Finding Strength in the Little Jewish Girl I Once Was
Growing up, I was told Jews do not get tattoos because they would mutilate the bodies given to us by God. With that principle came the concept of taking care of our bodies—taking care of the flesh that guards us and enables us to live. Yet something shifted as I got older. Instead of caring for the flesh of my soul, I rejected it. I hurt it.
God told Abraham that his descendants would be “as numerous as the stars in the sky.” In a twist of fate, I, Sarah, namesake of Abraham’s wife, fashioned stars into my body—literal stars cut into my flesh.
Anxiety has always been an issue for me, but as I entered middle and then high school, the anxiety intensified. The only thoughts I heard were ones of hate and self-contempt until self-harm became my way out. For years, I would lightly scratch myself and press my fingers into my skin to calm my mind and center my thoughts.
But one day, amid the pressures of high school, something switched. Hurting myself was no longer only an outlet for my emotional pain, but an attempt to remake my body into something I deemed acceptable.
I saw myself as a vessel, not a person, a brain to be used by people who called themselves my friends, but really just needed help with school assignments. At the same time, the attention of the boy I liked was determined solely by what I was wearing each day—whether my cleavage was showing or if my pants were tight. I kept telling myself I needed to be smarter and prettier or else I’d be nothing.
I was drowning myself in self-contempt and insecurities. Things got worse my sophomore year of high school. I encountered antisemitic comments that others would shrug off with, “It’s just a joke, lighten up.” Misogynistic comments and “compliments” from boys made me feel like an empty body. The anxiety of everyday life became too much to bear, so I fought myself more and more, cutting into my flesh with scissors.
A year without cutting has now passed, but the self-doubt continues. I still scratch my skin when the anxiety takes hold. Even with the passage of time, I still do not understand why I hurt myself.
I tried therapy multiple times, but as much as I hoped for relief, it hasn’t yet helped me. The journey is long but there has been improvement. I can’t explain why I stopped cutting. Maybe it was being at a summer camp for three weeks where I had no opportunity to cut myself. Maybe it was finally opening up to friends and having their support. Maybe it was that my parents found out by accident after a doctor’s visit.
I may not have gotten a tattoo, but the stars I cut are just as permanent. These scars are the result of pain. But I cannot change the past, so instead, I look to it for strength.
I find my strength in Judaism and in remembering the little Jewish girl I once was: When I was 3, I loved each day of Jewish nursery school. When I was 8, I lit Sabbath candles at Hebrew school. When I was 13, I stood on the bimah as a bat mitzvah, holding in laughter as my family and friends tossed candies at me.
I still suffer; I still do not like the young woman I have become, but now, as a college student, I have taken a new approach to my mental health journey. Learning to love myself is a long process. Instead of hating my body, I do my best to feel neutral about it. If I go straight for a radical fix, I will fall short and turn against myself for even daring to try.
I’m not sure about the next step in my recovery, but the further I get from the experiences of my adolescence, and the longer I go without cutting, the more confident I feel in my ability to work through my pain.
I believe that someday I could be happy with myself—my body and my soul.
Sarah Jean, a freshman at the University of Florida from Long Island, N.Y., is the winner of the 2022 Hadassah Magazine and jGirls+ Magazine teen essay contest, which this year asked: Tell us a personal story about an issue that has affected your mental health. Her last name is being held for privacy. Find another teen essay on the subject here.