Why Are So Many Women Being Forced To Pay Their Abusers?

Collage by Danielle Moalem

This should stop

In April, singer and television personality Melanie “Mel B” Brown filed a restraining order against her husband Stephen Belafonte. The order claimed that during the course of their 10-year marriage, Belafonte physically abused her to the point of hospitalization, impregnated their nanny, recorded their sexual encounters without her knowledge, and then blackmailed her with the videos. Fast-forward a few months to July, and a California judge ordered Mel B to pay $40,000 a month in temporary spousal support and $140,000 for Belafonte’s attorney fees.

Although the judgment is likely temporary until the abuse case is settled, this isn’t the first time a high-profile woman has had to pay her abuser. Tina Turner famously gave up her studio, parts of her publishing companies, cars, and real estate, to her long-time abuser and husband, Ike Turner, in exchange for “her peace of mind.” Even among non-celebrities, it’s an issue. In 2012, a San Diego woman named Crystal Harris made headlines after she was ordered her to pay her husband alimony, after he had been convicted of sexually assaulting her.

Jeff Landers, a divorce attorney who specializes in representing women who are going through financially complex divorces, says:

It’s bad enough to be abused and humiliated. The ultimate insult is that now you have to pay your abuser alimony. There are instances in which the evidence is such that a judge may not require an abused, wealthier spouse, to pay alimony, but often it’s two separate issues. In the mind of the courts, the abuse has nothing to do with unwinding your marriage partnership financially.

Most of his clients are well-off, and about one-third of them have experienced some form of emotional or physical abuse. He adds that in a few states like North Carolina and Georgia, a judge will consider abuse and infidelity if the person who is supposed to receive alimony is the offender, but no-fault states like New York, California, Pennsylvania, and most others, do not usually consider abuse, infidelity, or any other offense when granting alimony unless the spouse has already been convicted of the offense.

Because judges have wide discretion in family law proceedings and the law varies by state, there is no catch-all legal advice to offer women protection, but Rachel E. Gottlieb, a senior vice president at UBS who specializes in financial planning during divorce, emphasizes that it is always best to get out of the relationship as soon as possible. “The shorter time you are married, the shorter amount of time he will be entitled to alimony, and you will stop contributing to marital assets sooner thus having less to divide; the other reality is that he can incur debt that you may be responsible for paying off as well.” And for women who are not the primary breadwinners, one of the ways they can better protect their financial well-being before and during marriage is just to simply be aware. Gottlieb suggests knowing where accounts are held, as well as understanding and staying involved in financial decisions and insurance policies.

Unfortunately, alimony is just one of the many the legal realities that fail abused women. According to the CDC, nearly half of the homicidal deaths of women under the age of 44 are at the hands of current or former male intimate partners. Women ages 20 to 24 are at the greatest risk of experiencing nonfatal intimate partner violence and are often unmarried to their abusers. Family members often don’t believe when victims confide in them about their charismatic abusers, and law enforcement and judges are frequently skeptical of abuse claims from women.

In Mel B’s case, she and her husband are also in a custody battle over their 5-year-old daughter, and according to Linda Seabrook, general counsel at Futures Without Violence, custody battles are the most common way the law works against abused women. “Custody determinations and visitation arrangements are often made without understanding the dynamics of domestic violence and its impact on the family, and without regard to the dangerousness of the abuser. Generally speaking, family court is often a punitive place for victims where things like 'friendly parent provisions' and shared parenting plans make it impossible for many victims to escape from the control of their abuser or reach a place of safety.”

Seabrook suggests that women reach out to organizations that specifically work with domestic violence victims. “When a victim is ready and can do so safely, talking with a trained advocate can provide her with options and help with planning to improve her safety. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is staffed by advocates who can talk through options and a victim’s situation and provide a referral to local resources for assistance.”

People who want to help domestic violence victims should visit a local shelter or domestic violence services program and ask how you can become more involved. Fundraising or organizing friends to donate clothing, toiletries, or make backpacks for kids staying at a shelter are other practical ways to help.

And for those interested in changing the laws to ensure that fewer women end up in situations like Mel B, Seabrook suggests going through legislative channels. “The best thing is to contact the local domestic violence organization or state coalition to find out what bills they are working on or tracking and ask how to amplify their efforts.”

National Organizations for Women In Abusive Relationships:

National Domestic Violence Hotline

1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

Battered Women’s Justice Project

(612) 824-8768

Futures Without Violence 

(415) 678-5500

Love Is Respect 


National Coalition Against Domestic Violence 

Phone: (202) 467-8714

National Network to End Domestic Violence 

(202) 543-5566

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds



Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.