Mental health issues in fashion bring traditional practices into question

Adwoa Aboa (left) and Sara Ziff (right) are pictured. via Instagram

Content warning: This article discusses suicide and mental health.

The fashion world has a problematic past when it comes to how it approaches the mental health of the people who are a part of it. Models are subject to an intense amount of pressure from different stakeholders in the fashion industry that is not sustainable in the long term. Because of the stigma attached to mental health issues, these models are rarely in an optimal position to speak out about their experiences. The rise of Instagram and other social networks as platforms where fashion content is posted 24/7 has also had harmful effects on the expectations people have for models and their lifestyles. In order to be booked frequently, models have to maintain an online presence that is consistent with their glamorous appearance on the catwalk. This often results in models burning out very early due to exhaustion from the excessive pressure and expectations of the people around them. However, several women involved in the fashion are initiating conversations about mental health.

In a recent interview with Vogue, Sara Ziff, founder of fashion model rights group Model Alliance, talked about her research concerning eating disorders in the fashion industry. Ziff estimates that over 62 percent of models that were interviewed in her collaborative study with Harvard University, Northeastern University and Boston Children’s Hospital, had been encouraged to lose weight or change their size by their modeling agency or by their clients. Ziff expressed her concern about modeling as a career, arguing that conditions similarly dangerous for workers’ mental health exist in very few other fields. “If you think about modeling as a job where you’re subject to maybe unsafe working conditions, I think you can appreciate the need for having some basic health and safety standards,” Ziff said.

Adwoa Aboah, the 26-year-old British supermodel who recently headlined a Burberry campaign, has often spoken out about her personal struggles with mental health before and after her modeling career. Last year, Aboah starred in a video sponsored by Heads Together, a mental health charity fronted by Kate Middleton and Princes William and Harry, holding a conversation with her mother about her suicide attempt as a teenager. In an effort to end the stigma surrounding mental health conversations and to challenge perceptions of the seemingly idyllic lifestyle of fashion models, Aboah founded Gurls Talk, an open online platform where users are welcome to share their experiences with mental health issues. In a recent post on Gurls Talk, model and actress Phoebe Torrance describes an anxiety attack she had on the day of a photoshoot for a swimwear brand, when she also posted a picture of herself captioned “Summer smiles.” Torrance recounted the episode to demonstrate that social media users often do not get the full picture when scrolling through their feeds, and it is hard to tell when someone is struggling with mental health since it is such a difficult topic to discuss.

The toxic side of the fashion world does not solely affect models, however. The fashion school of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Antwerp in Belgium, one of the most prestigious programs in the fashion world, recently made headlines after one of its students committed suicide. The teaching methods of Walter Van Beirendonck, the director of the program, were immediately questioned. They were deemed to be excessively intense by students and alumni alike. In an interview with The Business of Fashion, Wilton Gorske, a former student of the Academy who dropped out after one year, said “It wasn’t until I left the Academy that I realized how incredibly misguided the intentions were of the professors in how they treated us as students.” Gorske also said that “there’s a difference between constructive criticism and manipulation,” referring to the often emotionally damaging critiques made by professors to their students.

It is, above all, important for authority figures in the fashion world to re-evaluate their practices and start considering the mental health of its stakeholders with less power in the industry. The conversation about mental health is a fundamental one to have, and initiatives like the ones led by Ziff and Aboah are vital to the welfare of people who are a part of the fashion world.


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