Why images of domestic violence must go beyond bruises

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Woman wearing The Dress, with visible bruises and caption 'Why is it so hard to see black and blue?'It’s undeniably clever. Clever, and commendably quick. Salvation Army South Africa‘s advert featuring #TheDress will certainly help to raise awareness. But will it do anything to help people understand domestic abuse?

Domestic abuse is a complex problem, beset by damaging myths. But it is very real and frequently fatal. So frequently in fact that in the UK two women a week are killed by a current or former partner (source).

Faced with harrowing stories and pictures of women with injuries, the first question many people ask is ‘if it was so bad, why didn’t she just leave?’. But physical violence is almost always accompanied by a net of other controlling and abusive behaviours which may prevent someone from seeking help.¬†Social isolation, financial dependence, and low self-esteem wrought by psychological abuse can quickly transform a home into a cage.

For all these reasons, externally visible signs of violence are often concealed. This last point was addressed in another (arguably rather racist) image tweeted by Salvation Army South Africa a few hours later, but without any hint of WHY many women don’t seek help.

White woman applying make up, caption reads 'Because they cover it up with white and gold'

Shocking visual imagery might get people’s attention, but focusing exclusively on physical violence to make an impact masks the complexity of domestic abuse.

Salvation Army South Africa certainly aren’t alone in using this tactic.¬†It’s important for charities to tell the rest of the story, not least to encourage women experiencing other forms of abuse to come forward. The challenge for communicators is to raise awareness of the invisible wounds as well as the visible ones.


If you are experiencing domestic abuse in the UK, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline 0808 2000 247 Freephone, open 24 hours a day.

There is so much to say about this advert and the international response to it, this is just one angle. What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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