used the symbol for (I actually think it's pretty damn clever). But it's completely over the top to claim this instance as an example of cultural appropriation (especially without anything to show that this specific symbol actually was a trend in the Crohn's community before the mental health community...which is a whole other story, and quite frankly, doesn't matter.)

*deep breath*

Secondly, in what world is living with mental illness a "desirable" thing? I understand, mental health has gained a lot of traction in the media. It's increasingly being covered in mainstream outlets, with awareness campaigns and initiatives getting more and more attention. But not because we're a desirable bunch. It's because 1 in 5 people live with mental illness, and 5 in 5 have mental health. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people. Mental illness is the largest contributor to disabilities worldwide. So yeah, it's getting a lot of media coverage because a lot of people are affected.

And, I whole-heartedly agree that rare diseases (like Crohn's disease, which affects 1 in 150 Canadians) also need to have a voice at the table. Especially if they experience a large stigma. Awareness is critical for public perception to change.

But I don't think that the way to get that, is by publicly bashing another community for "stealing" a generic symbol of hope. Or by complaining that people care more about another (justifiably more relevant) issue than your own. 

It’s problematic how mental health has become something of a trending topic because health (of all kinds) is way more than that. I agree that mental health awareness is absolutely needed in society, and I’m not here to discredit anyone’s individual struggles, but it’s a fact that my conversations about health almost exclusively revolve around mental health.
— My Beautifully Messy Life

Really? Your conversations about health exclusively revolve around mental health? I'm sorry, what? Even as a recognized mental health advocate - somebody whose job is to speak about mental illness - my real-life, day-to-day health conversations rarely "revolve" around mental health. And the everyday conversations I do have about mental health, are typically behind a screen, where people feel safe and comfortable enough to actually divulge their struggles with me. Do you know why that is? Because stigma still exists. 

We (the media creators and consumers) are only focusing on the mental illness side. And yet, I can see why. Like Taylor Swift, mental health can be sexed up and glamorized for the masses.

It’s a little harder to do that with Crohn’s. And public perception is stacked against us. Crohn’s is never played up as an endearing character quirk on film or TV. In large part, people living with Crohn’s (and especially with ostomy bags) are seen as dirty, undesirable, or less than a person.
— My Beautifully Messy Life

Thank-you for bringing up the destructive role the media plays in all this. Because for every "endearing" TV character with anxiety, there's 100 "crazy ex-girlfriends" and serial killers deemed mentally ill. For every positive Buzzfeed article about mental health, there's thousands of people in everyday conversation using the words "anorexic" and "bipolar" as negative adjectives, instead of real disorders. I don't doubt this is also true with Crohn's disease - most minority groups are portrayed in a negative or stereotyped light on film. 

But the flip side is worse. The glamorization of mental illness is the absolute, most toxic thing about the stigma that surrounds the issue. When mental health is "sexed up and glamorized for the masses" it creates an unrealistic, romanticized version of life-threatening disorders. Those images become the stereotype engrained in our minds. And for those us struggling with mental illness, we're inadvertently told that if we don't match those stereotypes, our mental illness is somehow less justifiable. I wrote an entire blog post on it here

Okay, so, what

Bottom line is - the mental health community didn't "take" the semicolon from the Crohn's community as an act of appropriation. The Crohn's community doesn't "own" the semicolon symbol any more than the eating disorder community "owns" the purple ribbon (also attributed to Crohn's disease). It's a punctuation mark that's given hope to millions of people for different reasons, none of which should be discredited. I'm sorry that you feel "maddened and disheartened" by the media's coverage of mental health as of late, but I'm not sorry that mental health is a "trending topic". Because when the world's largest disabled group worldwide finally gets a small shimmer of hope, it shouldn't be something to complain about. I'm not sorry that you're annoyed by the semicolon project. And I'm not sorry that I got a semicolon tattoo as a reminder of the personal struggles I've overcome. I took action for something I believe in, something that's meaningful to me, and if you're so desperate to shift the conversation around your own personal passions, I'd suggest doing just that too. 

"Promote what you love instead of bashing what you hate"

- K

PS. See the post update at the top before commenting. :)

Kayley Reed2 Comments