From the outside, the fashion industry looks like the ultimate reality show: glamour, travel, extravagance, lavish parties, colorful characters, and everyday high drama. However, the experience of people inside the industry often has a whole other side that can result in serious damage to mental health. The proportion of mental health problems in the fashion industry is higher than average, but it is important to avoid romantic notions or easy assumptions that people in this industry somehow need or deserve to suffer for their art.
What is it about the fashion industry that makes people especially vulnerable to mental health problems? Models, designers, and professionals of all kinds are subject to fast-paced jobs with high stress, long hours, and low or irregular pay. Personal, artistic work takes place in an environment where the pressure to be constantly prolific is heightened by high levels of competition and public criticism.
It is difficult to separate the industry from the culture of fashion because the nature of the work makes it difficult to maintain a work-life balance. Heavy workloads and busy schedules become part of the daily experience when fashion cycles for “ready to wear” collections can have a turnaround time of just three weeks. The annual engagements calendar is packed with fashion weeks and one-off events that require round-the-clock availability.
Evening work and social events coupled with early rises deprive workers of sleep and downtime. Some experience feelings of guilt and inadequacy if they cannot maintain energy levels and keep up with the pace. With so little time to relax and disconnect, many people turn to the use of alcohol and drugs as a quick escape and fall into long-term addiction.
Models are subject to continuous scrutiny based on a narrow standard of beauty that normalizes a tall, slim physique. The demand for almost super-human perfection competing with the fictions of Photoshop has a dehumanizing effect on physical and mental levels. Models who are artistically and financially dependent on approval can suffer from low self-esteem, eating disorders, anxiety, or depression. Teenage models dealing with adult pressures away from their personal support system of friends and family are particularly vulnerable.
Unfortunately, the industry has a long way to go with addressing these issues, despite the urgent and worsening situation. The press, internet, and even product sales all thrive on glamour and scandal, which cover up mental health problems. Young people in particular are tormented by a need to fit in with the in-crowd, and in fashion it is almost a professional necessity. The stigma attached to talking about mental health problems includes feelings of weakness, failure, and fear of rejection. Many people are reluctant to speak up about their mental health problems and are therefore unable to get help from their employers. Yet all employers should be interested, if only because mental health problems lead to absenteeism, lower productivity, and substantially reduced revenue.
Stigma is powerful but not permanent because it is a social concept that can change. It is time for fashion companies to open up a new dialogue about good mental health through awareness, education, and support systems that can make break down the power of stigma. They have the potential to reach out to people who feel isolated and let those at breaking point know that there is still help at hand.
There are several ways that mental health can be improved. According to Newport Academy, which specializes in healing treatment for teens and their families, methods can be clinical, therapeutic, and holistic. Young people especially yearn for a sense of belonging and of connection with themselves and those around them. There is a need for information about exercise, nutrition, relaxation, and wellness that gives people strategies to keep moving through difficult situations. At a structural level, managers can receive training on how to recognize and respond to symptoms of mental health problems in the same way that they would apply first aid. Workshops on time and stress management, mindfulness, and art therapy are just some examples of the methods available for individuals to find their own paths to health and happiness.
A career in the fashion industry can be creative, stimulating, adrenaline-filled, and glamorous, but the rigorous demands of the sector mean that the development of coping mechanisms is at least as, if not more, important than professional skills and experience. No one is born with these skills, and teenagers especially have much to gain from solid guidance and support. When the going gets tough, as it inevitably does, it is important to know where to get help and when to take time out. That way, burnout and loneliness are avoided, and it is easier to get back on track to the “feel good” and “feel right” factor that everyone deserves.
All photos by Benoit Auguste at Paris Fashion Week MASHAMA Fall Winter 2017 fashion show.