#itscalledatanktop — a ‘wife beater’ is something else

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ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and much has been done to bring awareness to the disease so far. But this is also National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and more should be done to combat this insidious killer lurking in our society.

FAMILYConnections, a nonprofit organization based in East Orange serving families in Essex County, is taking a stand this month with a new initiative: #itscalledatanktop. This social media campaign is intended to bring public awareness to how deeply ingrained domestic violence has become in our society by focusing on sleeveless undershirts, still sometimes called “wife beaters.” The campaign is sponsored by the DREAMS of Essex program, which helps children and adults recover from domestic violence.

On Oct. 3, DREAMS of Essex began posting pictures of tank tops on social media with the hashtag “#itscalledatanktop” in an effort to stop people from calling this item of clothing a “wife beater.” And DREAMS is encouraging both men and women to get involved by posting pictures of white, ribbed tank tops decorated with words and images reflecting their own experiences or feelings related to domestic violence, marking the photos with the hashtag “#itscalledatanktop.”

Danielle Dinneen, manager of the DREAMS program, first came up with the social media initiative when, after seeing the item of clothing being called a “wife beater” on Instagram, she had a visceral, negative reaction to the word.

“Back around July, I was looking through Instagram and came across a picture of a friend’s 7-year-old son wearing a tank top. The caption to the picture said: ‘(Kid’s name) is so excited to be wearing a wife beater!’ My very first response was to want to post a reply saying ‘#itscalledatanktop’ … but didn’t,” Dinneen said via email earlier this week. “This person is a close friend who knows me and respects the work I do as a domestic violence counselor and program manager; she wrote it not to be offensive, but because she did not even realize what she was saying!”

And Dinneen realized that this was the problem. The term “wife beater” has become just another off-the-cuff term, with those who utter it giving it little thought.

“I didn’t post that response because #itscalledatanktop is not just a response to her as a single person, but a response to a society of people who do not realize what we are saying,” Dinneen continued, pointing to other common phrases such as “if looks could kill” and “love you to death.” “And we don’t say these things to be hurtful. We say them because they have become so ingrained in our language and culture that violence has become normalized.”

And the term “wife beater” indeed had a bloody start. The undershirt gained its name in 1947 when police in Detroit, Mich., arrested James Hartford Jr. for beating his wife to death. For months following the murder, the media rehashed the case, showing Hartford wearing a dirty white tank top; along with these stories, the media often referred to Hartford as “the wife beater.” From then on, the shirt became known as a “wife beater,” memorializing an appalling crime.
“In the U.S., one in four women aged 18 years old and older experience severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime,” FAMILYConnections Executive Director Jacques Hryhsko said in a press release. “Most people are unaware of the prevalence and severity of domestic violence throughout our country. And, they are unaware of what the term ‘wife beater’ truly means and the violence associated with it.”

On Sept. 10, 2014, the National Network to End Domestic Violence conducted a study in which it monitored domestic violence programs across the country on that one day. Nationally, out of the 1,916 participating programs, 67,646 domestic violence victims were served during just that day, with services ranging from refuge in emergency shelters, counseling, legal advocacy, hotline responses, and prevention and education training; on the other hand, on that same day, the organizations received 10,871 unmet requests for services. According to the report, the requests were unmet for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of reduced funding and the resultant reduced staff.

The same study showed that, on Sept. 10, 2014, the 21 participating New Jersey domestic violence programs served 1,109 victims and had 65 unmet requests for services.

And that was just one day.
According to a domestic violence statistical summary produced by the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, in 2014 there were 62,055 domestic violence offenses reported by police statewide. In Essex County, the number of assaults reported in 2014 was 3,472.

With such statistics, focusing on something like the use of the term “wife beater” may seem small, but Dinneen explains that domestic violence must be addressed across all dimensions — including everyday language.

“This is such an important message to get across because, as we continue to use this language, we are perpetuating the idea that this type of violence is ‘normal’ and ‘OK’ and ‘allowed,’” Dinneen said. “If I was a domestic violence counselor who continued to consciously use terms like ‘wife beater’ to describe a piece of clothing, it would be like an animal activist wearing a fur coat to an advocacy event, it would be an act that would defeat the purpose of the everyday work.

“That work at DREAMS is to give survivors and their children the opportunity to heal in a safe and supportive environment,” she continued. “Using terms that remind them of their trauma would not only be insensitive, it would be harmful to their healing process. FAMILYConnections clients are not the only individuals going through the healing process. Each person in this world is a survivor of something, and bringing awareness to the violent undertones in our language is a kind of advocacy that would benefit us, our children and the children that they raise.”

Since launching the initiative earlier this month, FAMILYConnections has been pleased to see an overwhelmingly positive and supportive response. According to Dinneen, the initiative has expanded far beyond just DREAMS, with the challenge being taken up by employees and clients in FAMILYConnections’ other programs as well, some of which work in family support and in youth services. Additionally, the Rachel Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending domestic violence has been participating and helping to raise awareness.

“Domestic violence is an issue shrouded in secrecy and shame, an issue that hides within the walls of the family,” Dinneen said. “Those who work with this population regularly have been very excited to have an opportunity to offer a voice of power to these survivors and allies.”

According to Dinneen however, for those who have not experienced domestic violence or who do not work with those who have experienced it, “when we are offered the opportunity to say something about violence and domestic violence, we just aren’t sure what to say.”

Nevertheless, the new initiative seems to be gaining momentum.
Just as the entire FAMILYConnections family has come together to remind everyone that “it’s called a tank top,” they also work to help the Essex County community through a number of social programs.

“In short, all FAMILYConnections’ programs can help those dealing with domestic violence,” Dinneen said. “At FAMILYConnections I work with some of the most trauma-informed, talented and caring clinicians and individuals.”

Dinneen explained that, due to funding requirements, DREAMS — “FAMILYConnections’ specified domestic violence program” — has several criteria that clients must meet to participate, such as having children who have been exposed to domestic violence, living in Essex County and not co-habitating with the abusive partner.

“DREAMS regularly receives calls from individuals who do not fill all of those requirements, so I automatically refer them to other programs at FAMILYConnections, including our Outpatient Mental Health Program, StrongMothers and StartStrong,” Dinneen said.

For more information on FAMILYConnections and its programs, call 973-675-3817 or visit www.familyconnectionsnj.org.

To become involved with this social media campaign, decorate a tank top and post it to social media — no faces in the photos, please — with the hashtag “#itscalledatanktop.”

So in addition to wearing pink this month for breast cancer awareness, wear purple for domestic violence awareness and make sure to know how to handle an abusive relationship or how to help someone else in an abusive relationship. Most importantly, remember that the words matter; FAMILYConnections asks residents to choose words that do not normalize domestic violence.

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