Have you ever thought about the fact that a tank top is routinely called a “wife beater” by millions of people, and that even the dictionary defines the term as an item of clothing? Though it may seem like no big deal, our language matters. When we casually use terms like this, we normalize and minimize the crime of domestic violence, and we perpetuate a culture that allows it to be tolerated.
Carl Mallia and Omar Dbeis decided it was time to change that. This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the two advertising creative directors are launching wifelovers apparel, a new line of tank tops, as well as an online petition to change the dictionary definition and online search results of “wife beater.”
We sat down with them to learn more about their vision and commitment.
First, tell me a bit about Carl & Omar. What sparked your creative partnership?
Carl: We met a few years ago at an ad agency in New York and immediately clicked.
Omar’s from Lebanon, and I’m originally from Malta, so we’ve got the whole Mediterranean connection, and we have lot in common. We both share the same outlook on work, life, and the balance between the two.
When it comes to the kind of work we admire, and the kind of work we like to create, we always boil it down to one simple thing—does this help make people’s lives a little bit better?
There’s so much clutter out there in the world. We just want to make sure whatever we are putting out there is purposeful and makes a difference.
What inspired this line of wifelovers tank tops?
Carl: In addition to working on our day-to-day clients, we’re always thinking about how else we can use our creativity for good and actually make a difference in the world.
In the past, we’ve created projects to help raise awareness about the lack of New Yorkers donating blood, to increase the amount of moms getting mammograms each year, and to restore Arabic pride when traveling.
You never know when inspiration may come. And sure enough, the inspiration for wifelovers came from an incredibly uncexpected source…an episode of Netflix’s “Queer Eye”.
During one episode, Jonathan Van Ness uses the term “wife lover” instead of “wife beater” when referring to a tank top.
It was the first time I’d ever heard someone bring attention to the term “wife beater.” He turned something so negative into something so positive. It was also the first time I’d ever thought about how wrong it is that we named an item of clothing after an act of domestic violence.
I’m not sure if it was because of the way it was framed, or the fact my daughter had just been born, but it really affected me. I couldn’t believe that in 2018, affectionately calling an item of clothing a “wife beater” was still a thing. I just remember thinking, “There is absolutely no way I want my daughter growing up in a world where this was acceptable.”
So I messaged Omar, and we started brainstorming ways we could do something.
Eventually, we landed on an idea that felt like a no-brainer:
What if we designed and sold a line of tank tops, and donated all profits to help put an end to domestic violence?
And that’s how wifelovers apparel was born!
What does the issue of domestic violence mean to both of you?
Omar: Carl just mentioned becoming a father this year, and how that’s pushed him to help create a world that doesn’t normalize this behavior in any way.
People think of domestic violence as a man beating his wife, and that’s true—women are the majority of the victims. But the truth is that anyone—no matter their gender, sexual orientation, politics, socio-economic status, or race —can be a victim of an abusive relationship, and that abuse can be physical, verbal, emotional, or financial.
Being a gay man myself, working on this project has brought up an abusive experience with an ex from my past. And revisiting it today allowed me to reflect on what it’s like to be a victim in a world that still shames and sometimes blames you for the problem. We now are in a moment where we all have the opportunity to tell our stories and to hopefully encourage those that are too afraid to speak up and seek help.
So while the term “wife beater” focuses on married women, we believe this is an opportunity for us to open up the conversation of domestic violence and include all victims and survivors.
The longer we as a society continue to be comfortable with using words like “wife beater” as an affectionate nickname for a piece of clothing, the longer we’ll continue to give the impression that the act of wife beating is normal and acceptable.
Why did you choose to partner with NO MORE for this project?
Carl: As soon as we had a clear idea of what we wanted to do, and that we wanted to donate all profits to an organization that works to end domestic violence, we drew up a shortlist of potential partners.
And as cheesy as it sounds, NO MORE was top of our list.
NO MORE describes its mission as being “dedicated to ending domestic violence and sexual assault by increasing awareness, inspiring action, and fueling culture change”. To us, those three points felt like the exact same thing we’re trying to achieve with wifelovers.
We’re trying to change something that has become so ingrained within our culture and our vocabulary, and we knew NO MORE was the right partner for us.
In addition to creating the tank tops themselves, you’ve created a petition to have the definition of “wife beater” changed in the dictionary. How do you believe words can support a culture of violence against women?
Carl: It’s simple. The longer we as a society continue to be comfortable with using words like “wife beater” as an affectionate nickname for a piece of clothing, the longer we’ll continue to give the impression that the act of wife beating is normal and acceptable.
Everyday there’s another child who hears their parent, teacher, or guardian use the words “wife beater” like there’s nothing wrong with it. Suddenly, a “wife beater” is not a bad thing— how can it be if a grown-up is using it so nonchalantly?
This is not the message we want to be sending to the next generation.
Omar: There’s so much research that tells us there’s a direct correlation between the language we use and the way we behave. Normalizing certain words normalizes that behavior. There is nothing stopping us from changing this language.
That’s why the term “wifelover” is so important for the success of this campaign and for our society moving forward. The word acknowledges the negative term “wife beater” and helps us create a mental shortcut to correct ourselves when we are about to use that word.
Why do you believe it’s important for men to be involved in the conversation when it comes to ending domestic violence against women?
Omar: Being a man in the context of the #MeToo movement can feel very uncomfortable. Because, while there is an urge to be an ally, to speak up and join the conversation, it is also not our place to hijack and dominate the discussion that women are leading.
We think that wifelovers is a good example of how men can join the conversation in a constructive way. It’s time for all of us to look around and identify misogyny and abuse in our everyday, no matter how small it is. Only then can we find creative ways to bring attention to these issues and affect some real, positive change.
Carl: Exactly. When we had this idea, we were conscious about being sensitive to the environment in which we’re launching it. We asked women around us whether it was appropriate for us to be launching such a project as two men. The feedback we got was so overwhelmingly positive, because at its core this idea is something everyone can agree on.
And to Omar’s point about being an ally, I actually wore a wifelover to the gym while we were still in development. In less than an hour, three women and two guys approached me and asked me where I got it. If wifelovers can spark a healthy dialogue between men and women everywhere, that’s an incredible thing.
Speaking of outcomes, what do you hope these shirts and the petition accomplish? What is the biggest lesson you hope that people learn from this wifelovers project?
Carl: That’s something we’ve given a lot of thought to. Just like NO MORE’s mission to increase awareness, inspire action and fuel culture change, we hope wifelovers can do all three.
When my daughter grows up and finds out that once upon a time it was totally ok to call a tank top a “wifebeater”, I hope that she’s absolutely shocked and cannot for one second imagine a world where that would be ok. Personally, that would probably be the biggest success of all.
Omar: We’re also petitioning search engines and online retailers to correct shoppers when they search for “wife beaters”. Even though no brand uses the term in their communications, if you search for “wife beaters” on their websites, you will get items that you can actually purchase. We want these websites to correct the user. Much like the way google corrects you when you misspell a word, we want those who search for “wife beater” to get get a message saying, “Did you mean wifelover?”
You know before wifelovers, I never really thought twice about tank tops being called “wife beater”. But after a few months of working on this project and talking about it, I find myself naturally calling it a wifelover without even meaning to. We are all creatures of habit, so let’s start a new habit.