Rihanna Embraces Her Role as Poster Girl for Domestic Violence

She's embarrassed by the leaked photo of her bruised face but willing to speak out against abusers.

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Pop star Rihanna is finally speaking out about the domestic assault inflicted upon her in February by her boyfriend at the time, Chris Brown. She told Diane Sawyer in an interview that aired this morning on ABC's Good Morning America that the brutal beating—for which Brown pled guilty in June—was "a wake-up call for me. Big time." She added that it was "wrong" that she initially went back to Brown afterward the attack. (Watch the interview here.)

She also told Glamour magazine that the photo of her bruised and battered face that was purportedly leaked by police officers to the press was another way she was victimized. "That is not a photo you would show to anybody," Rihanna said. "I felt completely taken advantage of. I felt like people were making it into a fun topic on the Internet, and it's my life." I previously blogged about Rihanna's situation and the photo, expressing my outrage that journalists were saying that Rihanna now has an image problem, as if she were somehow responsible for the beating.

I also wondered at the time whether Rihanna had become, thanks to her celebrity, the unwilling poster girl for domestic violence. Now, though, it seems she has embraced the role thrust upon her. She said she recognizes that her attack and how she responded to it have a direct impact on her young female fans, some of whom are also in violent relationships. "You don't realize how much your decisions affect people you don't even know, like fans," she told Glamour. On Good Morning America, she gave advice: "I will say that to any young girl who is going through domestic violence, don't react off of love. Eff love. Come out of the situation, and look at it in the third person and for what it really is."

Can Rihanna be an effective spokesperson for educating women about domestic violence? Absolutely, says Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, who watched today's TV interview. "Where she can make the most impact is with young people, a group that we have difficulty reaching. I think what she said is very powerful and shows she really did a lot of internal processing about what this really means to her and what she can do to help young girls care more about themselves and to get the healthy relationship they deserve."

Rihanna also dealt deftly with the elephant in the room: why she initially went back to Brown after the beating. "It's pretty natural for that to be the first reaction . . . to go back and start lying to yourself," she told Sawyer. Her love for Brown certainly factored in. "I fell in love with that person . . . so far in love, so unconditional, that I went back." When Sawyer said abused women go back, on average, seven times before they leave, Rihanna corrected her, saying it was typically eight or nine times.

But after considering her young fans, Rihanna said, she had a change of heart: "When I realized that my selfish decision for love could result in some young girls getting killed, I couldn't be easy with that part. Even if Chris never hit me again, who's to say their boyfriend won't?"

Smith says love is a huge factor in sending women back to their abusers. "They think, 'I love him; we can work on it, and he's not always abusive; there are really good things that drew me to this person in the first place.'" She adds, "These women also think they can work with their partners to end the abuse by fixing something that's wrong in the relationship." Trouble is, she explains, the only culprit is the one inflicting the violence, and the abuser rarely takes responsibility and gets professional help.

Chris Brown did finally speak out in September after he was sentenced to community service for pleading guilty to one count of felony assault. He told People magazine: "I am ashamed of and sorry for what happened that night, and I wish I could relive that moment and change things, but I can't. I take full responsibility for my actions."

Smith says celebrities can send a strong message that domestic violence is wrong and shouldn't be tolerated in our society, adding that Rihanna has done something "phenomenal" in this regard, showing an "internal strength that every person has and the ability to make difficult choices to help her live a better life."

The National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233) is a great resource for victims of domestic violence. Read more on the chronic health problems women face even years after domestic abuse.