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I'm a student intending to stay in academia, and I'm reaching the stage where I've begun to TA classes. If all goes well I'll be teaching courses for the rest of my career, so I want to make sure I'm doing it right.

I have a series of scars across my arm that anyone with experience or awareness of the issue will immediately realize were self-inflicted. I have not added to them in enough months that they are old and a little faded, but they are still very visible. Personally, I've grown comfortable with leaving them exposed – a stare from a stranger now and again won't hurt me.

But in a classroom environment I'm uncertain – is it possible that the emotional vulnerability implied by the scars would compromise my relationship with my students as a teacher, that they might lose respect or trust in my competence? Should I perhaps cover them because they may bother students who have been affected by the issue?

I understand that a great deal of this is based on the individual: whether they're comfortable, the way they wish to present themselves to their students, how private they wish to be, and so forth. Setting this aside, is there simply a standard of appropriateness with respect to how much I should implicitly reveal? Obviously it would not be appropriate to launch into a ramble of my mental health history while holding office hours, but would the existence of the long story implied by my scars be something I should take measures to keep from my students? And are there guidelines that would generally apply to people in similar situations (for example, if a recovering addict had obvious needle marks)?

I should add that I'm a Canadian studying in the United States and that I have seen one instance of a graduate student in the same situation as I am – she did not choose to cover her scars.

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    is it possible that the emotional vulnerability implied by the scars would compromise my relationship with my students as a teacher, that they might lose respect or trust in my competence? – Yes; people may negatively judge you for far lesser things (not that you should let this alone influence your choices). There are a lot of sentences ending with question marks in your question, some of which are questions like this, which have a clear, plain and rather useless answer. To avoid answers rambling about such things, I suggest that revisit such sentences and leave only the relevant questions. – Wrzlprmft Jul 13 '15 at 19:12
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    My only concern is to ask whether displaying those scars could possibly psycologically related to the impulse which caused you to inflict them upon yourself. If there is, then I'm not surd that's good for you."Enough months" is not an encouraging phrase. Don't paint yourself into a corner. – keshlam Jul 13 '15 at 23:09
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    If you are concerned, I might look to the policy or expectation, if any, regarding visible tattoos. Scarrification and other body modifications might fall under the same purview. However, I'd be more inclined to treat them as medical or injury scars, which aren't usually expected to be hidden. – user30980 Jul 14 '15 at 4:36
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    I am protecting this question because it is on the network-wide hot questions list, which we know from experience makes it liable to get lots of answers from drive-by users who aren't necessarily familiar with academia. – ff524 Jul 14 '15 at 5:00
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    As a general American cultural thing - not just in academia - asking people about visible scars of any kind is rude. I would expect people not to bring it up at all, and if they do you would be perfectly entitled to say "I don't want to talk about it", "that's none of your business", or something even more blunt. – zwol Jul 14 '15 at 20:40
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You should do what you are comfortable with. If you want to keep them hidden, that is fine. If you want to sometimes wear clothes that reveal them, go ahead, assuming the clothes are otherwise appropriate. Your colleagues will probably not care, and if they do, they need to - and will - get over it.

I would caution that letting students know your history could be problematic, in that it could increase the likelihood that they come to you about personal issues. No matter how supportive you are, no one wants more students dropping by to talk about personal problems.

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    "You should do what you are comfortable with." - honestly, that's a pretty terrible advice for anything except the privacy of your home. I'm most comfortable with being in my boxers, do you think it's smart for me to go to work like that? "they need to, and will, get over it" - or they can bad mouth you and actually destroy your reputation and career. Being ignorant of office politics is not a virtue. – Davor Jul 14 '15 at 11:28
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    @Davor you are correct, if the question was about teaching in your boxers, I would not have answer "do what you want", although you missed the "otherwise appropriate". At research intensive universities, research is what matters and personal opinions carry little weight. It would be hard for a single colleague, or even a group of colleagues, to destroy your career over visible self mm harm scars, it is just not how academia works. – StrongBad Jul 14 '15 at 12:01
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    -1 for "No matter how supportive you are, no one wants more students dropping by to talk about personal problems." This is your personal opinion and should not be asserted as universal. – mweiss Jul 14 '15 at 20:14
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    "Complain about" ≠ "Talk about". And in any case you have 'met' one now. Personally I am honored when a student feels that they can trust me enough to look to me for support (even if all I can offer is a sympathetic ear) on a personal matter. – mweiss Jul 14 '15 at 21:29
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    "no one wants more students dropping by to talk about personal problems." - Not necessarily. Some of the very best mentors support students in personal aspects of life in their "home away from home," too. It's unusual, but special. – La-comadreja Jul 14 '15 at 23:51
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There's nothing unprofessional about dressing in a way which shows your scars, and it's unlikely that anyone, professor or student, will object to or think less of you for dressing in a way that shows them. (It's not impossible, because there are unreasonable people everywhere.) (In particular, most of the people who would see self-harm as evidence of emotional vulnerability won't recognize them anyway.)

On the plus side, some of your students will be struggling with self-harm themselves, and will really benefit from seeing someone like them to who has also been successful in academic life. As StrongBad says, that's a mixed thing for you, because some of them are going to come to you for emotional and practical support.

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    In particular, most of the people who would see self-harm as evidence of emotional vulnerability won't recognize them anyway. – I do not know about the situation in the US (which this question is about), but in Germany self-harm as described in the question received a considerable amount of media attention a few years ago. I myself, for example, know of it through media coverage only. – Wrzlprmft Jul 14 '15 at 7:17
  • It's not about showing scars, it's about how they got them. Your answer is answering the wrong question. – Davor Jul 14 '15 at 11:29
  • @Wrzlprmft: That's good to know. What I said is currently the case in the U.S., though it's easy to imagine that changing quickly if it gets media attention here. – Henry Jul 14 '15 at 12:19
  • Regarding the edit replacing "who's been successful" with "overcame the same problem", that's not what I mean here; I mean successful as in "was academically successful enough to go on to grad school and perhaps beyond". – Henry Jul 16 '15 at 16:00
  • @Jasper: Oh! I hadn't seen that reading. Good catch. – Henry Jul 16 '15 at 16:10
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Is it possible that the emotional vulnerability implied by the scars would compromise my relationship with my students as a teacher, that they might lose respect or trust in my competence?

Highly unlikely.

There's 2 categories of people:

  1. Those who know what those scars mean (fairly small percentage, IMHO) - who would be extremely unlikely to judge you negatively for cutting in your past; most (in my experience) would be former cutters, or their support persons; or people involved in mental health professionally.

  2. And those who don't know, who simply would have no reason to suspect you as a former cutter. It's not a very widely known situation with publicly recognizable signs, unlike intravenous drug use.

Should I perhaps cover them because they may bother students who have been affected by the issue?

Now, that's a valid concern. However, it's not nearly as black and white - a person who's been affected by cutting is just as liable to be reassured by knowing you share the experience - BOTH because they can relate to you and you to them; AND because the fact that someone who used to cut is now a teacher in academia is a positive and reassuring example for them that they have a future if they strive for it.


P.S. The only consideration I would have would actually NOT be specific to cutting, but has impact on whether seeing the scars is an issue at all. Specific considerations of professionalism may vary, but (especially if you are male), wearing short sleeves is probably NOT the best approach to dressing professionally IMHO. But I spent more time in business background than academia ones so I'm biased in my views on dress code :) For women, dress code standards are far more relaxed, but often also discourage lacking long sleeves.


As a side note - I don't think you asked it explicitly, but an implied side question seems to be "if I'm asked about the scars, what should I answer?"

My suggestion would be

  • If asked about scars in general, answer "long story" and don't elaborate. You're there to interact with people in professional capacity, not to swap war injury stories.

  • If someone explicitly asks whether they are from cutting, use your best judgement. Personally, I'd recommend saying "no" (since there's a stigma attached, and you don't know what the views of the asker are); but this really is your call.

    And frankly, if you don't want to be asked about whether the scars are from cutting, you're better off pre-empting that by wearing long sleeves and not displaying the scars at all. A slight restriction on your clothing options (endured by nearly 100% of people employed outside academia :) is surely worth avoiding a conversation you'd rather avoid (this is an issue of your personal emotional comfort, NOT professionalism, so it's not directly related to the meat of your question)

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    There's 2 categories of people: […] – See my comment on Henry’s answer. – Wrzlprmft Jul 14 '15 at 7:19
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    If asked about the scars, Sorry, I do not wish to talk about this topic is a perfectly acceptable answer. – Federico Poloni Jul 14 '15 at 19:08
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    The claim that expectations for professional attire are more relaxed for women is simply false. It's probably true, though, that they allow for greater variation within the bounds of professional attire (which perhaps is what you meant). But the boundaries are policed much more strictly than for men. – Tom Church Jul 15 '15 at 0:59
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    Regarding long sleeves: I can only speak authoritatively for the United States, but having lived and worked all over the country I have never been in an academic setting where short sleeves were considered less than professional for men. – Corvus Jul 15 '15 at 2:24
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    @tom no offense but if u don't know please don't contradict people. Every company I was in, short sleeved shirts were explicitly prohibited for men. Women wore short sleeved blouses and dresses all the time and there was no prohibition. Shorts were prohibited for men. Short skirts allowed for women though that's less relevant to topic at hand – DVK Jul 15 '15 at 11:33
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If you want to have an entire class of students asking you about (or wondering about, or thinking about instead of course material) your scars, go for it. This isn't a question about your right to express yourself, or having to worry about showing who you truly are without hiding it. I'm as PC as the next guy, it just looks like you're getting a lot of PC answers. There is a time and a place for showing "who you truly are" but I don't see this as being any different than getting a corporate job and hiding that tattoo on your arm or your ankle or any other place that wouldn't be covered by the corporate uniform. You are in academia, and you want to be judged by your knowledge and your experience. Making your scars visible to your students and colleagues will invariably change their opinion of you. As human beings we all make snap judgements about people, whether we like to admit it or not. I just hope that when people first meet you, they judge you based on your experience and your perceived character, not on a time in your life (theoretically in the past) when you were cutting yourself. While tattoos may not be frowned upon in Academia, the point is that it is a personal feature that you should not be ashamed of but still might not be something you want to show everyone

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    "I don't see this as being any different than getting a corporate job and hiding that tattoo" - Academia tends to be fairly tolerant of tattoos, long hair, etc – ff524 Jul 14 '15 at 4:58
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    The tattoo was an example of any personal thing that you should certainly not be ashamed of but at the same time should think twice about offering up to the public eye about you. the tattoo which is acceptable in academia but perhaps not in a corporate environment is tantamount to the cutting scars that are acceptable somewhere else but perhaps not in academia – chiliNUT Jul 14 '15 at 5:13
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    My point was that academic workplaces tend to be fairly tolerant when it comes to judging others based on appearance, personal idiosyncrasies, and other things that would likely be an issue in a "normal" workplace (not just the specific examples I gave). This answer doesn't sound to me like it reflects the academic culture I'm familiar with. Is this coming from your experience in the academic workplace? If so, perhaps you could clarify what academic field and what country, since that may be part of the cultural difference. – ff524 Jul 14 '15 at 5:26
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    @ff524 this reminds me of individual.utoronto.ca/somody/quiz.html the point bein that academics generally do not care about outward appearence. – StrongBad Jul 14 '15 at 9:54
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    @ff524 - I have to vehemently disagree with that. Academia is full of rigid old people. Compared to colledge, everywhere I've ever worked was much, much more relaxed. Unless you're customer facing, no one cares what you wear or anything similar. – Davor Jul 14 '15 at 11:32
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Is it possible that the emotional vulnerability implied by the scars would compromise my relationship with my students as a teacher, that they might lose respect or trust in my competence?

I'm sorry to say that yes it will compromise you relationships with many students. There will be those that understand but most will see you in a completely different way than you want them to. And once you've lost the confidence of your students you should start looking for a new job ASAP.

But students are the least of your worries. You are putting yourself at a HUGE risk with your employer, you colleagues, the parents of your students... the list is endless. While many people claim to have evolved in their thinking about mental illness, they really haven't.

Not to mention, your employer might not want something like that getting out about one of their employees. It puts them at risk as well of being accused of hiring someone who "is emotionally unstable" (even if you're not anymore).

Unless you really want to take on the challenge and responsibility of reforming the minds of the populous and get your face on CNN, you are really endangering your livelihood.

If you really feel as though you need to be open about this, you need to talk to your employer first since you are a representative of them. It's only fair. Especially if you didn't disclose this to them when you where hired/signed on to be TA.

FYI, I also have self-harm wounds and was a high school teacher for many years. I did have some students ask me about the scars (which are faded white now) and have come up with a story to cover for me. As long as I use that story in a confident way they will believe me.

Depending on how your scars healed you can use things like cat scratches, surgery scars, gardening accidents, etc. And you can have different explanations for different scars.

As for hiding the scars, that can be a hassle. Mine are on the inside of my forearm so unless I wear long sleeves all the time they're gonna be visible. I'm fine with that because I have my story ready to go.

Another option is to tattoo over them. That doesn't always work and could draw more attention to them but it could work if you find an awesome tattoo artist.

I know none of this is PC but it's the truth. Unless you want to and have the ability to be a crusader, don't take on that role.

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    I think your missing the absolute monumental gap between high school teaching and teaching at a university that has PhD students. While a slight over statement, the opinions of undergraduate students do not matter at an R1. – StrongBad Jul 14 '15 at 1:37
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    Thank you for the answer. The course I'm currently TAing is for incoming first-years and, in accord with the professor I've been dressing casual. The students, who are mostly seventeen and eighteen, have therefore definitely had ample opportunity to see my scars, and I have neither noticed a single stare nor been asked a single question on the matter. Honestly, this surprised me, but I'm glad for it. The reason I'm asking this question now is that I was wondering whether I had simply violated some unspoken rule. – user37152 Jul 14 '15 at 22:43
  • @StrongBad I can only say this: there is a gap. Yet, there are two sides of this gap. In some countries and/or with some people and/or at some universities/colleges (I'm speaking from own experience), things ain't as pretty as you describe. – vaxquis Jul 15 '15 at 5:02
  • @vaxquis but this undergraduate teaching at a US university with PhD students. If it was outside the US, or a US college, things would be different. – StrongBad Jul 15 '15 at 10:55
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    @user37152 - I have found that one overriding principle helps me (and others) live life with much higher quality once you learn it: people just don't care that much about you, as a rule. You're really just Not That Important to most people, which is a good thing :). Really, outside your direct social circle, very few people would bother analyzing a TA for minor details outside of glancing curiosity. – DVK Jul 16 '15 at 1:06
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You're fine. Anyone who knows what they are probably won't judge you. Everyone else won't know and probably won't bring it up, as is common with any kind of unusual physical characteristic.

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    "Everyone else won't know and probably won't bring it up" certainly, but internally, they will most likely be making a judgment about OP – chiliNUT Jul 14 '15 at 4:46

protected by ff524 Jul 14 '15 at 4:54

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