Beauty salons are intimate gathering places where women chat, confide and nourish more than hair and nails. Now, some are playing potentially life-saving roles in a network helping battered women take care of beauty and bruises, body and soul.

Tube of lipstick and words: Are U In An Abusive

WASHINGTON, D.C.–The next time you go in for a little pampering at the beauty salon in the nation’s capital, your stylist may slip you something that could save your life as well as your cuticles.

Cleverly concealed inside a slick, high-fashion lipstick case, a rolled-up bookmark asks, "Are you in an abusive relationship?" and offers a quiz to help women recognize whether they are victims of domestic violence. A lovely lavender nail file reads "Real Love Doesn’t Hurt" and provides a hotline number for a women’s shelter.

This is the latest strategy to get information about domestic violence and potential assistance into the hands of the women who need it most–without adding to their endangerment.

"When women are in an abusive relationship and they pick up information about domestic violence, they’re putting themselves in danger because if their abusers see it they’ll get in trouble," explains Suzanne Marcus, founder of the Washington, D.C., shelter, My Sister’s Place.

After realizing that beauty salons play a unique role in women’s lives, Marcus launched her unusual outreach program to involve beauty salons in the fight against battering–which is the leading cause of injury among women. Now, 65 salons in the Washington area are distributing nail files and lipstick cases with messages in English and Spanish.

"A lot of salons are really community places, where women will come and spend up to eight hours if they’re getting braids or something else, and stylists say women really open up to them," she said, adding with a laugh, "I know I do."

850,000 Women Report Domestic Violence Each Year

About a million Americans reported they were victims of some form of domestic violence every year, 85 percent of them women, according to Justice Department statistics. Experts estimated that only about half of the attacks are reported. Intimate partner attacks made up 22 percent of violent crimes against women from 1993 to 1998, the last reporting period.

Troops of "outreach volunteers" have visited about 65 salons in the Washington area to talk to stylists about identifying signs of abuse. Hair stylists, manicurists and massage therapists can spot bruises, for example, and supply women with information on getting help.

A cleverly designed lavender flier entitled, "Take Care of Your Body" on one side offers tips on nail care and relaxation techniques. The reverse side urges, "Take Care of Your Soul," with what looks like a page ripped out of a women’s magazine providing a quiz, "Is Your Love Life Healthy?"

Questions include "Do you find yourself keeping details of your relationship from your family?" to "Does your partner shove you, slap you, or hit you?" It provides a scale to determine whether a woman needs help and then offers about 20 hotline telephone numbers.

"We figured women would be more likely to pick that up than something more in-your-face," says Marcus.

Warning on a Nail File: Real Love Doesn’t Hurt

The stealthy slip inside the lipstick is more direct, providing practical tips on how to leave a relationship, such as collecting important papers, leaving a false trail and keeping a copy of any restraining orders with you at all times.

"Nail files and the lipsticks–men are just not going to touch them," explains Marcus.

MAC donated 2,000 empty, high-end lipstick cases to the cause and another big-name line, Aveda, has joined the fight.

Aveda area manager Holly Landau said she just had to order more materials from My Sister’s Place for her two Virginia stores in Tyson’s Corners and Pentagon City.

"All of them are just flying out the door," said Landau, who has placed them in plain sight in the salons but also in the restroom, where they deplete more rapidly. "We’ve noticed the pile going down and that’s how we know it’s effective. People have been taking them on their own time and in private," she said.

Marcus acknowledged that it was difficult to gauge how well her program is doing, though she said there has clearly been a surge in calls since its inception a year ago.

One survivor of several severely abusive relationships says such a program could have spared her years of trauma.

Survivor Says My Sister’s Place Would Have HelpedFusion Beauty Salon

Sandra Mizell grew up in a violent and abuse family situation and then she went on to marry a man who abused her. She walked out after he held a gun to her head in front of her two-year-old son. Still, she continued with one abusive relationship after another.

"I didn’t know that’s what it was called, I just figured we were just dysfunctional," said Mizell. She finally met a man who recognized her problem and five years ago found her psychological help that helped her recognize the abuse.

"Even then I didn’t realize places like My Sister’s Place existed. It was only by chance I came across it because I was looking for a place to volunteer," says Mizell, who works full-time as the assistant to the head of the National Academies information systems office.

She estimated that 70 percent of the abused women she knows didn’t know that shelters for battered women existed or that there was legal, medical and psychological help available.

"I go to get my hair done every week. Had I seen this I would have thought maybe I should go there," she said. Her friends knew something was wrong, she said, "but they didn’t want to pry."

Yet, Marcus says that her outreach was "a hard sell" at some salons because some stylists also don’t want to pry. "Domestic violence is never an easy issue to get people excited about and some are concerned an abuser will go after the salon owner," said Marcus. One reluctant stylist refused to participate, saying she wasn’t a therapist.

But offering information is all Marcus is asking.

"Our goal is not just to get women out of abusive situations but to stop the abuse from happening in the first place," she said.

Gretchen Cook covers the White House for the international news agency, Agence France-Presse.