June 27, 2012 4:32 AM EDT

In 1982, photographer Donna Ferrato was commissioned by Playboy Japan to document the lives of a polyamorous couple in New Jersey. Though they appeared to have successfully balanced raising a family and owning a home with their open marriage, Ferrato soon discovered—and photographed—a physically abusive husband who routinely beat his wife. The horrific events inspired her to begin documenting domestic violence across the country, and over the last 30 years, Ferrato has visited countless shelters, police stations and hospitals in her search for stories; her seminal book on the topic, Living With the Enemy, was published in 1991.

In the bleak days during the war in Iraq, the Army was hungry for troops. So the service eased up on some of its grooming standards, and issued waivers for recruits who had used drugs or committed similar infractions that used to be sufficient to keep them out of the Army. But after peaking at 570,000 troops, the Army is now slated to fall to as low as 420,000 over the next several years—a reduction of more than 25%. And that means the Army is getting increasingly picky. So waivers are disappearing, along with some of the relaxed personal-appearance regulations that the Army tolerated during its lean recruiting years. The new regulations, released Monday, clamp down on tattoos, haircuts and sideburns, fingernails, teeth and jewelry. Tattoos are a big deal in the military. But from here on out, tattoos are barred from a soldier's head, face, neck, wrist, hands and fingers (existing tattoos in those locations are permitted). Anyone enlisted soldier with such tattoos will not be considered for promotion to warrant officer or officer ranks. Also controversial are rules for female hairstyles, which some soldiers say are “racially biased” against minorities. More than 7,500 people have signed a White House petition seeking to change the Army’s new ban on hairstyles including “twists, both flat twists as well as two strand twists; as well as dreadlocks, which are defined as ‘any matted or locked coils or ropes of hair.’” The tightened regs “give soldiers and leaders the responsibility for ensuring our appearance reflects the highest level of professionalism,” says Lieut. Colonel Justin Platt, an Army spokesman. “All adjustments made within these regulations went through an extensive decision-making process with continuous input from various levels of Army leaders.” Among other excerpts from the new regulations: Males may not wear nail polish. Attaching, affixing, or displaying objects, articles, jewelry, or ornamentation to, through, or under their skin, tongue, or any other body part is prohibited. The use of gold caps, platinum caps, or caps of any unnatural color or texture (permanent or removable) for purposes of dental ornamentation is prohibited. Unnatural shaping of teeth for nonmedical reasons is prohibited. Soldiers are prohibited from willful mutilation of the body or any body manner parts in any manner. Examples include, but are not limited to, tongue bifurcation (splitting of the tongue) or ear gauging (enlarged holes in the lobe of the ear, which are beyond the post hole size for conservative earring wearer, no more than 1.6mm). Soldiers are not authorized to wear wireless and nonwireless devices such as earpieces while wearing Army uniforms. And, in a sure sign the nation is returning to a peacetime Army: "Personnel on official travel and traveling by commercial travel means will wear the service uniform or appropriate civilian attire. Combat uniforms are no longer authorized."
Donna Ferrato

Over the past five years, though, Ferrato has refined her topic matter, focusing specifically on those women who have left their abusers in a series called I Am Unbeatable. “I was so upset that many young women were putting up with abuse and romanticizing it,” she says. “I wanted to show how much better life became when the woman left the abuser.” The photographer became especially passionate about highlighting this angle when she saw that singer Rihanna had gotten back together with Chris Brown, an ex-boyfriend who brutally beat her the day before she was scheduled to attend the 2009 Grammy Awards. “It shows the confusion among young women in deciding to leave their abuser,” she says. “It was especially upsetting given how many young fans follow Rihanna’s every move.”

There are plenty of young people in Ferrato’s pictures as well; she realized that speaking to children of victims and incorporating their feelings into the series was just as important as showcasing the victims themselves. Ferrato is currently trying to raise money to turn her series in a book and film, with the hopes of inspiring women to leave their abusive partners. “People need to see a different picture—a picture of how much better these women’s lives are when they aren’t broken down by abuse,” Ferrato says. “And, at the same time, I want to recognize the bravery it takes for women to get away from abusers.”

Donna Ferrato is a photographer and activist based in New York. See more of her work here and support I Am Unbeatable here .

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