Team of 4 women breaks 3 world records by successfully rowing the Pacific Ocean

It reads like a blockbuster movie title –“257 days at sea” — but this was the reality for four courageous women, who rowed the Pacific Ocean without support. Nicknamed “The Coxless Crew”, Natalia Cohen, 40, Laura Penhaul, 32, Emma Mitchell, 30 and Meg Dyos, 25, completed an epic 8,446-mile journey on Monday. Members of a six-person team, that also included Isabel Burnham, 30, who rowed from SF to Hawaii, and 26-year-old Lizanne van Vuuren. They broke three world records to become the first team of four, the first all female team, and the fastest team to row the Pacific Ocean. And they did it in a 29-­foot bright-pink rowboat named “Doris.”

On April 20, 2015, the volunteer team departed from San Francisco and arrived on January 25, 2016 into he Marlin Marina in airns, Australia after rowing 24 hours per day, seven days per week in two-­hour shifts, for over nine months. Their only stops were in Honolulu, Hawaii and in Apia, Samoa to restock the boat with supplies and assorted freeze­-dried foods.

The crew were motivated by a desire to raise awareness and £250,000 to support two chosen charities, reast Cancer Care and alking With the Wounded. In their words, “everyone has their own pacific to cross. This project is all about creating an awareness for women facing their own challenges. We’re doing it for everybody. This isn’t something we are just doing for ourselves. We’re hoping to… inspire [others].”

As with any goal, preparation was required. The team trained for years and enlisted a support committee, including sport psychologist, Keith Goddard, who equipped the women with mental tools to face the challenges ahead. e trip “was a mindset journey more than anything,” Cohen told Women in the World, whose favorite mantra came from a necklace she wore, which said “ am in charge of how I feel today and today I choose happiness.”

Despite their preparation, she confessed that some legs became mentally grueling and difficult to endure, such as when they battled winds of “30 knots” and “40-foot waves.”

Mitchell described long, dark stormy nights, where it was impossible to see treacherous oncoming waves. These were challenging moments, especially combined with the struggle of “staying awake, because we never got more than one-and-a-half hours of sleep at a time.”

While stuck in the Doldrums, Mitchell said, “the currents were against us. We were pretty much going backwards a lot of the time. We were having to row every session as hard as we could and we still weren’t making any ground… That is when I struggled the most.”

In such low moments, the team united and fueled each other by shared conviction and humor. For Mitchell, “at no point was there any question that I was going to stop… Until we had achieved what we had set out to do, it was never going to be over.”

Added Cohen: “We are such an unbelievably strong team of women. That was key to the success of this trip. We kept each other going. There was continual laughter. I have never laughed so much in my life. We kept each other motivated.”

The crew were motivated by a desire to raise awareness and £250,000 to support two chosen charities, reast Cancer Care and alking With the Wounded. (Losing Sight of Shore)

When they were not battling life­-threatening weather, the team witnessed humpback whales, schools of fish, and herds of sharks that followed the boat for weeks. What they termed their “odyssey” afforded peaceful, spiritual experiences, as well. “You can’t help but be in a meditative state when you’re out there on the ocean. She’s absolutely mesmerizing, as you watch the undulating waves rising and falling, the clouds passing overhead, or the birds soaring in the sky. Everything that happens out there is meditative,” Cohen said.

Asked to share insights that would help someone looking to tackle an insurmountable goal, Cohen said, “you have the power to choose to do anything you want to do. With a little bit of self-­belief and trust in yourself, anything is possible.” For more on this story, Emmy ­award-winning documentary filmmaker Sarah Moshman (he Empowerment Project) followed their journey via footage shot by the women themselves and will release the film, Losing Sight of Shore, later in 2016.

The women continue the fundraising efforts from their homes in the United Kingdom. Readers can contribute by visiting

Ashley Crouch writes and speaks on women, beauty and leadership issues and lives in Manhattan. Find her on Twitter.


This article first appeared in Women in the World / New York Times by yours truly.

Bloom, Lovely Helps Redefine Beauty

On Thursday, I will be launching the Bloom, Lovely journals to the world! I have been working on these journals for months and so excited to finally make them available. (If you're wondering, you can get them here.)

Along the way, people have asked a lot of great questions, so here are some answers. 

The Story: 

This product was created by Ashley Crouch and a team of women entrepreneurs as a response to the problem. Ashley spent years in Manhattan in the fashion and media industry, working with models, photo shoots, at Fashion Week, pitching stories for press, and writing articles. In the process, she learned how limiting messages about beauty in the media sabotage women's self-esteem. She saw how a culture of fear has created competition amongst women and undermined their ability to forge strong relationships and celebrate, rather than begrudge, each others' talents. Her experience opened her eyes to the problem and gave her media literacy to combat her own body image issues.

But that wasn't enough. Head knowledge must convert to heart knowledge for life-changing results. Ashley wanted to create a product that would both education women, but be a fun, daily companion to remind women of their worth every single day. Incorporating her own proven techniques, and drawing from years of experience, she has created this product that will reach women where they are and help them feel beautiful, empowered, and equipped to live their best life every single day.


Q: Where did the name come from?

A: Bloom, Lovely was inspired by the concept that we are all lovely. I wanted to find new adjectives to describe women beyond “hot” “sexy” and other tired terms. Then, I wanted to encourage women to blossom, open, and radiate their true beauty from a heart free to love.

Q: How long is the journal?

A: Bloom, Lovely is a quarterly journal, so this one will be part I of IV. Each has approximately 100 pages, including 4 hand-lettered “mini-posters” with beauty quotes that you can remove, frame, and hang around your home for inspiration. 

Q: Are the pages dated? Do I have to start on a particular day?

A: No. The 4 journals will total 365 pages and many users may want to begin the process as a New Years Resolution. But, they are left intentionally open so that you can start the journey at any time during the year. They are synced with the app, but the goal is to allow you to start whenever you feel inspired without fear of missing the cutoff. Now is always the right time. 

Q: Is it faith-based? What are the sources for the quotes?

A: Bloom, Lovely collects quotes from over 300 thinkers, from Confucius to Audrey Hepburn, Taylor Swift to Aristotle. Users are accessing a collective body of wisdom, making it relatable to women of all backgrounds and faiths.

Q: Does it go with the Bloom, Lovely app? 

A: YES! The Bloom, Lovely journal is a companion for the Bloom, Lovely app, which is available FREE for iPhone and Android online. The quotes sync up, but the journals have a quick question for reflection and lined space to write your meditation for each day. 

Q: How do you know it will work? 

A: Lasting change happens through daily repetition over time. Scientific studies prove that individuals have the power to rewire the neuro-pathways of their brain through knowledge, conscious choice, and repetition. Over time, the Bloom, Lovely journal will be a fun way for women to change the way they think about themselves and redefine beauty. 

Q: Are there more cover designs? 

A: Bloom, Lovely is a quarterly journal. This is the first journal in the series and each one builds on the other. Each cover will be unique… stay tuned for more designs!

Q: Can I get a dedication written inside for a friend? 

A: Each Bloom, Lovely journal comes with a dedication, "This journal is dedicated to every woman who desires to be beautiful, that she may know she is." The first 100 buyers can request a hand-written note included. 

Q: Do you ship internationally?

A: I'm working on it. If you want a journal and you live out of the country, please e-mail me: (I've been getting requests from Mexico, Ireland, and Australia. 

Q: What age is most appropriate for the journals?

A: Every woman desires to be beautiful, no matter the age. But due to the thought-provoking questions, I feel these are best for girls ages 15+. They also make great gifts from mothers to daughters, or for both mothers and daughters to enjoy them together and build a legacy of positive affirmation. 

Q: I heard you helped launch Verily Magazine. How is this different? 

A: Verily is an online-only magazine that delivers content on a variety of topics every day. Bloom, Lovely is a print journal that addresses beauty with a quote and quick question for reflection every single day. It is designed to help you train your brain to think of beauty in healthier ways. 

Jeannie Gaffigan is a Role Model for Modern Women

The Jim Gaffigan Show debuted on July 15, proving that the public is interested in the daily mishaps of a father of five who hates hot pockets and loves bacon. Despite Jim’s steady rise to popularity in recent years, fans knew little about his wife except that she was a “Shiite Catholic” who could “get pregnant looking at babies.” Until now. The New York Times featured the elusive Jeannie and millions discovered what a quiet powerhouse she is. She wrote, edited, produced, and helped create the Jim Gaffigan Show, down to the “crumbs on the table”—while taking care of their five children in a two-bedroom Manhattan walk-up. As she told the Times, “I didn’t understand that it was going to be 80-plus hours per week for three months, and my kids were going to have to come to the set, and my house was going to have to be like Downton Abbey.” Jeannie’s close involvement with her husband’s popularity stems from her deep background in the arts.

After marriage, Jeannie relinquished her life in theater and became fearlessly dedicated to furthering her husband’s career. She was the writer behind many of his most famous hits: “She channeled her comedic sensibilities into Jim’s voice, helping cultivate his brand as a father, a die-hard food enthusiast, and an all-around genial guy. While Jeannie worked in the background, Jim became the king of the clean comics,” the Times noted. Although she allowed her own career to take a backseat (read: “gave it all up”) for her husband, Jeannie offers modern women a lesson about what it means to have it all.

“Behind every good man is a good woman,” the saying goes. While some might find this flattering, to many modern women, this is an irksome idea, a relic from a past where women lacked opportunities equal to men. Why should the woman be behindthe man? Modern women out-distance men in many areas, graduating from college athigher ratesout-earning men in most jobs, and getting married at a record-high age of 27. Most of my friends in New York City are single and ambitious. We secretly huddle in booths and confess that we are afraid of commitment. We thrive on being independent, pursuing our careers, traveling the world, writing a book or two; after all, we are encouraged to Lean In. Conversely, women who desire to stay at home and raise a family face shame for “taking up space” in elite Ivy League universities or getting an MBA or medical degree. In pursuit of equality, our culture seems to encourage women to pursue complete autonomy instead of acknowledging the value of men and women pooling their resources.

It’s understandable. High-achieving individuals want to make a difference. As Professor Clayton Christensen explained in his 2010 Harvard Business School commencement address:

“When people who have a high need for achievement . . . have an extra half hour of time or an extra ounce of energy, they’ll unconsciously allocate it to activities that yield the most tangible accomplishments. And our careers provide the most concrete evidence that we’re moving forward. You ship a product, finish a design, complete a presentation, close a sale, teach a class, publish a paper, get paid, get promoted. In contrast, investing time and energy in your relationship with your spouse and children typically doesn’t offer that same immediate sense of achievement.”

Every individual wants to feel like they are living a fulfilling life; 90% of millennials want to use their skills for good and over 50% are willing to take a pay cut to enter employment they really care about. No one wants to be insignificant, but the confusion about needing to choose between work or family lies in a misunderstanding of power vs. influence.

Many people think that to have influence, they have to be the public face of something. But often, the face is merely the talking head for the committees, speechwriters, advisors, and hosts of people who work tirelessly behind the scenes to advance the message. As Jeannie Gaffigan said, “I’ve been able to have complete creative fulfillment in this relationship without being the front person.”

If we had a better understanding of the value of all types of roles—including the less-public ones—we would put less pressure on ourselves to conform to society’s expectations. Women would feel the freedom to maximize their unique potential in whatever unique situations in which they find themselves. As Stephen Covey counseled, we should operate within our own “circle of influence” to be the most effective.

This is precisely why Jeannie Gaffigan is a role model and a breath of fresh air for modern women. When asked why she gave up her career, she says, “I’ve also been able to have five kids. . . . [I]f I had said, ‘I need to go my own way,’ I would have taken the resources away and split the resources, instead of pooling the resources. . . . I care more about Jim’s career, his material, more than anyone else in the world except him. We’re on the same team, and we’re going for the same thing.” As Jeannie Gaffigan illustrates, influence can be found anywhere, even at home with the kids.

This article first appears on Acculturated by yours truly. 

Bachelorette Viewers Got 4 Things Right About Sex


The finale of the 11th season of The Bachelorette is near, following a whirlwind of angst, cringe-worthy make out sessions, and extravagant dates. This week, viewers clutched their popcorn and waited to see what would happen as Canadian Kaitlyn Bristowe narrowed her pool of suitors from three to two during the much-awaited “Fantasy Suite” episode. Historically, the Fantasy Suite episode was infamous as the moment when the couples are finally granted their “off-camera” time to do whatever it takes to seal the deal—which in most viewers minds means, have sex. Monday night’s episode was a little anticlimactic, however, because Kaitlin had already slept with one of the candidates, Nick Viall.

Instead of supporting Bristowe in her search for love, millions of viewers were up in arms for weeks after Kaitlyn got intimate with Nick prior to the Fantasy Suite episode. On a show where just about anything goes, including on-camera stripping, making out with dozens of suitors, and endless emotional drama, why was this such a big deal? Despite the desensitization to hypersexual behavior, millions of viewers evidently still believe a few things about the meaning of sex:

1.) Sex is a distinct type of behavior: Hooking up and promiscuity is commonly justifiable as long as it is mutually consensual. But if everyone believes this, why would millions of people get angry and call Kaitlyn a slut after she slept with Nick? None of the men or the viewers were offended when Kaitlyn made out with multiple men, or went on exotic getaways, or had deep heart-felt conversations with her suitors.

The body is not just a tool for use; it is our true self. When two people have sex, they are intimate in a way few other behaviors allow; they give their whole selves to someone else. When Kaitlin slept with Nick, she gave herself to him completely.

Bachelor Nation wasn’t upset because Kaitlyn eschewed the rules set in place by game show producers. Their reaction revealed that quite a few people still believe that sex is a distinct and presumably meaningful activity compared to other romantic interactions.

2.) Sex is more than a casual activity: The hookup culture is everywhere; 91% of college women say the hookup culture defines their campus experience. While not everyone participates, promiscuity barely raises an eyebrow amongst young adults.

Sex is often considered just another casual activity that two people can do together. Similar to playing tennis, two individuals use their bodies to interact and enjoy each other’s company, almost like a sport. Sexual behavior is commonly described in athletic terms; for example, men call sleeping with someone “scoring.”

But sex is not tennis. Following the hookup with Nick, Kaitlyn—while upfront that sexual intimacy was a “big part” of a relationship and deeply important to her—suddenly experienced regret, saying, “I felt guilt… What did I do? I didn’t mean to hurt anyone…. All of it was bad.” Bachelor Nation mirrored Kaitlyn’s reaction, affirming that millions still believe that sex is more than a casual activity.

3.) Sex has a deeper meaning: Sexual behavior is commonly trivialized. In the hookup rulebook, one should “expect nothing more.” It shouldn’t mean anything, but to the millions of viewers—including the men Kaitlyn is dating—it does.

Following Kaitlyn’s hook up with Nick, however, the other guys struggle to trust her. Shawn B feels betrayed and questions whether Kaitlyn is trustworthy; she tells him, “You have to trust me and I don’t think you do.” The men are accustomed to having her disappear on getaways with other guys. Why would Shawn, for example, or any of the Bachelorette viewers bat an eye if she sleeps with someone, too? Why would Kaitlyn tell Shawn B she “went too far” with Nick, unless sex meant something more? Shawn’s jealousy and the viewers concern was rooted in a belief that having sex with someone else takes the relationship to another, deeper level.

4.) Sex belongs within a certain context: Pop culture often promotes no-strings-attached sex. Conversely, major world religions—and even the rare modern celebrityoften argue that sex belongs within the context of marriage; such views are often dismissed as “old-fashioned” or “out of touch” or “too obsessed with rules.” So why did modern Bachelorette viewers pause when Kaitlyn had sex with whomever she wanted to?

Because Bachelor Nation viewers still intuitively believe that certain rules exist for sexual behavior, among those that there is a right time and place for sex (even if it is the producers of a reality TV show who are setting the rules).

Why did Bachelor Nation make such a big deal out of Kaitlyn and Nick’s having sex before they reached the Fantasy Suite? Because it was a big deal. And that shatters the fantasy that no-strings-attached sex is the only thing viewers of pop culture are looking for.

This article first appeared on Acculturated by yours truly. 

It's Time to Change the Conversation About Giving It All Up "For a Man"

Moving for a man? Feminist

"I always vowed I would never move anywhere 'for a man,'" Ashley, a 28-year-old New Yorker, said. "Yet, here I am taking two months to move to Virginia to be closer to my boyfriend."

In an age when women are encouraged to "lean in" with all of our might, the idea of putting careers or vibrant lifestyles on hold and moving for a romantic partner seems like a relic of the past. Women today are outpacing men in college enrollment, out-earning men at work and marrying at the record-late age of 27

With that independence should come the ability to make whatever life choices we want. But a modern woman can get the creeping feeling that making concessions for love — especially ones that involve leaving a job and changing zip codes — is one choice that runs counter to her proud, independent feminist beliefs. 

But guilt or judgment over choosing "love" or "a man" may miss the point. As women like Sheryl Sandberg prove, prioritizing love and relationships is actually one of the most empowering decisions any woman — even the most career-driven among us — can make.

Booking a guilty trip: After two and a half years of long-distance dating with a military man stationed in Virginia, Ashley knew that in order for her relationship to last, she was going to have to take the next step. He had another four years left in his service; for things to work, she'd have to move.

But, as the founder and CEO of her own communications company, Ashley is as ambitious as they come, and moving required giving up the high-energy professional environment she thrives in. Running through a nervous checklist in her mind, Ashley wondered, "If I give up something for another person, am I being weak?"

"I debated for months about whether or not the move was right for me," she said. "I sought counsel from business advisers and other similar women entrepreneurs who had moved for their significant others — turns out, there are more than I thought."

Slate tackled the guilty internal debate had by such women in a series called Best Laid Plans. "Over the past few years, there has been a great deal of discussion about why women aren't achieving as much in their careers as their male counterparts," the site wrote in the series introduction, one explanation being "husbands' careers taking precedence." 

"When Michel went on the job market, we had been together for a year. I made a big deal out of feeling like I couldn't move somewhere with him ... I felt like I was too old to say I moved somewhere for my boyfriend," one woman named Leah told Slate. "I worry that [following him to D.C., where they now live] is anti-feminist, but I think about how I'm glad." 

That worry reflects a human reality, and not just a female one: We are, as Bad Feminist writer Roxane Gay called it, a "mess of contradictions." For women, that mess includes wanting to be independent while also wanting to be taken care of, or wanting a growing career while also wanting love and family. Submitting to the latter needs, Gaysays, can make one feel like a "bad feminist."

But, as she writes in her book by the same title, submitting to the "bad" choice is human — and in fact, sometimes it's not only the happiest choice, but the smartest one. As author Ayelet Waldman argued in her 2005 New York Times essaybeing a "bad mother" by loving her husband more than her kids was in fact the best thing for the family: It makes her a happy, fulfilled human who needn't pin all her desires and passions on her children, which only made her a better mother.

Prioritizing the "bad" choice over the "good" one was the best decision she could make for both.

Giving up to gain something more: Jennifer*, 25 and a lifelong New Yorker, faced the dilemma when she found out her long-term boyfriend was accepted to Yale Law School. "We had a series of very real conversations about what kind of life we wanted to have, if it included each other, and the sacrifices we were willing to make for each other," Jennifer said. The pair got engaged and Jennifer pivoted her career plans, joining her now-husband in New Haven, Connecticut.

"Some of my friends think I made a very traditional decision to follow my husband to school," she said. "However, I would argue it takes a bold, powerful, strong woman with a sense of self to take the risk of moving to a new place where her partner would be busy studying and in school all the time." Next year, she'll follow him to New Orleans, where he landed a clerkship for a federal judge.

Melinda*, 27, had a similar challenge when her boyfriend's job transferred him from the east coast to San Diego. Her friends warned her of making the jump on his terms and "not relying on the boyfriend emotionally," she toldMic. But the truth was, she was excited at the prospect of living in California. Ultimately, she said, the decision was for herself and her own happiness — not his. 

As for Ashley? "I gave up my dream apartment in the swanky East Village with my best friends, my fast-paced lifestyle and packed social calendar, and limitless opportunities for ordering Thai food from Seamless," she said. Being the best ambitious, determined and fulfilled professional she can be ultimately relies on a strong foundation of personal satisfaction and support. 

More importantly, she said, the career will eventually fade and what really matters will come to the fore.

"As I imagined looking back over my life," said, "I knew that my relationships would be the most meaningful." 

There's nothing anti-feminist about that.

* Name has been changed to allow subject to speak freely on private matters.

(I was interviewed for this article on Mic.

The Benefits of Being in a Long-Distance Relationship, From Someone Who's Had 9 Of Them

long distance dating

"I would never date anyone who does not live along my subway line," one New York woman told my friend. "It is too inconvenient." Another friend restricts her romantic interest to the 10-block radius surrounding her apartment. With limitless options just a right-swipe away, why would anyone venture to foster romance from afar? 

But hear me out: Dating long-distance isn't all bad. I would know — I have had nine (yes, nine) long distance relationships to prove it. 

There was the high school sweetheart who lingered into college, the law student I met at a seminar from out of town, the Western gent discovered on a pit stop during my cross-country road trip. There was the high school courtship arranged by his Mrs. Bennet-like mother, the fellow intern from a summer program and few Europeans in between. So when that cutie revealed on the first date that he was "joining the Navy tomorrow," I gave it two and a half weeks max.

We're still together.

Could it be that I am an emotional masochist, entering only the most tortuous relationships that will stretch me the farthest? Far from it. Long-distance relationships aren't only doable, but also can be straight-up appealing depending on what you're — and what I have always been — looking for. 

Striking out on your own: The biggest thing that makes LDRs great is the thing that makes any healthy relationship great: You get to have your own independent life that is then shared with someone else. 

"There are some people that enjoy the long-distance part of it, which could essentially be what keeps their relationships going ... They want relationships, but they don't want them taking over their lives," psychologist Karen Blair told New York magazine. 

There are more couples than ever thriving on that balance. Numbers vary, but some studies report nearly 75% of college students have been in a long-distance relationship; a Pew Research Center study found that of Internet users, 24% of those who've dated recently have used the Internet to maintain a long-distance relationship.

These days, far be it from me to long for my main squeeze or obsessively check my phone, waiting for an incoming text. I enjoy travel, have launched my own company and thrive on navigating social situations solo — as well as on the feeling that psychologists might call interdependence.

Casting a wide net — that's easy to relinquish: That I started long-distance dating a guy I'd met at a summer internship during college, or a man I met at a professional seminar, is no coincidence. Long-distance relationships seem natural when you consider that travel — for work, for pleasure, for family — is often spurred by a passion or interest, one that someone you meet in that destination may share.

Of course, finding a lifelong partner who shares values and passions can admittedly involve kissing a lot of frogs. But long-distancers won't need to pack their boxes and rebuild a new social circle every time one of them hops away. When my cross-collegiate relationship ended, I didn't have to explain the breakup to hosts of social media contacts or rebuild an entire friend group. 

Deciding, not sliding: My current long-distance relationship requires cross-continental Google Hangouts with sketchy Wi-Fi signals, dinner dates on Skype, lost love letters that arrive two months late, car accidents en route to see each other, overnight bus rides, communication misunderstandings and plenty of delayed gratification. 

It's a lot of conscious effort and decision-making that gets overlooked when young adults move into relationships and marriages. Sociologist Scott Stanley calls this "sliding vs. deciding," a process in which couples tend to slide through the important steps of a relationship without actively talking them through. 

Making a conscious effort to "decide" and not simply slide can happen whether you're together or apart, but being in the same place doesn't necessarily make it easier. In fact, sociologist Pamela Smock told the Huffington Postthat many couples actually "slide" into cohabiting. 

Being apart not only accelerates intimacy and improves communication, as studies of long-distance couples have shown; we're also forced to talk through the big decisions. Sliding? That's not an option. 

Distance FTW: Yes, long distance relationships mask a host of problems. "For me it was a nice escape from having to figure out how to function in a real relationship," one woman told New York's Maureen O'Connor for anarticle entitled "Could It Be That Long-Distance Relationships Are Actually Healthy?" It could be immaturity that really lies at the core, a half-hearted desire to commit.

But eventually, something will give — and couples who decide to stick it out are left better for it.

(This article first appeared on Mic. by yours truly.)  

The Fashion Label Helping Victims of Sex Trafficking Start Over

Runway shows have grown to be about the people attending, the music played, and the stunts performed — if attention is paid to the pieces of clothing, it's in the context of what trends they might launch, never how they were made. One designer, however, used her New York Fashion Week debut to put her seamstresses and their shared stories in the spotlight. With no previous background in fashion design, Anna Malika created a platform to raise awareness of sex trafficking and to help women who've been victimized to achieve independence. 

Sponsored by fashion brand Elegantees and as part of a permanent partnership with The Nepali Rescue Project, her collection presented last Friday was founded to provide these women with a trade and a sustainable source of income, which can be an important first step in a long process of healing. With 500 women on the waiting list to join the construction team at the Sewing Center, Anna Malika and Elegantees are just getting started. 

Born in India and adopted into an American home, Anna experienced sexual, emotional, and physical abuse as a small child, causing her to fall into a cycle of self-hatred and develop an eating disorder. As a teen, Anna would be lured by the false promises of someone who would become her trafficker. “During high school, I was brainwashed by a 40-year-old man into taking pictures for an ‘art project;’” she describes. “Later, I realized he was creating and selling pornographic photos of me and other young girls. When he passed away in 2009, I took action to retrieve what I thought were around 20 photos, only to find out there were thousands. I was in complete shock. Later, I began to fully understand what trafficking was.” Sadly, Anna’s experience may not be so uncommon; the prevalence of sex trafficking is commonly misunderstood and underestimated. 

Photo: Courtesy of Anna Malika.

The Polaris Project defines sex trafficking as the exploitation of a minor or individual through force, fraud, coercion, deception, or manipulation for use in commercial sex or sexual labor purposes, such as prostitution, pornography, sexual massages, or other sexual acts. According to the International Labour Organization, over 20 million individuals fall victim to human trafficking globally each year — 22% of which is related to forced sex work — and the industry is worth $150 billion worldwide. These numbers change depending on which NGO is reporting: the UN says there are 2.4 million victims of sex trafficking each year, and the U.S. State Department reports that between 600,000 and 800,000. Regardless of the numbers, the truth remains that it's a blight on society and one Malika is brave to try and face down.

Of course, this is not a tragedy that only takes place on foreign soil. Unicef describes the United States as one of the top destinations for victims of child trafficking and exploitation; cases have been reported in all 50 of the United States, involving potentially 100,000 children. Countless programs work to end sex trafficking — the Nepali Rescue Project, for example, aids 20,000 women and girls each year — but a lack of employment opportunities for those women can immediately threaten their newfound freedom, which is what makes Anna Malika's collection such an incredible endeavor. 

Photo: Courtesy of Anna Malika.

Gita and Binita, the two women pictured above, are just two of the seamstresses employed to design the New York Fashion Week collection, the proceeds of which go right back into the program to provide job opportunities for more women like them. Malika hopes to ensure that all women who are rescued get to experience the liberation that supporting oneself financially can bring.

Following her escape from her trafficker, and his death, Anna entered a rehabilitation program. After three years, she graduated with restored confidence in her self-worth, beauty, and independence. As she was careful to point out, "beauty is so much more than a size tag." When FIT graduate and Elegantees founder Katie Martinez discovered Anna Malika’s story and approached her with the opportunity to design a collection to debut during New York Fashion Week, Anna knew the time was right. And, the name would be “Freedom is the New Beautiful.”

According to her, “Freedom means letting go of defining myself off of my past. Fashion design is my way of expressing freedom, joy, and healing, while helping other women attain these things, as well.” The collection itself includes streamlined eveningwear and sophisticated separates — some adorned with pearl detailing, a meaningful addition for Anna. “Pearls go through a period of darkness inside their shells,” she says. “But, while in that darkness, they become something beautiful.”

The Anna Malika Collection will be available in late February. Sign up to receive an email notification of the launch day here.

This article first appeared on Refinery29 by yours truly.

For Women Afraid of Commitment-This Is for You

A catch up with girlfriends over coffee invariably becomes an all out hash-fest about our love lives. We do not hesitate to dive into the juicy stuff: who-likes-whom, who broke up, or—as it seems everyone is doing lately—who got engaged. Like every girl, I swoon for my friends who found Mr. Right and live on Cloud 9 and rejoice for that girlfriend who is expecting her first son. With engagement rings in my news feed and wedding vows being exchanged every month, the long-held stigma that men are afraid of commitment seems passé. But while obsessing over the minute details of my own current relationship with various gal pals, I made a startling realization: I am not the only woman on the world who harbors a secret. In my life, my guy is not the one hesitating about marital commitment. I am.

As someone who has lived in Manhattan for years, I love the active life of singledom made possible by this concrete jungle. Far be it from me to worry when my guy is going to put a ring on it, or spend sleepless nights envisioning a future of owning cats and living alone. In some ways, I take pride in being “single and sensational.” I do not avoid commitment entirely, per se. On the contrary, I try to be deeply loving and devoted as a girlfriend, friend, sibling, daughter, and while working with my clients through my company.

When it comes to committing to someone in marriage, however, I feel a deep knot of anxiety in my stomach. After all, marriage is for life.

In those honest conversations with my girlfriends, we share our dreams to travel, to start our own companies, to write. The same vision, drive, independence, and sense of adventure with which we navigate our lives as individuals simultaneously makes us afraid to dedicate ourselves to one person in marriage. We toss around questions like "How do I know if thisguy is the one to donate everything to forever?" or "What if we change?” “What if I have to give everything up?” These questions pose challenges to which we seek answers.

“You need a healthy fear of marriage like you need a healthy fear of the ocean,” a friend poignantly remarked the other day. No sooner had she finished that phrase than my mind instantly flashed back to my first visit to the ocean as a gangly middle-schooler. I felt awkward and uncertain, not sure how to deal with the ebb and flow of the violent waves. I watched other people swimming around me, but my own body felt like a rag doll in a blender. I was warned to avoid rip tides and still insist that a crab bit my toe. It was exciting and energizing to be in such a foreign environment, but also mildly terrifying. Today, however, I have less fear of the ocean. I have learned how to swim in it and even surf the waves. If marriage can be likened to the ocean, I have learned a few lessons on how we women can overcome our fear:

We need to acclimate to the environment:

We do not live in the environment of marriage. Although the divorce rate has steadily declined in recent years with 70% college graduates remaining married after the 10 year mark, marriage rates amongst millennials are at an all-time low of just 26%. The average age of first marriage continues to climb to historic heights, now hovering between 27 for women and 29 for men. In large metropolitan cities where young adults congregate, we are not surrounded by others who are married. For this reason, it is hard to imagine what life will be like after we tie the knot. Our married friends become harder to reach by phone, text, and e-mail, triggering our fear that those who get married no longer have lives outside of their new little love cocoons. To solve this problem, it would be helpful to hear more stories from married couples about their happiness, and be invited into their homes to get to know their families. We already do the singles bar scene well; we need to learn how to navigate a new environment.

We need to see examples of others who have what we want:

Who doesn't love Kate Middleton and Prince William or Beyoncé and JZ? Although we know our marriages won’t completely resemble theirs, to my driven and ambitious girlfriends and myself, we enjoy seeing married couples who still travel, who still have a romantic spark, and who are still culturally or professionally engaged. I think on some level, we also want marriages that not only enrich our immediate community but also play a pivotal role together in the culture.

Since these examples are so few, I personally searched the eastern coast to hand-pick exemplary couples who inspire me for their passion, purpose, and romance together. Setting up my “marriage mentors” panel with couples who have been married between five and 30 years reminds me that the kind of marriage I want exists. When I am ready to freak out about a small miscommunication with my boyfriend (and so much more!), I email them for advice or check in once a month to hear stories of their happy marriages. At my fingertips is a wealth of wisdom and encouragement, which is a game-changer.

We need to learn how to do it:

Finally, for the same reasons that made the ocean scary as a young girl, my fear of marriage comes from not knowing exactly how to “do it.” I am afraid of being incompetent. I ask myself, how will I deal with the storms that will arise, the ebb and flow of passion that swells and then dissipates after the honeymoon phase is over? What if a marital rip tide comes along and I have no idea how to get out of it? Just like I needed a swim coach, sometimes it is helpful to surrender my uncertainty to someone else. If you are like me, it is okay to confess these fears to a professional. We might need a life-raft. It could be a marriage mentor, professional therapist, a communication class, or the courage to be brutally honest in a relationship where both parties avoid talking about certain issues. Competence breeds confidence, and sometimes accumulating more skills helps alleviate the fear.

Making a commitment to marry is a huge decision and a big unknown. While still single, it is helpful to get acclimated to the environment of marriage, find concrete examples of married couples who have the type of life and love we want, and learn practical skills to help us move forward. As I do these things, I am confident it is just a matter of time before I am ready to go out into the deep.

This article first appeared on The Everygirl by yours truly.