Throw on some sweatpants, eat a tub of ice cream, queue up a “chick flick” and cry. That’s the stereotype of post-breakup women pop culture has been peddling for decades, with its sole alternative being the image of a girl who’s hellbent on revenge, keying her ex’s car and slashing his tires.
Halima Boutaleb fit neither of these archetypes, however. Last May, after ending an on-and-off again relationship she described as “toxic,” the 24-year-old came across an Instagram post with a simple message: “if he cared about you, he’d text you.” The message was straightforward, yet it turned out to be exactly what she needed — a reminder that when a person gets to the point where they are begging their partner for communication, it may be that the relationship is no longer healthy for them.
“I was kind of completely shocked at how I let myself just fall apart. I didn’t recognize myself. I went from being on top of the world to being a completely broken human being,” Boutaleb told NBC News. “I was so confident. I understood and practiced self-love but something about the inadequate way he was treating me made me question every single thing about myself.”
Inspired by the Instagram post, Boutaleb decided to create her own social media accounts on Twitter and Instagram under the handle @imdatfeminist and share affirmations and advice with women who might be struggling with their own toxic relationships.
“I had no intention of this being a big thing,” Boutaleb told NBC News. “I was doing it to hold myself accountable so I wouldn’t be tempted to reach out to my ex and if one other person saw it and realized they deserved better, it’d be worth it.”
Yet her accounts did become a “big thing,” surpassing her expectations. Whereas once Boutaleb got excited when an early tweet received 13 likes, a recent tweet — in which she wrote, “If you catch yourself BEGGING someone for.....human decency? a response? time together? clarity? respect? some compassion? some kindness? You need to take a step back and realize that you're begging someone for the bare minimum. That's ridiculous and beneath you” — received more than 250,000 likes and 88,000 retweets.
Boutaleb has more than 45,000 followers on Twitter and more than 11,000 followers on Instagram and one not need look further than the comment sections of imdatfeminist’s posts to see just how widely these messages about reclaiming their time, setting boundaries and focusing on their own healing are resonating with young women.
From Steve Harvey’s “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man” to “He’s Just Not that Into You” by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo — based on a “Sex and the City” episode — manuals instructing women about how to get and keep their dream man abound. Yet such books and movies are dated and don’t account for the fact that less people are getting married, more women are achieving higher levels of education and that technology has shifted the etiquette of modern relationships. Disney movies, which Boutaleb cites as her first example of relationships, fail to give a complete picture of life beyond marriage.
Enter imdatfeminist’s account, one that has been praised with providing young women in particular, who are navigating technology and relationships and who often have few other resources to turn to for information about healthy relationships with themselves and others.
“The accounts are serving a function for young women, for whom there is a desperate need to see models of healthy relationships,” Dr. Gunnur Karakart, an associate professor who focuses on emotional abuse and relationship health at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine, told NBC News. “It’s important for young people to hear this information, particularly about establishing boundaries, from a lay person versus a professional perspective as it may make it more accessible to them and can help them determine what behavior is acceptable and what is not.”
Though Karakart said that the account cannot substitute therapy for someone dealing with a hostile relationship, the “imdatfeminist” pages succeed in destigmatizing difficult conversations regarding relationship health and empowering women to identify subtle ways they may be experiencing emotional abuse which expands “relationship literacy” and may be the first step they need to seek help, should they need it.
“The thing about toxic relationships is that they’re so insidious and harmful because it makes you question your worth as a human being and that is so harmful, especially when you’re young,” Boutaleb said. “Every single one of my friends has a story of this extremely toxic guy who completely ruins them. And these women are beautiful and smart and I just see them being crushed by someone who is mediocre and disappointing and I got so frustrated with that and wanted to address it in a public way.”
Boutaleb’s approach is multi-pronged, her messages a mixture of acerbic, tell-it-like-it-is posts combined with empathetic empowering ones. In one post, for example, she’ll tell her followers that the only reason a particular partner keeps returning to them is not because their connection is so strong, but because he knows you will let him get away with putting in “minimal effort” into the relationship. In the next, she urges people that they’re not weak for crying and instructs them to “move forward,” even though they “are going through something incredibly difficult.”
“I'm not judging you. I've been there. In a perfect world, we would leave after the first red flag, but it's not black and white,” Boutaleb said. “I want my followers to know you can have every single amazing thing that your heart desires once you set standards for those into your life and that extraordinary love exists. It may sound like I don't believe that, but I do and that’s why I tweet.”
Though Boutaleb has found healing and clarity regarding her past relationship, she said she plans to continue using the account and enjoys speaking to her followers through direct messages. She hopes to create her own YouTube channel and write a book based on the account, where she will touch upon similar themes.
“As women we want to be chill; we want to be a cool girlfriend; we walk to be so patient and forgiving. And I slam this on my account all the time,” Boutaleb said. “I say, you don’t have to be forgiving. You don't have to accept mediocrity when it comes to relationships or any aspect of your life. You're allowed to have high standards for who you share your precious time and affection with.”