September 12, 2014

#WhyIStayed, How the Vanity Fair #LiftTOUR is Helping, And How You Can Too

I had this one really bad date, once. Back before M and I got involved.

I'd been out with him once before, and we got into a petty argument about nothing after dinner... which he'd paid for.

I was, as I now understand, a pretty sheltered girl. I'd grown up in a liberal, progressive environment. While I knew sexism and misogyny existed, I'd never really been the subject of either.

He said something about me shutting up, because he'd paid for dinner. And I said something back. Something probably loaded with snark and that may or may not have implied that there was no way in Hell I was having sex with him that night, if ever. Even if I had invited him over to my place for a cup of tea.

And then he grabbed my hair and yanked me halfway across the room.

Like I said, I was sort of a sheltered girl. I was in shock. I was in total disbelief. Who did he think he was? A lifetime of wrestling with my sisters (who fought DIRTY) kicked in on instinct. I elbowed him in the stomach, punched him in the face, turned and kneed him in the crotch, kicked him in the knees and took off running. I locked myself in the bathroom and didn't leave until I was sure he was out of the apartment.

It wasn't until later that night that a song I'd learned back in middle school started running through my head ad nauseum. It was a self defense mantra somebody had put to music- in a cheery rhythm, the vocalist croons, "Eyes, knees, groin, throat!" to remind you where to hit your attacker to cause the most pain in the shortest period of time, so you can get away. Yes, it was a real song.

I was, in retrospect, ridiculously lucky. It was a second date. I wasn't involved with him. I could walk away.

Most women who discover they're dating abusers aren't so lucky.

Reading the #WhyIStayed feed on Twitter has been harrowing, but in many ways more uplifting than I could have imagined.

Here are women, spurred into a kind of action by the Ray Rice video, coming forward and talking honestly about domestic violence.

There are a few things you need to take away from #WhyIStayed.

The first is that women in abusive relationships aren't just victims of physical violence. They're victims of emotional manipulation as well. Most abusers threaten self harm, either explicitly or otherwise. Their victims feel guilty for not helping them.

The second is that leaving is often the most dangerous thing a woman in that situation can do. A woman is most likely to be murdered by a boyfriend or husband, and then most likely to be murdered if she's in the process of leaving.

We've normalized it. "If I can't have you, no one will!" We've practically romanticized it. And it's terrifying.

Many women, when they fight through the guilt and fear, face other challenges to leaving. They don't have control of their finances, which means they will run away from shelter and food into homelessness. Many have children, who they risk losing to the custody of their abuser.

These are real concerns.

When Janay Palmer says she doesn't want to press charges against her husband, this isn't just Stockholm Syndrome. This is self preservation.

She now has an abusive husband at home, without a job. Things are no doubt about to be much more dangerous for her. And while she may stay with a man who hits her, who abuses her in inexcusable and unforgivable ways, we cannot judge her. This is a man who has the money to post bail if she did press charges, who could kill her or take her kids. Those are real concerns she must negotiate as she decides how to extricate herself from a situation that she knows better than anyone else.

Leaving is hard, and yet, it is achievable. But only with help. With tremendous, collective help. It takes the help not just of a good friend and supportive neighbors, it takes a massive community to help women get on their feet and start a new life.

This week, I was fortunate to get an opportunity to attend a Vanity Fair event, to benefit Dress for Success. I was planning on going anyway- I was going to write all about breasts and taking care of them- after all my sex positive posts, it was a no-brainer for me to talk about body positivity and bra fittings. The fact that Vanity Fair was donating bras to Dress for Success was icing on the cake.

But then the Ray Rice video broke. I didn't watch it. I'm not going to watch it. And although it was on my mind, I didn't dwell on that one horrible turn a long-ago second date took. Instead, I started thinking about the day, six years ago, I spent volunteering at a Dress for Success showroom. I helped sort clothes. Anything too old, anything stained, anything that didn't look brand new and fashionable and professional went on to be donated elsewhere. The showroom gleamed. And everything inside was free.

I talked to one of the women helping us volunteers keep things organized. She told me she'd been in an abusive marriage for eight years, and it was seeing her children get hurt that made her leave. She told me about the homeless women who come in, the women fresh out of jail and living in shelters, who are treated with respect and dignity, as customers and not as charity cases.

That woman's voice was in my ear all week.

Dress for Success is part of the massive network out there to help women get out of abusive relationships. It's a non-profit that provides women with professional clothing to wear, not just on a job interview, but to work. To get them on their feet. More than clothes, Dress for Success provides career development tools as well.

And Vanity Fair is partnering with Dress for Success to donate brand new bras.

As often as people donate new and gently used clothing to organizations like Dress for Success, underwear is rarely part of the gift. And a properly fitting bra can do wonders not just to make you feel comfortable and supported, but to help you feel in control of your body, and your life.

I say this as somebody who has a nearly impossible time finding bras that fit. (Seriously, YOU try finding yourself a comfortable 34 or 36 J. Yeah, I said J. On top of being freakishly huge, they also grow out of my neck. That is not a joke. My chiropractor should be paying for my bra purchases, these boobs probably pay her mortgage.) Truly, a good bra is like magical armor.

The Vanity Fair LiftTOUR is going across the country through the end of October, fitting women for bras (for free), and giving them the opportunity to donate a brand new bra to a woman in need. When you donate a bra, you have a chance to write a note of encouragement, tie it to the bra with a ribbon, and be certain that whatever woman becomes its owner feels empowered and encouraged.

I'm honored to have had the chance to help Vanity Fair and Dress for Success reach out to women in need.

Join up with Vanity Fair and Dress for Success when the LiftTOUR comes near you. Help women in need become empowered and independent.

There's more you can do that reading an endless stream of #WhyIStayed tweets, feeling overwhelmed and helpless. You can partner with organizations working with women to put an end to their domestic violence.

Those two things I wanted you to take away from the stories of survivors- remember them. Remember that victims must choose the time to leave carefully, and that when the time comes they need mountains of help. They need villages upon villages.

You can be part of that.

Thank you.

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