Mental Health Awareness Week…where does #fashion stand on the issues?

This week, 14-20 May is Mental Health Awareness Week , hosted by the Mental Health Foundation @mentalhealth. This year the focus is on #stress. #mhaw18 #psychology #wellbeing

The #MH Foundation explain that “two thirds of us experience a mental health problem in our lifetimes and stress is a key factor in this. By tackling stress, we can go a long way to tackle mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and, in some instances, self-harm and suicide.” 

The British Psychological Society is hosting talks across the UK in support of #mhaw18.

As a psychologist working in fashion, I’m interested in the fashion industry’s concern with mental health and wellbeing.

A #fashion career is perceived as glamorous and exciting, but the reality is often somewhat different. The relentless fast pace, exacting demands and competitive nature of the industry take their toll on physical and mental health: some become dependent on drugs or alcohol, others develop eating disorders. It’s sadly not uncommon for high-profile designers to take their own lives as their careers propel then into the limelight and their lives spiral out of control. Too often the pressures and demands of the fashion industry have taken their toll on the wellbeing of its high-profile stars. #Designers are expected to create more and more collections, each better than the last. Justine Picardie, a biographer of Coco Chanel is quoted

 “People often think about fashion as if it’s just about the surface of things. But there’s often a very dark side to the life of a designer. The reason clothes are potent is because of what they are covering up.”

Designers are under increasing pressure to create more collections in a shorter time period. Combine this with the competitive nature of the industry, designers’ own high standards and the need to be available and on form 24/7, you have a recipe for #stress and #burnout.

A study from 2015 published in the Lancet reported that employees exceeding the EU working time of 48 hours per week were more likely to consume harmful levels of alcohol. Yet designers work far longer hours than this. One of the most famous British designers, the late Alexander McQueen (1969-2010), was found dead in his flat after taking a mixture of cocaine, sleeping pills and tranquilizers. His workload was believed to have had a direct effect on his mental state.  He had been suffering from anxiety and depression for at least three years and sadly, after 2 previous attempts, he took his own life. Although workload is blamed, other factors that could have contributed to his mental state include the suicide of one of his closest friends, the designer Isabella Blow, who had taken her life 3 years earlier, and the death of his mother in 2010.  Another high-profile designer, L’Wren Scott, who started her career as a model in Paris before moving to California and launching her fashion collections took her own life in 2014 following a period of depression.

Many more high profile designers are living with mental health problems. For example, the designer, Marc Jacobs has been in rehab twice, “I had been running around with models, stylists, fashion people, and I would spend nights drinking and partying.” John Galliano was fired from Dior for his racist rant and later admitted to regularly downing bottles of vodka and taking pills to help him switch-off. Galliano expressed these feelings in an interview with Vanity Fair: “I had all these voices in my head, asking so many questions. I was afraid to say no, I thought it showed weakness… I was going to end up in a mental asylum or six feet under.” Alber Elbaz, formerly of Lanvin told British Vogue, “I don’t understand this marathon of fashion…you start to understand why some designers do strange things… you have to find a way of dealing with it all.” Viktor & Rolf no longer design ready to wear. They say that the fast turnaround leaves no time to reflect so now they design only couture, not ready to wear. Azzedine Alaïa has also withdrawn from fashion weeks, showing his collections only when they are ready. Jean Paul Gaultier has said the frenetic pace took its toll. He was overseeing 32 collections a year for Dior and his own label: “I was emotionally, spiritually, physically, mentally bankrupt. Relying on drink and drugs to stop the voices in my head”. But one very high-profile designer seems not be concerned at all: Karl Lagerfeld is quoted as saying, “If you are not a good bullfighter, don’t enter the arena. Fashion is a sport now: You have to run.” 

The loneliness and pain that comes with addiction to perfectionism and always wanting to make something even more astonishing than the last are often blamed, but the punishing pace of the fashion industry doesn’t only take its toll on designers, models also feel the force and now they are starting to speak out.

French model, Victoire Dauxerre has written a book to warn young women of the pitfalls of modelling. Interviewed by the Independent in March 2017, she tells how she survived on a diet of three apples a day, one replacing each meal, when she worked as a high-fashion model. The 24-year-old was scouted while walking with her mother at age 17 in Paris. Aged just 18, she weighed 56kg (8st 8lbs) at 5ft 10 inches and was told to lose two inches around her waist and get herself down to a size two to fit into the samples for the shows. This sparked an eight-month struggle with anorexia and later bulimia. In an interview with The Independent, Dauxerre says: “I thought I would control it and could do for a month or two until I had correct weight and then would eat again and it would be ok, but actually it doesn’t work like that.” After two months of extreme dieting, they said she was perfect at 47kg (7st 4lbs). Dauxerre says she was “destroyed psychologically” by her experience of modelling and would often feel dehumanised claiming she was regularly not referred to by name or even looked in the eye by many of the designers and hair and makeup artists. Other models have also spoken out. Cara Delevingne tweeted about her long battle with depression last year. She said “I suffer from depression and was a model during a particularly rough patch of self-hatred. I am so lucky for the work I get to do, but I used to work to try and escape and just ended up completely exhausting myself. I am focusing on filming and trying to learn not to pick apart my every flaw. I am really good at that. ” Vogue’s recent cover model Adwoa Aboah, has also spoken about her mental health as have many other models….

In an interview with Dazed (http://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/31198/1/unpacking-fashion-s-mental-health-problem), a male model is quoted as saying “I’d say the effect my job has had on my mental and emotional wellbeing has been the single biggest thing I’ve had to contend with since I started modelling, three years ago. I’m not suggesting that my job or the industry itself are to blame, but they’ve played a firm hand in exacerbating existing issues”.

More than a decade ago, the British Fashion Council commissioned an investigation into the working lives of models, The Model Health Inquiry (2007). It reports on the less glamorous side of modelling: “it is peopled by young and potentially vulnerable workers – the majority of them women – who are self-employed and do not have adequate support. For many, their careers are short, and they endure working conditions that are damaging to their health”. It also suggests that models participating in London Fashion Week should provide a medical certificate attesting their good health from doctors on an accredited list of medical experts with expertise in recognising eating disorders. In addition, a models’ health education and awareness programme should be established to teach industry partners how to identify and advise models with eating disorders, provide peer and online support for models, parents, agencies and casting directors supplemented by a telephone help line. Models should also have access to a counsellor. As a result of the enquiry, Erin O’Connor @Erin_O_Connor, one of the world’s top models, set up the Model Sanctuary in 2008, a space during fashion week where models could seek advice from nutritionists and psychotherapists. Sadly, due to lack of funding, the Model Sanctuary closed in 2012. 

Also in 2007, a study comparing 56 models with 53 young people in different occupations by Meyer et al. at City University, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology and reported in the Independent, found that models reported lower levels of happiness, psychological fulfilment and feelings of competence than their counterparts. The authors, two of whom had been fashion models, found that despite their earning power and status as icons of beauty. Models reported feeling that their lives were out of their control as they were ordered about by clients, used as clothes horses and valued for their looks rather than their skills. This fuelled their obsession with weight, dieting and the quest for size zero. “The industry needs to ensure their working conditions do not undermine their psychological well-being.”

This blog hasn’t touched on the influence of the fashion industry on its consumers’ wellbeing. That’s for another blog this week. For now, there is much to be done. Joining in Mental Health Awareness Week, speaking out and encouraging others to do so is something we can all do. Follow this link for more information from the Mental health Foundation to see how you can get involved.

You may be interested in these associated links:

Mind: Mental Health Awareness Week 2018

British Psychological Society: Mental Health Awareness Week – Suicide Prevention

Business of Fashion: Does Fashion Have a Mental Health Problem?

London College of Fashion: Mental Health Issues in the Fashion and Creative Industries

2018-05-15T07:30:39+00:00 May 14th, 2018|

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