Self-Defense, but Make It Cute

Marketing pepper spray and brass knuckles to women isn’t new but, thanks to TikTok and Instagram, protective accessories are getting a bedazzled rebrand.

A fat tube of lip gloss clinks against a bedazzled bottle of pepper spray in a TikTok video captioned “Self defense tools that every girl needs.”

In the video of self-defense tools for women, which has 14 million “heart” reactions, a pair of hands with azure-colored acrylic nails demonstrates how to use a matching self-defense keychain. It's a metal ring so loaded with accessories, it looks like a charm bracelet crossed with a janitor’s keys. A rhinestone canister releases a burnt orange stream. A lipstick tube reveals a hidden taser. A glossy, blunt stick called a kubaton could be used, ostensibly, to break a window. On screen, we see a pen used to write the words, “Stay safe, ladies.”

The top of the pen pops open—it’s also a knife.

Like waiting in line to use public bathrooms and paying more for razors, worrying about being attacked is part of life for most women. Fear is the soundtrack for our lives. It plays on a loop, and we get used to tuning in and out.

But in a flash of rhinestones and feathers, women are feeling less passive about self-defense. 

Between February 2020 and March 2021, searches on Google for the term “self=defense keychain” increased ten-fold. TikToks with variations on the hashtag “self-defense keychain” have been viewed more than 480 million times. She’s Birdie, a keychain alarm with a Glossier aesthetic, has been seeing sales “beyond what we could have imagined” since it launched in late 2019, says co-founder Amy Ferber. “What it says is that there’s a big audience,” she says, sounding sad, in spite of her flourishing business. “A big group that really wants help.”

Maybe you’ve seen the increasingly popular “self-defense cat keychains”—kitty-shaped pieces of plastic that have proliferated on Etsy and Instagram. Adorable and often sparkly, they’re meant to be worn on your fingers and used to sharpen a punch—brass knuckles, rebranded. They're illegal in some states. In November 2019, a woman living in Wisconsin said that she fought off an attempted sexual assault in her front yard using a cat-shaped defense keychain. “I can’t believe that it worked,” she said in a news report. “They’re not expensive.”

Marketing self-defense tools for women isn’t new. For years, it’s been possible to find pepper spray and tasers at major retailers that look like Elle Woods had a craft night. Many are from Blingsting, a company founded by a mother-daughter pair in 2013, with the aim of “designing [personal safety] products that girls actually want to have with them.” Blingsting sells a sparkly stun gun iPhone case and a diamanté pepper spray in a shade called “Trophy Wife.” Walmart and Target carry hot pink mini teargas from the self-defense company Sabre.

But the recent surge in self-defense accessories on social media is more local—most of these are tiny businesses, often owned by women of color, that market mostly through social media. “My line of business is very strange,” says Efua Dadson, the owner of SheDefense, which does 90% of its business on Instagram. “Usually when people have a business, they pray that their customers will use their products and give them feedback. On my end, I’m praying my customers never have to use it.”

Dadson grew up in Ghana, and moved to the states almost a decade ago for college. “Back home there’s nothing like self-defense,” she says. “Having to feel afraid never crossed my mind.” Moving to Atlanta, Dadson was shocked by news stories about girls and women being kidnapped and assaulted. “I’ve always lived by myself as a single woman, and I want to make sure I’m protected,” she says. “I’m not playing, because it’s crazy out there.”

A typical keychain from SheDefense includes: a bottle of pepper spray in a glossy leather case, a fake key that reveals a collapsible knife, a gleaming kubaton, and a giant, fluffy, pom-pom (the pom pom is not a defense weapon; it is a pompom.) You can pay extra to add on accessories, like a collapsible pale pink nightstick. Some states have legal restrictions on certain self-defense items—in California, pepper spray has to be under 2.5 ounces, in Florida it can be up to five, in New York you need to be a non-felon over the age of 18 to purchase. Some states require permits to carry tasers or stun guns.

And what about, you know, actually using them? “Like any other self-defense tool, it is legal as long as the response is appropriate to the threat. Which is to say, it is unquestioned that you can meet force with force,” says John Roman, a senior fellow in the Economics, Justice and Society Group at the University of Chicago, who has studied how the criminal justice system treats women in self-defense cases. It's more complicated, he says, when the threat is verbal, not physical. 

Roman says that there’s reason to see the keychains as more than just a cute trend. “The research literature suggests that self-protective devices can cause an attacker to retreat,” he says. “The literature is mixed about whether using personal self-protective devices causes violence to escalate, but on balance (on average) it doesn't seem to.” Most people who market the keychains are clear—using self-defense tools should be a last resort. The best practices are to stay alert and avoid dangerous situations and being alone.

But it’s just not practical—or fair—for women to make constant concessions to a specter of male terror. Rana Abdelhamid doesn’t carry pepper spray, but she is prepared to use her fists. She’s the 28-year-old Queens local running for congress in New York, challenging long term incumbent Carolyn Maloney. Abdelhamid was attacked as a teenager by a man who tried to rip off her hijab. She founded Malikah, a holistic trauma-informed non profit that teaches Black and Brown women self-defense along with other tools: financial literacy and political organizing.

“It’s a form of somatic healing when you go into a class,” Abdelhamid tells Glamour. “We are so socialized as women and gender-minoritized folks that there is only one type of powerful body." Abdelhamid helps train women to get out from under people who are twice their weight. “You get a real sense of the power of your body,” she says. 

Spangled tasers and glittery kitty knuckles are becoming ubiquitous, but not all self-defense cases are treated equally. In Texas in 2018, a 22-year-old white woman was charged with illegal weapons possession for having a cat-shaped defense object in her purse at a traffic stop. In response to her case, the state legislature passed a bill legalizing brass knuckles and cat keychains, and the charges against the woman were dropped. For women of color, deciding whether or not to carry a self-defense object is a more complicated calculation—is the benefit of protection worth the risk that a police officer could treat a self-defense object as a weapon? 

For women in the personal safety business, it's always deeply personal. She’s Birdie started when Ferber and her sister saw all five of their college-aged nieces and nephews seated around the table at a family gathering, shortly before their freshman year. Ferber, looking at her smiling family, remembering the statistic that one in four people is sexually assaulted during college. “Wow, the statistics are—something’s going to happen to one of them,” she remembers thinking. “It’s just devastating.”

She’s Birdie is a slim, sherbet-colored alarm and strobe light, reminiscent of the iPod Nano. Most self-defense accessory companies sell some version of a keychain alarm attachment that releases a mewling cry, like a car alarm for your own body.  The combination of aesthetics and practicality of personal safety devices is hard to resist. My only question was whether I would buy a lavender Birdie or a spangled heart alarm from She Defense or one of the sleek gold whistle necklaces sold on Etsy which reminds me, of all things, of the famous wearable vibrator, from Vesper. These are rape whistles, essentially, without the connotation, and with a sleeker design.  

It’s interesting to see women’s self-defense products suddenly explode in popularity on Tiktok, because the place of self-defense in the feminist movement is such a longstanding debate.  Over-emphasizing self-defense can mislead us into believing that assault has to mean strangers and dark alleys. “Most sexual assaults and physical assaults on women are committed by someone they know,” Roman points out. “Protecting yourself from the enemy you know is a higher priority than protecting yourself from the enemy you don't.” 

If you have ever been assaulted, or if someone you love has ever conveyed the details of their assault to you, you know that it is rarely a matter of “If only I’d had a taser or alarm on hand.” More often, it’s about a power imbalance that attackers use to manipulate and paralyze.

How much can self-defense empower women? And how much does it subconsciously teach us to shoulder responsibility for male violence? “I wouldn’t have a business if men would act right,” says Dadson. She compares self defense to car insurance. “You don’t say, ‘I’m not going to get car insurance because I feel the other driver needs to know how to drive.’ You’re still going to get car insurance because you want to protect yourself in the case of the other driver being stupid." 

For Ferber, an alarm like She’s Birdie is just one tool, far from a solution. But she hopes that it will reunite people with a feeling of freedom. She imagines women using it to go on runs, to walk to their car at night without inhaling thick waves of panic. That panic is something Abdelhamid knows well, and has worked to master. “It’s systems of violence that require us to learn self-defense to begin with,” she says. She dreams of never having to offer a self-defense class again.  

Maybe these conversations are happening so openly on Tiktok because its users are so young that TikTok feminism hasn’t really crystalized yet. Instead of second or third wave feminism, it’s more of a wave pool, a constant churn, build, and break of new and old ideas. Conversations take the form of makeup tutorials and lip syncs and the sale of glitter tasers and baby pink brass knuckles. But they’re all after the same questions—How can we women be safe and free?

What is the cost of my liberation? And is there a way for it to be beautiful?

Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter. 

This story originally appeared on: Glamour - Author:Jenny Singer

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