Nancy Doll and Hayley Doll for their domestic violence campaign

If you were to picture two survivors of domestic violence, at first you might not imagine two outgoing members of a popular and charitable group of models who love to make others’ day brighter.

Nancy Doll and Hayley Doll are members of The Rebel Dolls, a St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador group of models who specializing in pinup, boudoir and fantasy style shoots. The Dolls’ trademark lies in modern-day & classic style, freedom of personal expression and giving back to the community however they can. Their hearts are as big as their ‘make way for us because here we are!’ attitudes.

Nancy and Hayley are not only Rebel Doll members, they have been best friends for seven years.

They are also both survivors of domestic violence.

However, they absolutely refuse to label themselves as victims. Instead they offer tremendous insight and support into how domestic violence affects everybody, and that’s why they felt it was important to raise awareness on the topic during National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Nancy Doll, the creator of the Rebel Dolls, is a survivor of a number of abusive relationships. She is recently out of a relationship from a man she describes as a “narcissist.” Instead of allowing pain and sorrow to override her, it compelled her to use her place as a local artist and personality to discuss the issue of violence within domestic situations. She hopes by speaking out it will benefit others in similar circumstances.

“I think it’s important personally, because I’ve experienced abuse my whole life and I think the more you speak out about a topic, the more people will feel more comfortable talking about their own experiences. Right now there’s a stigma around domestic violence and abuse against women so we just thought it was really important to bring that to light,” says Nancy.

She wanted to do something a bit outside her group’s wheelhouse and that meant organizing and participating in a photo shoot aimed at blasting a spotlight right at the issue of domestic violence, an issue some are hesitant to discuss. She not only felt she should shine a light on DV due to her role as an admired female in her community, she felt it was much needed.

Photographers Muneeb Khalid and Christina McGory photograph Nancy Doll and Hayley Doll embracing during this photo-shoot for domestic violence awareness Photo: Jason Sheppard

Newfoundland and Labrador is where The Rebel Dolls all reside. It also has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in all of Canada according to Statistics Canada.

“The numbers are extremely high in our province,” says Hayley Doll. “I believe a lot of that falls back on how cases are handled and dealt with at a legal level.” Hayley speculates their own experiences are mirrored in thousands of other homes across the province and country. “There’s not enough awareness. People are afraid to come forward and even when they do, it’s not dealt with it as strongly as it should be. I don’t think there’s harsh enough punishments. We see this in the news all the time. Offenders get a slap on the wrist for this kind of thing.”

Hayley believes if there were stricter punishments handed out from provincial and federal courts to DV offenders, it would result in lower numbers of overall cases. However, getting things changed at the legal level is one aspect of the situation; another is the stigma attached in being labeled or branded as someone who brought abuse on themselves in some way. That often leads to another level of victimization in domestic violence situations and is a primary reason for the low numbers of victims coming forward.

“I feel like it always comes back on the woman,” says Nancy, “It comes back to ‘what did you do? What did you do to call for that?’ and my reply is ‘what do you mean? I don’t care what I did.’ Nobody ever deserves to be treated like that or abused in any way. So I think that’s a big thing around here.

“Then you get a lot of people saying (of the offender) ‘oh, well, I know him, he’s a great guy, he didn’t mean it,’ You don’t really know somebody the way you think you do. A lot of times, the old saying is true: you don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors.”

If domestic violence cases were high in earlier years, 2020 presented a new set of challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic spread globally and mandatory lockdowns were enforced by officials to protect citizens from the fast spreading virus. However, many found themselves in another kind of danger — danger at the hands of violent partners. In some parts of Canada, that rate has increased 20 — 30 % just this year. Both Nancy and Hayley Doll feel this is definitely a concern and that the more alone time anybody spends with an abusive partner, the abuse will increase.

“It’s sad to say that for many, the workplace is probably a safe space for a lot of people,” says Hayley. “Being able to go out and leave home is probably where they feel safer than in their own surroundings,” it’s a scenario Hayley tells me she can’t even imagine being in yet this year, that was the reality for many people.

The Rebel Dolls were formed two years ago by Nancy Doll and since then, they have become a popular and bright part of their home city and province. As the group grew in popularity they felt their platform enabled them to bring awareness to important issues and causes especially when it came to educating our younger people, many of whom look up to the Rebel Dolls.

“I think it’s very important for people to raise awareness, especially for the younger crowd, because they’re the ones that are coming up behind us,” says Nancy. “They’re the ones that need to know that if you do go through something like this, you can come out of it, that there’s light at the end of that tunnel. I believe domestic violence starts with a lot of people through their parents at home. Then as you grow up and get older you start to date people who mirror that behavior because they already went through it as a child. They almost feel they deserve it,”

Hayley Doll agrees that is definitely important to educate our younger people and let victims know that DV is something they can get through — and part of getting through it involves knowing where to turn. In Newfoundland and Labrador there are several organizations such as the Iris Kirby House and various help lines where victims can call. However, for many, even if the options are there, they still have that fear of reaching out.

“Speaking to someone who’s been through it and gotten through it and is not in the situation anymore can really open your eyes to show you how to get out,” Hayley says. “Even calling the St. John’s Status of Women’s Council. They’re always great and can help you through it.

“Therapy is also a huge thing,” adds Nancy. “Therapy has personally helped me drastically to be able to cope with things that I’ve been through and I’m a survivor of it. It has definitely helped me grow and I also believe that knowledge is power.”

Like many other citizens, the members of the Rebel Dolls are not shy about expressing dismay at the lack of domestic violence support at higher court levels. However, growing national dialogue about the problem is encouraging as it’s a crucial aspect in helping to break down the social stigma which surrounds violence in the home.

“Sometimes victims don’t realize their worth and nobody deserves to feel like that,” Hayley says. “Everybody needs to have self-worth and they need to have self-respect. So when someone is disrespecting you that’s not right. You need to walk away, “

If there is a bright spot in discussing the issue of DV in 2020, it’s that those at the forefront of the issue feel that views and attitudes are changing to the point where it’s okay to talk openly about it. In fact, it’s now societal encouraged. This is a quite a difference from past years where such matters were kept secret.

“It’s better now from when I was a child,” says Hayley. “I grew up with an abusive father and kept that to myself my whole childhood. My brother and I got beat our whole lives and we never said a word. I’m recently clear from a narcissistic relationship, which is a whole other level of abuse. It’s something I never even knew about until it happened. Now I’m educated on it.”

Education is a key part of the discussion that Nancy and Hayley Doll wish to impart to their fans and admirers when it comes to issues such as DV. That’s why this particular photo-shoot, one aimed at bringing awareness to the issue, was one these two women felt was important. They knew it would be emotionally rough, they knew it would be risqué to their fans, they knew it would differ from their cheery public meet-and-greets, they knew it would take a lot of courage to look back inward to those dark feelings, this time for the public to see — yet they knew they had to do it.

Photographers Muneeb Khalid and Christina McGory light and take photos of Hayley Doll, her message “Love shouldn’t hurt’ written across her back as Nancy Doll looks on. Photo: Jason Sheppard

“We’re pushing the limits with this photo-shoot but that’s what we do,” admits Nancy. “While we’re rebels, we do things that most people don’t want to put their hands on. We were a little nervous at first, because you don’t really know how people are going to look at this. I don’t want to offend anybody but at the same time it’s important to get this message across. We had to be careful of what words we were going to use for this shoot, for instance, some words we could have used were probably a bit more raw, maybe a bit more offensive. It’s important to find that balance.”

Hayley says while the Rebel Dolls will stay true to their roots of fun photo shoots and community appearances, expect more from them in the way of raising awareness when it comes to important issues in society. “You got to find a happy medium with it. We definitely look forward to doing more of this in the future and bring a light to more issues. We’re not only going to focus on just domestic violence, but many other things in this world.”

Despite her first concerns about how the public would react to a seeing a more provocative and darker aspect to the Rebel Dolls, Nancy says the response to this domestic violence awareness photo shoot has been very positive and even quite supportive.

“People seem to love it,” says Nancy. “It’s blown-up and being shared worldwide. It’s amazing how people are reaching out. They’ll actually start with ‘hey, I’ve been there. Thanks so much,’ When I hear that I feel, it was worth it.”

I saw for myself how emotional and raw the scars of domestic violence and history of abuse remain for both women. Like actors preparing for an intense dramatic scene, they allowed themselves to fully feel the trauma from their pasts — however, these two women weren’t acting. Sadness fell across each of their faces, the lights in their eyes were extinguished as tears streamed down their cheeks while each woman displayed messages such as “I thought he loved me” and “Love shouldn’t hurt.” After the shoot was completed sitting down for this interview, I remarked how difficult that must have been for them.

“Doing something like this photo shoot to raise awareness for an important cause is good because it gives you power,” Hayley told me, obviously still feeling the emotions from the session. “Now, you’ve got that strength to know that you just done something beautiful that can touch so many other people’s lives and bring light to this for them. Who knows? Maybe we just changed someone else’s fate.”

Follow the Rebel Dolls on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/nlrebeldolls/ and Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/nlrebeldolls/

To speak with a trained professional with the Transition House Association of Newfoundland and Labrador call 1-888-709-7090 province-wide.

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