Topshop under fire for 'glamorising self-harm'

In fashion: Lucie Davis (centre) responded to the design prompt ‘women and power’. © Topshop

A new line of fake tattoos hoped to empower women. Instead it has been branded ‘disgusting’, and ‘offensive’ to people suffering from mental health problems. What went wrong?

‘Living in the age of Photoshop and airbrushing tools, skin is always under pressure to be “perfect”,’ said a recent press release from Topshop. With that in mind, its new range of golden temporary tattoos would encourage people to ‘celebrate’ imperfections instead. Many of the transfers resembled spots and freckles. But one set was rather different: it came with eight metallic tattoos in the shape of scars.

‘Flaws worth fighting for,’ said the packaging.

Jewellery student Lucie Davis designed the tattoos for a competition and said she hoped they would encourage people to ‘question’ the notion of beauty. But scores of people condemned the designs for promoting the idea that self-harm is fashionable — particularly to an audience of young women.

Others argued that the tattoos were offensive to people whose struggle with depression had left them with the real thing. The writer Neha Shah suggested they implied that scars are an ‘aesthetic choice’ or a ‘superficial trend’, but that is far from true for those who had self-harmed in the past.

The desire to ‘brand’ the skin can be one of the motivations behind self-harm, and Shah reasoned that the tattoos could prove useful as a safe alternative. According to cognitive behavioural therapist Marie Taylor, too, they could help to rebuild the body confidence of people who had survived self-harm as part of their ‘recovery strategy’. But this is a niche market, and she added that it was ‘irresponsible’ to market them to a wider audience.

The number of girls under 18 admitted to hospital for self-harm last year was 5,950 — an increase of 93% over the last five years; the number for boys was 650. Lucie Russell from the charity YoungMinds said that the ‘pressures’ of online culture were contributing to the problem as ‘young people feel it never lets up’.

Topshop has since removed the scar tattoos from their website and apologised for any distress or offence caused.

Beauty or beast?

Topshop says it was not trying to hurt anyone, or to promote the idea that it is somehow fashionable for people to hurt themselves. Rather the opposite — the designer was trying to encourage people to love all of the things that make them different. After all, flawless skin is not the only way to be beautiful.

But scars are not the same thing as freckles, others point out. Those who have them should not feel ashamed of them, however they were caused. But nor are they a fashion trend, and the consequences of mental illness are not something to be aspired to. Self-harm is a serious and complex issue which affects one in twelve young people — and one with which, for that reason, brands like Topshop are not qualified to start meddling.

You Decide

  1. Would you consider buying these temporary tattoos?
  2. Can fashion change the way we think about society?


  1. Design your own piece of clothing or jewellery which challenges beauty standards.
  2. Create a pamphlet which explains a mental health issue and gives some basic advice.

Some People Say...

“The best fashion is always shocking.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m worried about self-harm.
It is a very worrying trend, and it can appear in several different forms: not just cutting, but even hitting yourself or biting your nails excessively. This can make it hard to spot, and difficult to explain. But it is important to talk to someone, for example a GP or school nurse if you feel unable to confide in family or friends. See the links under Become An Expert for help and advice.
Why do girls suffer more than boys?
There is much more pressure on girls to maintain a certain appearance, and also not to fail or even appear too ‘bossy’. The numerous conflicting messages aimed at girls can cause mental health problems to surface. That does not mean they do not affect boys too, and it can sometimes be harder for boys to show these emotions or ask for help.

Word Watch

The extent to which magazines and advertisements digitally alter images has been well documented. Bodies are made thinner, skin becomes smoother, even colours can be changed to make features like eyes brighter and more dramatic. A OnePoll survey in 2013 found that 15% of 18 to 24 year-olds did not realise the extent of airbrushing, and a third of 18 to 65 year-olds felt unconfident or ‘extremely unconfident’ about their body.
It is not the first time the clothing company has been criticised for its treatment of mental health. Last year it was forced to stop selling a bag which read ‘Stressed depressed but well dressed.’
Everyone can feel low sometimes, but if feelings of despair, anxiety and loneliness do not go away after long periods of time, there could be a more serious problem. Self-harm is just one potential symptom of depression, but others can include a lack of energy or appetite.
Statistics from the Health and Social Care Information Centre covering 2009-2014.
One in twelve
Statistics from the Mental Health Foundation.

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