Recently, on feministing, I was linked to an article from askmen.com called Ten Subtle Ways to Tell Her She’s Getting Fat. Aside from being horribly insulting and sexist (askmen.com is fairly notorious for this) I really felt this article crossed the line, straight into abusive territory.
An image from the article; this goes along with the suggestion that a man, “playfully grab her love handles” because “when you make contact with any unwanted flab: She recoils and feels embarrassment” and the man should “use this reaction to [his] advantage. ” Other gems from this article include leaving before and after pictures around for her to find, to remind her of how thin she was, and sabotaging her chair because “nothing says ‘better lose some weight’ like a broken chair“
While reading this article I was reminded of the popular novel, Twilight. In this series Bella, a pretty but clumsy teenage girl, falls in love with Edward, a vampire who is characterized little beyond his appearance which is described a comparison to the Greek god Adonis. Over the course of this series Edward manipulates Bella emotionally; he secretly breaks into her room and watches her sleep, removes her engine so she cannot visit a friend he is jealous of, bribes his sister to kidnap Bella for a weekend so she cannot visit that same friend, and so much more. Essentially, if Bella makes a decision Edward disagrees with she will not be able to see that decision through to its close.
The Twilight series depicts an emotionally abusive relationship, and yet this series is so popular with teenage girls and their parents alike that it has sold over seventeen-million copies and young girls everywhere are pining away for an Edward of their very own. Although many adults and teens alike may argue that there is no harm in the messages that Twilight, and other forms of media like it, perpetuates there are obvious dangers to enforcing this fantasy.
When characters like Edward are painted as the ‘ideal boyfriend’ girls develop a skewed view of love and relationships; they see controlling, manipulative actions, like taking the engine out of a girl’s car, as her boyfriend simply being protective. Young girls especially need to be taught that it is never okay for a boyfriend, who is supposed to be an equal, to make decisions for them in spite of their own wishes.
Relationship abuse is not always as obvious as people expect it to be. Sabotaging your girlfriend’s chair to make her feel compelled to lose weight, for instance, may seem acceptable to men like Thomas Foley but this is actually a form of emotional abuse. Think about it; the article is encouraging men to make their girlfriends feel bad about their weight, in an effort to coerce her into losing that weight… in the end its all about one thing: that man having control over his girlfriend’s weight.
Since most people are not trained to recognize the signs of abuse, often, abusive behaviors go unnoticed within relationships causing women and men to stay in unsafe situations. The following is a list of questions a person in a relationship can ask themselves to asses the healthiness of their connection, and ensure they are in a loving and supportive relationship because abuse simply should not be tolerated by an individual or by society as a whole.
- Does your partner encourage you to maintain other relationships? Isolation is a major part of abuse, and is often the first warning sign since isolating a person can make them more vulnerable to further abuse. Isolation isn’t always as extreme as “forbidding” a person to speak to their firends/family… it can often come in the form of guilt trips/criticisms of one’s friend and family which, over time, can convince a person to cut or significantly reduce contact with their support system over time.
- Are your decisions truly your own? Its one thing to take your partner’s feelings into account when making decisions, its another thing when you often find yourself worried about your partner’s reaction to your decisions – big or small.
- Do you call the shots in your daily life? Related to the above… does your partner feel the need to weigh in on what you wear/eat/do each day? Do you feel as if you have control over your own day-to-day decisions without having to fight for it?
- Is jealousy an issue in your relationship? Trust is as important, and often absent, part of many relationships. Its one thing for a partner to get jealous of someone else who is actively pursuing you or does pose a threat but, often in abusive relationships jealousy is used as an excuse for control. For instance, does your partner criticize your dress as attracting to much attention or try to restrict the places you can go or the people you can spend time with?
- Does your partner make you feel good about yourself? Humiliation is a highly effective method of control; people who’s self confidence is broken down on a regular basis are less likely to fight back against manipulation and control, they are more likely to accept physical and mental abuse as something they “deserve” or have done something to incite, due to a lower level of self-esteem. A truly non-abusive partner will only want to make you feel good about yourself, body and mind, they will not put you down.*
- Could you leave this relationship without fear that your partner would harm themselves/people you love/you? Remarks like, “I would die if you left me” may seem romantic but, within an abusive relationship, remarks like this can serve very well to control someone into staying in a relationship against their better judgment. Fear for the well being of those that we love is a major motivator and even if comments like this are made with the best intentions, they have an air of manipulation to it that is best avoided.
- Do you ever fear physical harm from your significant other? This one goes without saying. Anyone who threatens to hurt you, or actually hurts you for any reason is not a healthy partner to be with. Period. End of story. Someone who will physically harm you once, generally, will end up doing it again… regardless of what they say. The cycle of abuse is an excellent illustration of why people often stay in abusive relationsips; part of effective control is convincing the abused partner that the abuse will not happen again, every time.
This is, by no means, a comprehensive list of every potential sign of abuse; a list that comprehensive would be near impossible to make, since the number of actions that could become abusive in the right context is so expansive; nor do all of the items on this list have to be present in order to constitute abuse, if you feel uncomfortable even one factor is enough to justify abuse.
I heard a great example recently, in my Rape Crisis Advocacy Training, that illustrates this idea better than I ever could:
Imagine you are in a relationship with someone who, in an effort to be romantic, places a rose on the seat of your car every morning for you to find when you leave for work/school/ whatever. While this could simply be a sweet, romantic gesture it could also be abusive… how? It depends on your perceptions. For instance, how would that person react if your car wasn’t there one morning to put a rose in? If they would simply ask where you were, and accept that answer, then the action is not emotionally abuse. However, if they used that rose as a means of checking up on you and that gesture caused you to feel afraid of their reaction if your car was not there in the morning… suddenly that romantic gesture is tainted by the aspect of control.
In the end, it all comes down to control. If you are in a relationship that makes you feel bad about yourself, or as if you are not in control of your own life, pause for a second and consider how worthwhile that relationship is. Society often trains us, as seen above through the examples of Twilight and Ask Men, to take serious signs of abuse far too lightly and so, you may not have the support of all of your friends and family in the decision to leave an abuser… but you are not alone.
The National Domestic Violence Hot line 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) is available 24/7 to offer support and information to people who are trying to escape abusive relationships.
You may love your partner, and they may love you back – but that alone does not make a relationship healthy… sometimes its better to make the tough decision and walk away from someone you love, so that you can truly honor the love you have for yourself.
* This is not to say that criticism = abuse. Constructive criticism can represent honest concern; for instance, a partner who apporaches you and tells you he/she would like to help yu be healther, because they are worried about your wellness is not abusive. A partner who calls you fat, ugly, etc. or tries to pressure you into a lifestyle change that you don’t want… that is abusive.