OH SHE's sweet but a psycho...

Why the 'cute but psycho' image is damaging for women


By El Barnes 


Illustration by Freya Sprong

Girls have been labelled, and labelling themselves, ‘psycho’ since long before Ava Max’s ‘Sweet but Psycho’ charted at #1 in 17 countries in 2018.

Fast-fashion brands like Shein, Lasula, InTheStyle and Fashion Nova have long been selling pink cropped hoodies and t-shirts with the slogan ‘Cute but Psycho’ brazenly plastered across the front, reeking of misogyny and a lack of awareness. Even in the hip-hop sphere, Young M.A’s hit ‘OOOUUU’, heralded by Billboard and Rolling Stone as one of the 20 best songs of 2016, gave a slightly more subtle nod to the ‘trend’ with the lyrics ‘yeah I’m pretty but I’m loco’. At its worst it’s an ignorant declaration of ‘hurt me and I’ll hurt you back harder’, designed to ward off potential heartbreakers with usually the opposite effect. At best it feels like an ill-considered response to centuries of men deeming a person completely void of emotion the most superior kind, but is proudly labelling ourselves psycho really the best way to normalise having emotions?

The short answer, of course, is no.

The term psycho has come to describe anyone – or, rather, any woman – who displays any level of emotional irrationality (or at least what is perceived to be emotional irrationality by the individual using the word).

There’s been a small handful of times I’ve been called psycho by another woman but countless times by a man; usually someone I’m romantically involved with. Emotional instability is a key symptom of my condition so it’s never been a shock to have this characteristic pointed out to me, but I’ve been labelled as psycho just for crying during an argument. I’ve found that it’s a word used with the intent to cause distress: because men so often regard emotions as a weakness, being called essentially ‘too emotional’ warrants, in their eyes, an impassioned response. I definitely used to give people the reaction they were looking for when they called me psycho but as I grew older and more involved with the mental health care system and more self-aware, I realised that people who call me psycho don’t actually have a clue what they’re talking about.

‘Psycho’ is an abbreviation with two potential expansions: psychopathic and psychotic. Psychopathy is defined by the NHS as a severe form of antisocial personality disorder, the symptoms of which manifest themselves during childhood and include a disregard for authority – people who suffer with antisocial personality disorder usually have poor attendance at school – along with a lack of remorse and a disregard for others’ emotions. Sufferers have often been victims of childhood abuse. Psychosis is defined as a condition that alters the sufferer’s perception. It can be a symptom of another mental illness such as schizophrenia, and can also be triggered by a traumatic event, drug misuse or a brain tumour.

Symptoms include hallucinations, which involve seeing/hearing/feeling/smelling/tasting things that aren’t there, and delusions, which are strong beliefs that seem unsubstantiated to a healthy mind and often involve thoughts that others are conspiring to harm the sufferer. I can say with confidence that an allusion to either of these conditions is not what is intended when someone uses the word psycho.

I asked people on Instagram to tell me whether they interpreted it to mean/intended it to mean psychotic or psychopathic when being called/calling someone psycho. 

Psychopathic received a significant majority on both counts. Both polls received plenty of votes but nobody messaged me to tell me they believed it to be a stand-alone word with no expansion, which suggests that it is both taken and intended as a derogatory declaration of mental illness. It’s easy to brush off being called psycho, especially with some knowledge of the conditions the title pertains to, because the simple fact is that, in just about every instance, it’s just not true. It would be like calling Usain Bolt slow or Kylie Jenner poor. In terms of your intentions, it’s a waste of a sentence.

If you call somebody else psycho you aren’t suddenly raised up on a pedestal of cool, calm and collected superiority. All you’re really doing is demonstrating a desire to cause distress with absolutely no consideration of the implications of the terminology you’re using; ironically, you become a glittering example of your own irrationality. 

Illustration by Lauren Drinkwater 

Equally, though, if you label yourself psycho, you don’t suddenly morph into a shining beacon of everything a fuckboy/girl should avoid; it doesn’t make you fiery or scrappy or ‘complicated’ *rolls eyes*: your top says ‘I put the hot in psychotic’ but really you just put the twat in twat. All you’re doing is demonstrating a distinct lack of awareness. Something needs to be done about the way the word psycho is used and received: the inculcation fed to us by musicians and clothing lines that it’s a harmless and even desirable self-proclamation and the suggestion from our peers that it can be thrown around in the heat of an argument to denote emotionality are not productive; in fact they’re damaging. And the worst part is that they’re not even damaging to the people on the receiving end of the callous labelling.


Calling someone psycho demonstrates a complete disregard for actual mental conditions and trivialises very real suffering. Having a personality disorder is a distinctly isolating experience because symptoms are belief systems and thought/behaviour patterns that appear alien to anyone who doesn’t suffer. This is especially the case in sufferers of severe antisocial personality disorder as a symptom of the illness is a disregard for societal norms and structures. Equally, when symptoms of psychosis manifest themselves they demonstrate a severe detachment from reality and therefore often appear terrifying to those who don’t suffer. If you met someone with either of these conditions I guarantee you wouldn’t envy them. Neither is desirable and neither exists to be a platform for you to trample all over when your girlfriend berates you for being an arsehole.

Calling yourself psycho doesn’t make you edgy, just as calling someone else psycho doesn’t make you their rational superior.

Let’s stop using the word as a superficial threat and a harmfully archaic insult. It’s just not working.

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