- Domestic violence survivors are flipping the script on “picture-perfect” social media narratives.
- Some are using TikTok to dismantle the Instagrams they shared while in abusive relationships.
- “I was reminded of how intentionally I was trying to portray a life that wasn’t aligned with reality,” said one survivor.
In the 2017 photo, Jen Schwarz is smiling and softly touching her ex-boyfriend’s hand while they stand outdoors on a wooden bridge. At that point in their relationship, Schwarz was head-over-heels in love with him, posing during a trip they took together, happy to be in a safe relationship. They look like a happy couple.
In a TikTok video, present-day Schwarz tells the story of what happened a few days after that photo was taken, when her relationship became abusive.
“This is an interesting picture because it’s at the very end of the love-bombing phase,” she says to the camera while the photo is greenscreened behind her. Love-bombing is a manipulation tactic employed by domestic abusers and narcissists where the victim is bombed with over-the-top displays of affection. Many experts view love-bombing as a warning sign that a relationship will turn emotionally abusive.
“A couple days from when this picture was taken, we would spend the entire day in and out of hospitals and urgent care because he was trying to get painkillers,” Schwarz continues. “And he was driving the rental car that I paid for, in my name, and was so angry that he was punching the walls and punching the roof of the car and the steering wheel, and he’s getting his knuckles all bloody and cut up and he’s getting blood in the car.”
In a four–part series on TikTok, Schwarz goes through the Instagram photos she posted of her previous relationship, revealing horrifying stories of emotional and physical abuse behind the picture-perfect moments she curated while suffering abuse. “I wish I could go back and shake that girl and tell her to get out,” she says at the end of one of her stories.
Schwarz was inspired to make this series to raise awareness around domestic violence and how it doesn’t always look like the traditional image of the battered woman. Many domestic violence victims take great pains to create a social media presence that offers a perfect, anesthetized version of their relationship.
Destroying the idea of a ‘picture-perfect’ relationship
“Scrolling through old pictures of me and my ex, I was reminded of how intentionally I was trying to portray a life that wasn’t aligned with reality,” Schwarz told Insider. “It’s important to tell the stories behind these picture-perfect moments because it breaks down the stereotypes of what we are told domestic violence looks like.”
Schwarz has received thousands of comments from people who related to her content and were able to validate their own experiences after understanding that abuse is more than physical violence. “Sharing stories like these helps to pull back the curtain and help survivors feel validated and to heal,” Schwarz said.
For H.L., 21, another survivor who shared her experiences with her abusive ex in a similar format and preferred to keep herself anonymous, it’s all about raising awareness for people of her generation. “I wanted to reach my age group, and TikTok is the best way to do that,” she told Insider. “And whether it be somebody seeing this and recognizing some of the signs that they’re seeing in their relationship, or I’ve had a few women come forward and say, hey, I know this guy. He just was flirting with me, like two months ago.”
While Schwarz’s videos focused on telling stories behind specific Instagram moments, H.L.’s video showed Instagram moments followed by recordings of her ex being verbally abusive to her. The stark difference between how the relationship appeared to be and how it really was creates a powerful contrast.
“That’s how everybody else saw the relationship versus what goes on behind closed doors,” she said. “You can take pictures all day long. But as soon as you put that camera down, you never know what’s happening. There were at least four or five photos that I had in my camera roll where they were live photos, and you can see, as I’m taking it, he’s like forcing us to smile, and then I put it down. And as I’m putting it down, you can hear him start getting aggravated with me. I think it’s just really important to show that not everything is what it seems.”
Sharing the reality behind these images is part of the healing process for some survivors
Since the second-wave feminist movement in the 1970s, storytelling has been an essential part of raising awareness around gender-based violence. Survivors may have gathered around kitchen tables to share their experiences of domestic violence and connect with one another in solidarity, or spoke out about the violence they suffered at public events as a way of shifting victim-blaming depictions of rape and advocating for the criminalization of sexual violence.
Amy Hill is the director of the Silence Speaks program at StoryCenter, which helps survivors of gender-based violence share their stories. Hill says that storytelling — in person or on social media — can support healing, education, and advocacy for survivors. However, she warns that domestic violence survivors should be careful when uploading their content so as to not put themselves further at risk of retaliation from their abusers.
“This is an important challenge with using social media in this way: ensuring that survivors are not put at risk of further harm,” Hill said. “I would urge people who are interested in posting in this way to TikTok to carefully assess whether it’s safe for them to do so, especially if there is a current legal case related to their experience.”
It isn’t uncommon for women who speak out to suffer fatal consequences for simply speaking their truth on social media. Hill says there are ways for survivors to show images that convey the idea of what’s behind the shiny exterior, without showing their own faces or revealing their identities. Schwarz, for example, blocked out her ex’s face in the photos she showed in her videos.
When in doubt, survivors should look for resources online on how to share their story safely, like RAINN’s guide for social media consumption for survivors. Setting boundaries around what you share and where can go a long way in ensuring survivors’ safety.
For Schwarz and H.L., posting their experiences on TikTok helped them feel less alone and created a supportive community of survivors around them. While both of them have received cruel comments here and there, most of the commenters are receptive to their message that domestic violence doesn’t always look the same.
“We need to talk more openly about the reality, so people realize domestic violence does not discriminate and it’s likely happening around you or even to you without realizing,” Schwarz said. “Domestic violence will continue to be wildly prevalent until we can shift the conversation from the shadows to the light.”