Friday, November 25, 2011

An open letter to H&M from a rape survivor

Dear H&M,

I used to like you.  I really did.  Even when your clothing started to lose its funky, vintage-store-treasure style and holes started appearing in the t-shirts I bought from you, I still thought you were mostly doing things right.  You had organic collections.  You supported good causes.  You sold cool hats.

But then came your Girl with the Dragon Tattoo collection.

I'd like to be clear: I loved the original film.  It's one of the only stories I've ever come across where the hero is female, and that female comes out smarter and stronger than the male hero, whose life she saves.  But it took me a long time to watch the film, and I had to fast forward through a few scenes.  Because, like Lisbeth Salander, I was raped.

And now, H&M, you have created a line of clothing based on her character: a woman who has suffered a lifetime of abuse, who is violently raped, and who is hunting down a man who violently rapes and kills other women.  Lisbeth has been through hell, and her clothing is her armor.  That's her choice, and it's an understandable choice.  But you glamorize it, putting a glossy, trendy finish on the face of sexual violence and the rage and fear it leaves behind.

I wonder if you've considered how a survivor of sexual violence chooses her or his fashion choices.  I wonder if your designers researched what we think about when we get dressed, how some of us will opt against a revealing outfit because we'd rather not deal with unwelcome advances or sexist slurs.  I am an ardent supporter of the Slutwalk movement.  I believe that what a woman wears should not have any bearing on whether or not she is sexually assaulted or harassed.  But many of us who have been there still decide against the short skirt.  We place our bets, hoping that our camouflage will protect us from a rude catcall in a subway station, and the subsequent anger, shaking, tears.  When I dress in the spirit Lisbeth Salander, it's because I want to send a message to men: to stay the fuck away.

Anna Norling, the Division Designer at H&M, says that she is “so proud” of this collection, because Lisbeth is the “very essence of an independent woman.”  Lisbeth Salander is independent woman whose mother was abused by her father, who was violently raped by a man in charge of her well being, who is harassed and bullied by men in public, and who is severely emotionally scarred.

 Stieg Larsson was inspired to write The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because he witnessed a girl getting gang raped when he was 15 years old.  I've heard it said that being raped is like getting a tattoo - it never goes away.  I hope your shoppers bear this in mind before they emulate Lisbeth Salander.


  1. Powerful. Thank you for sharing your courage and strength.

  2. A strong and insightful critique that I hope will travel widely!

  3. When I saw the images of Rooney Mara's Lisbeth I did wonder if the greater sexualization of the Lisbeth character in the American version is something that should concern me. I think you brought up a good point about how rape influences survivors clothing decisions e.g. potrarying a "stay away" image. I appreciate your ability to talk openly about this and agree with Chris--it takes courage.

  4. Hi Natalie,
    I'm really trying to understand your POV on this, but, as of right now, the sentiment seems way off base... Maybe you can convince me otherwise.

    The particular style of clothing is in no way unique to Lisbeth or rape survivors. My girlfriend and I have worn a similar style (monotone, distressed neck, worn, drop-pants, hoodies, etc) for years and neither of us are rape victims nor do we feel our choice of clothing says "stay the fuck away" - actually we're quite social, and pretty darn friendly. You write “her clothing is her armor. That's her choice, and it's an understandable choice. But you glamorize it, putting a glossy, trendy finish on the face of sexual violence and the rage and fear it leaves behind.” -- but really, it just looks like she shops at All Saints Spitalfields, and probably listens to dubstep. So, my point is that there isn’t a direct connection between the particular style and being a rape victim, and without that connection then how, pray tell, does the collection glamorize rape victims? Are they also glamorizing computer hacking?

    Sure, Norling could have could have been more careful to outline the specific characteristics that make Lisbeth the “very essence of an independent woman”, but lets think about this for a second… Is Lisbeth an independent woman? Yeah, she is (albeit, maybe not the essence). Does the fact that she was raped change that? No, it doesn’t.

    It just seems like a very assumptive, and personal perspective which I find a bit insulting to rape victims and non-rape victims alike.


  5. From the files of people-who-read-way-too-much-into-things...

    So, by your mindset, do kids on Halloween glamourize murder victims if they run around in a hockey mask? Or defy God by dressing up as devils?

    I understand, Natalie. Your blog, probably the highlight of your social life, isn't doing so hot, so you needed throw out a cry for attention. And hey, it worked, I'm contributing a comment. Whatever I can do to help. It's comforting to know we have people like you tackling the important issues, writing letters to a clothing company, instead of addressing the actual needs of rape victims in shelters, etc. Good for you.

    Well, gotta go. Nice chatting with you, but I've got to get up early in the morning and head over to H&M and make a few purchases. Then, next week, I plan on wearing one of the outfits to the screening of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

    Heh, one last thing...I'm a rape victim. Get over yourself, they're clothes.

  6. Response to the last post from "Anonymous":

    Hi Anonymous,

    For a rape victim talking to another rape victim, your post shows a sickening degree of contempt and meanness... I mean really. I would venture to say, you're almost hateful. You seem more upset by Natalie's attack on fashion than anything else... you say you want to help rape victims, so why don't you start by practicing kindness? For your own sake and for others in your life - you need to be in therapy, whoever you are.

    But for now, just buy the clothes and go to the movie!!:) Right on. Celebrate you anger, you have every right. Now who you're really angry at, I don't know. Maybe you don't either.

  7. Oh and show some guts, back up your rage with a NAME. Who are you?

  8. Hi John,

    Thanks for your comment. I certainly didn't mean to imply that this style of clothing is unique to Lisbeth or to rape survivors. What I meant is that in my interpretation of Lisbeth's case, and certainly in my own case, this clothing is meant as armour.

    I think that in the movie, there is a strong connection between Lisbeth's style and her being a survivor of abuse and rape, because she's a fictional character, and so we base our understanding of her, partially, on how she presents herself.

    Of course you could argue that Lisbeth could have dressed this way had she not had to deal with these things, and we will never know, as her creator is dead. But that's my interpretation of her character.
    I definitely did not intend to insult rape victims or non-rape victims.

  9. while i am not a rape victim, my mother is and as all females can attest, i am and have been subjected to some truly disgusting displays of sexual objectification, often on a daily basis. while it took some time - and a bout with anorexia/bulimia in an attempt to "dissolve" myself into looking like something i THOUGHT would be considered unattractive to men - i now know that being objectified has absolutely nothing to do with aesthetics.
    i personally am a fan of this trilogy of books, but i think it's petty to take offence with the mere creation of a clothing line. it would make a lot more sense to be taking issue with the roots of this; (dead) steig larsson for putting these gritty tales into print; or all the people who bought these books and made it an international best-selling series; and finally, to the movie industry/hollywood for taking this violent tale and blowing it up to for movie screen proportions.

  10. Thank you, Natalie, for your courageous article.

    I disagree with the commentors' who say that others are reading too much into H&M's new line.

    Would there be such a backlash against H&M if it wasn't called the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo line?

    I think it's all about economics. H&M are cashing in on the popularity of the films (both American & Swedish) and the book trilogy. It's all about money. That's it.

    H&M think their clothes will empower women? Crap. Their clothes will brand them.

    I am a rape survivor. I would NEVER wear this clothing - not because I don't like it - but because (due to the films & books popularity) it carries with it subtle undertones of glamorizing sexual violence.

    I suspect the only women (or men) who would wear this fashion line are those who have never been touched by sexual violence.

    Those who have been on the receiving end of it tend not to parade it.

  11. Absolute tosh - watch the film!

    More importantly watch the Swedish version.


  12. Hey Tony, maybe 'anonymous' doesn't want the world to know, eh? Maybe this is a personal matter? If you think she lacks empathy, you should turn that lantern upon yourself.

    And like she said, they're only clothes; and unless someone can quote the book to say the dress style was created as a reaction to the abuse, and that would be simple if it were in the text, associating the two is a stretch.

  13. What a load of fucking rubbish. How do these clothes glamourise rape. Stupid fucker.

  14. What I find astounding is that Natalie's letter was an Op Ed piece that came straight from a rape survivor. 'Op' stands for opinion. And this was ONE rape survivor's opinion. Last I checked we were all entitled to have one. As seen in the comments here, some of us may express them a little more mean spiritedly(and anonymously).

    Unless you are, in fact, Natalie I don't think you have a right to say that her opinion about this subject matter is not valid to HER. Because this was her perspective, in the end that seems to have resonated somewhere along the lines or it wouldn't have spread as quickly as it did.

    It was an open letter; one that wasn't expecting a response, and one that meant 'opening' up her story again.

    In the end this letter has started up a dialogue on an important issue, and everyone has something valid to contribute in the conversation. I'm just a firm believer of tact and humanity.

  15. Im sorry but I just dont get it... Its only a clothing range.

    Surely if you have an issue with the clothes (being named after the movie) then you have also sent an open letter to the movie mogul who has released the film? what about the actors, have you moaned at them too?
    Why single out H&M... surely they are not the only ones cashing in on a story about a rape victim... so was the author, Yeah he wrote because he had a story to tell but I bet he didn't give his book away for free, H&M are just the last in a long line of folks making money from the original story.

  16. This is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard. They're clothes!
    Whilst I understand that you were raped and it must have been awful and I do feel very sorry for you, I think this is beyond a joke. The point of the clothes is not to glamorize a difficult life- Lisbeth is a character who has female strengths. The clothes are there for girls who want to dress in that manner because they are pretty cool and symbolize women breaking out of this world where we are seen as small and pathetic. It has nothing to do with the fact that she was raped in the slightest. So stop bringing it up in everything, once again I understand it must be hard, but they're clothes.
    Get over yourself and stop attention seeking!

  17. Interesting.

    As has been said previously, it is not for anyone to say that you are wrong Natalie. Opinions are unique and it would be sad if this was not the case. I would be interested to know if you have read the book. From what I remember, there is no suggestion by Stieg Larsson that Lisbeth's fashion choices are a result of her rape. Her clothing is consistent throughout the book, with the rape occurring some way in, and if anything the suggestion is that her clothing is a result of her troubled childhood. However, in interviews before he died, Larsson stated that the inspiration for Lisbeth came from what he imagined Pippi Longstocking would have been like as an adult. Make of that what you will.

    As well as that, it's not as if this sort of clothing is new or unique. Not everyone who dresses in this style is looking to imply the "stay away" message you've suggested. In a time when fashion is more diverse than ever it would be peculiar to assume this just as it would be to assume that anyone that wears a tracksuit is involved with sport.

  18. Pathetic! Doesn't matter how a girl or guy is dressed. A rapist doesn't care - its all about power and them thinking they can do what they want! Nothing to do with clothes! Ridiculous Blog!

  19. This is a really interesting discussion. I wish some involved would be a little nicer- we can disagree without being nasty. One thing I love about Lisbeth Salander is that she doesn't give a shit what most people think, and to me that's what her clothes reflect. Larsson does mention that Blomkvist thought Salander dressed how she did to as a way to send a message to for others to stay the fuck away, but I'm not sure Salander herself ever indicated that. I think if Salander were real she would be amused that massive amounts of hipsters were trying to dress like her, but that's just my take. Another thing I love about Salander is that she never saw herself as a victim, and I don't think she would like being described as such.

  20. Thank you so much for commenting. I didn't know that Blomkvist thought that - wish I had! I agree that Salander didn't think of herself as a victim, though. That's why I try to use the word "survivor" as often as possible - to me this indicates a different mindset.
    Thanks for weighing in!

  21. I too am a rape survivor and take no offense to H & M selling based off of a character's dress stle in one of the most popular books of the year. While I appreciate your opinion and would never challenge your right to have it I disagree that H & M in any way is being disrespectful to victims of rape and I am upset by the way you focus on our clothing choices. Yes, some of us do change what we wear afterwards, many of us do not because we all know rape is about power and not about sex or clothing of the victim. When I was raped, I was wearing a tank top, sweatshirt, and loose jeans.
    I still wear shorter skirts and somewhat revealing tops because if someone, heaven forbid, attempts to attack me again I know it will have nothing to do with what I wear at the time. Yes there are girls, women, and men who hide their bodies afterward but there are many who do not as well. Lisbeth wore the same clothing before and after her attack in the book so I do not find that this line of clothing really has any relevance to sexual assaults other than it is fashioned after someone who was (which when you think about it is actually very empowering to the rape community.)
    H & M's new Tattoo clothing line is very similar to many clothing styles that are already being sold by the Gap, New York and Company, and many of their other competitors, H&M is merely naming their line after a very popular book and movie.

  22. Thanks for your comments, Mae. I really appreciate what you said. I definitely did not intend that rape survivors all do, or that they should, change the way they dress. I was merely sharing my own experience and what I know to be the experience of many.

    My point is that this, even though Lisbeth wore the same thing before and after, this is a film that is largely focused on sexual assault and abuse.

    Thank you again, and I'm so sorry to hear that you've been affected by rape as well.

  23. I don't understand your view on this. Yes, Lisbeth is a victim, but she refuses to stay a victim. She is a strong and independent woman that deserves admiration. Immitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I love the Lisbeth character and would love to be more like her. Some of us aren't that strong or independent and perhaps the only way we can really be like Lisbeth is by dressing like her.

  24. Thank you for sharing this. My point was to think about why you want to dress like Lisbeth. It sounds like this is something you're doing. If you identify with Lisbeth, chances are there's a reason for that - and for that, I'm sorry. If her strength is something you want to draw from, I encourage that. My only fear was that people would not think about what she had to go through to acquire that strength - i.e. why it is she dresses the way she does.
    Again, thank you for opening up to the conversation.

  25. I think fashion lines will inevitably glamorize atrocities. I think this has been happening for years. Refugee inspired clothing sell. Clothing that looks astonishingly like uniforms worn in nazi Germany sells. It is common at the small liberal arts school I attend, for more privileged students to purchase clothing inspired by homeless youth. It is a certain type of re-appropriation that, perhaps sadly, is remarkably common. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, I am not the least bit surprised by such a collection. I think it is a fantastic nod to the character. I think that the assumption that such a fashion line cheapens the experiences of a fictional character (in that a certain population of Americans will purchase the items) is a nit absurd. I'd like to suggest that Salander's clothing has much less to do with her trauma history than we might imagine. When I get dressed in the morning, I want to feel safe and comfortable. Occasionally, I'd like to look fashionable. I don't look like Lisbeth Salander in the least and while I most likely won't be buying any items from the collection, I surely wouldn't mind a Lisbeth inspired leather jacket. These clothes do not glamorize violence any more than the clothing that you or i wear on an everyday basis. If someone put together an outfit based on the one you wore last Tuesday, it would most likely have nothing to do with your experience related to sexual trauma. I think your frustration may have very little to do with the clothing line.

  26. Also, I'd like to add that I respect your POV. I feel my last comment may have dismissed my sincere appreciation for what you've written. I rarely leave blog comments and only found yours after it occurred to me that perhaps someone had created a Lisbeth inspired line. Your thoughts are engaging and in many ways I desired to share your sentiment but found myself thinking wait, what is so wrong with wanting to look like the strong women we are? No matter the clothing line.

  27. I find this article near offensive. Calling her choice of fashion and body modification as a type of "armor" as if every decision she made was solely because of rape. As if the way she looks or dresses isn't acceptable or beautiful.

    I don't want to underplay the seriousness of rape, having a close family member go through the trauma of it, but I can't help but notice that this is the only part of her identity that is being notice. She isn't a rape victim, she's Lisbeth Salander. She is someone who doesn't let that change her and she chooses not to play the role of victim.

    I think most people are off put by her appearance. And I guess that's normal in today's society considering how much stigma is attached to tattoos and the alternative lifestyle. But I think that this movie understands that and tries to break that barrier down by showing her as a not only competent, but a genius.

    As being heavily modded myself and dressing in a slightly similar fashion to Lisbeth I can relate to the judgment. And can say for myself that these choices where not caused by some traumatic event or using it as a shield. This is who I am plain and simple. Saying something as outlandish as its just an "armor" only further continues the stigma and prejudice that Lisbeth struggled through because who she is.

    I guess what I'm trying to say here is that there are many themes in the movies and book. Rape being a major one. But we cannot forget the others.

    I think its a good thing to see a mainstream company hold clothing that leans towards the alternative life style. This is just one step forward to acceptance rather than be written off as a cry for help or as a defense mechanism.

  28. Everyone is getting mad over these words that make a whole lot of sense. First off, she is right. The line is more glamorized. Period. That is what she is referring too and it is evident. Second off, for anyone saying "watch the movie." GO READ THE BOOKS! Third, anyone on here getting SUPER ANGRY over these words that make perfect sense and state a valid opinion and concern, you have a problem and you need to check yourself. Easy-peasy people. If you think there is no problem (in the cultural sense) with the glamorization of the style you are not looking closer at things. But it is obvious that the style has been glamorized in this line. It has been done for the sake of fashion, which is THEIR JOB at H & M! And this definitely says a lot about our culture, which is something we should all be open to analyzing.

  29. Wow!!! This is soooooo powerful!!! And can't believe that you was victim,I admire to you that you shared it in public. Totally understand what you say about wearing that clothes as a camouflage to show to other to fuck away from you!!! I wasn't victim fortunately. I used to dress the same way (still do sometimes) cause I'm listening punk music and all these clothes were repelling, but today, as you say they are glamourizing it and this is their chance to put it into mainstream!!! But me & you will know that only poseurs will wear that H&M shit!!! If Liesbeth Salander was portrayed as a girl who wears tea dresses, pork pie straw made hats & mary janes, flowers in hairs, H&M will make collection look like that, they are not getting inspired, they only care about profit. Swedish brand that hasn't did anything when Swedish director made film, but now when it all is Hollywood-ized, Swedish people have engaged American woman to make collection with models with smile on the awful
    Followin ya' btw

  30. Thank you for posting this. Thank you.

  31. I have to say that although I'm not a rape victim, rape is a horrible violation crime which usually goes unreported because the reporting part usually involves the victim being subjected to some horrible physical examination for the purposes of DNA collection and evidence etc. Then, if the case does go to court, the victim's sexual life is brought into question. Now ask yourself whether, if you were raped, would you want to go through all that? Probably not.

    The answer lies in the way a person reacts to the violation. Their reaction might be the way they dress, a deliberate attempt not to attract unwanted attention or to make themselves as unsexual as possible. Salander's clothes reflect her desire to remain unattractive, to not conform to some 'ideal'. They are her persona and in choosing to dress as she does, she is making a definite statement that in order to get to know the person, you have to make the effort to 'look' beyond the clothing.

  32. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I am glad that in reading the responses most seem to disagree. I have dressed in a similar way since I was around 15, I am tattooed from top to toe, I was violated as a child and as an adult have been more often offended and disgusted than flattered by the advances of men, that's down to my history, not their natural instincts. But, when I watched this film I took away from it a great pleasure that she had her revenge, she stood up for herself, she asserted herself and was insanely strong. This should be celebrated, women should take great inspiration from that. If she was actually the rapist in the film, and H+M made this line, I would think they were glamorizing rape, but she was the heroine. I would also like to say I didn't at any point see her as a victim. My initial reaction to your opinion Natalie was anger, that you could jump to this, I dress how I dress because I have always felt more comfortable being outside the norm, I do not in any way relate this to my experience with sexual violence, I have also never seen myself as a victim. Maybe I shouldn't be angry at you for your opinion, but it was my initial reaction, and I do think you are reading way too much into this. Also, I get way more attention from men when I dress like lisbeth than when I tone it down, cover my tattoos and wear something 'normal'. As much as I try to understand it, your opinion makes no sense to me, and I feel that you've taken something positive and made it negative.

  33. I actually think that the H&M line may help rape survivors by bringing to their attention a book that they may not have read, but I felt was helpful in dealing with the emotional aftermath of the rape (if at times very difficult to read). I also feel that perhaps rape survivors will borrow Lisbeth's strength by borrowing her style.

  34. I am a bit disgusted by your idea that the abuse is the defining thing of Salander's character. Not her urban know how, not her amazing intellect, but the fact that she was raped? Are you saying that abuse victims are somehow then destined to do everything, including make their fashion choices under the cloud of this one act? i myself am a childhood sexual abuse surviver. You may not speak for any one but yourself. By talking as if you represent the rest of us you yourself become an abuser. Also, abuse is NOT a woman's issue. Not by a long shot. Men are raped just as often, but simply do not report. And I look forward to purchasing a jacket from this line.

  35. I also would like to agree with Rhubarbmustard. I know for a fact that most people who adopt a punk look, those who are victims and those who are not alike, are not looking for a stay away message. Much more a message of creativity, fun and belonging to an alternative community. I am sorry if my words above were a bit harsh, but as a rape victim myself, I was quite offended in your distilling a person down until you saw that as the most meaningful point of their decision making. And as a rape victim I can also say that I DO dress to be sexy. Of course within the limits of taste. I like to play with fashion. Anything from designer clothing and towering heels( that I wouldn't be able to run away in), to leather jackets and jeans and don't f* with me boots. All in good fun. I may not be the exact same woman I would have been if the violation did not occur, but then that could be said of any experience in my life. Please do not label me, nor tell the world that you know how "people like me" decide on our image. I think I like the way H&M represents us far better then the way you do. I like the idea of being sleek, sexy and urban. And I am. No matter what you say. I also think the American film( though not the Swedish) portrayed the abuse with integrity. Not sensationalism. The Swedish film did make me a bit angry in how the sodomy scene was done. Maybe that is my own experience talking.

  36. So, sorry, just one more thing; What makes you think that none of the people who worked on this line have been victims sexual abuse? The numbers are staggering, and its STILL an very underreported crime. Of the people I know, men and women, many, many have been violated as children, and some as adults. I doubt that no one working on this has suffered. Not that they should parade this for your acceptance, but you don't know them. When you say the designers don't put any of this into consideration when they design, but you don't know these people. You are simply assuming. I can respect that you don't like the line. But you are calling out H&M on behalf of all of us who have been violated. Thats what bothers me. Ok, done. All the best.