“A Girl Can’t Read That Sort Of Thing Without Her Lipstick”; The Relationship Between Mental Health And Fashion

The relationship between mental health and fashion is far more complicated than I feel it is often given credit for. One wouldn’t be hard-pressed to find evidence that the fashion industry is problematic and you could easily argue that it is guilty of promoting unhealthy images of rock-hard abs and hardly-there waistlines. What I wish to discuss is the other side of the coin, the way in which my mental health and fashion intertwine, in particular the way in which fashion helps me manage my mental health and how I have always found it as empowering.

Before that can be discussed, I need to clarify that for simplicity’s sake I am separating fashion from the fashion industry, in the sense that I am writing about what I personally choose to wear, not the system of greater fashion powers that dictate what fashion is in trend.

I am diagnosed with both anxiety and depression, with my anxiety triggers being predominantly socially based. Due to this I find social environments to be terribly turbulent, almost comparable to a battlefield in which sharpened blades are replaced with sharp outfits. My social anxiety often fills my head with thoughts of why the new person won’t like me, that their first impression of me will probably be a bad one, and that I must resign myself to this fate. As with much anxiety, I believe the problem to stem from a basic lack of control and a sense of unrest installed by this. Again, as with much of my anxiety, I cope by attempting to reclaim what control I can in the situation. I can’t easily control the fact my personality may be un-ideal, or that I have the wit of a manatee, and I certainly can’t control the thought process of other people, I can however take control and even ownership of the superficial elements of my personal presentation, namely how I dress. It may not sound like much, and when I try to describe this to people I am often dismissed as shallow, but I do believe it to be a one of the most effective techniques I have for managing my mental health.

To take a story from my own narrative, I spent a recent weekend attending a networking event, a conference and a training day. Networking is a personal source of terror for me. It’s an intense combination of meeting new people, learning names, trying to sound interesting (and if, like me, you’re not that interesting- keeping up with the endless lies you will probably tell about yourself to seem more interesting), and worst of all you are standing up for most it. Much like Holly Golightly who can’t face bad news “without her lipstick” I don’t think I could have navigated this social landscape without a series of snazzy outfits. I am most anxious about first impressions, that immediate phase of meeting someone in which they decide whether you’re worthy of respect or whether you’re simply a bumbling fool in a suit. I dress so that someone’s first impression of me is more likely to be about the way I dress, while some people may see this as demeaning to myself, it takes away the pressure. I feel much more at ease with someone if they’re first impression is- at least- not negative, and as a result I’m more likely to be a better version of myself. Dressing well, and subscribing to the performance of confidence has cause and effect and helps my self-confidence overcome my anxiety.

Saying this, it’s not at all about looking good (if it was I would have no authority on the matter), it’s very much about feeling good (a matter I have slightly more authority on). Anxiety and depression feel as if they run through your whole body, almost acting as an independent nervous system, capable of affecting your brain, heart and your very spirit. It makes it difficult to see you as someone people would want to spend their time with, and it makes many situations feel overwhelming. At times it honestly feels as if every atom of your existence is telling you that you’re not good enough. In these moments I have to grab anything I can to feel good about, for me that often takes the form of what I’m wearing. Mindfulness often involves focusing on one small sensation in an attempt to not become overwhelmed; this can be extrapolated away from the interior and onto the exterior. Life with anxiety can be a challenge, but it’s made significantly easier if you are able to focus on one thing you’re happy about. I don’t mean to suggest that by picking up the latest issue of Vogue, and dressing like the cover you’ll suddenly become a socialite to rival the Kardashians, instead I suggest people dress in a way that makes them happy. Clothes provide people with not only an opportunity to be expressive. Depression may tell me that I am an awful person, but it’s a lot harder to feel bad about that when I’m wearing a mustard snood that feels like a hug, or a suit that makes me feel like James Bond (at least James Bond if you cross him with Attitude magazine). There is a definite nature to clothes, and the extremely subjective and personal nature of clothing almost circles it around to being objective. I know definitively what makes me happy to wear and I know what makes me feel good to wear, neither of those that can’t be argued against, and that can’t be taken away by someone else or even by my own mental health.

My interest in fashion certainly stemmed from my own insecurity and my own baggage, but it developed into being more than merely a coping mechanism, and became something I hold deeply dear to me. At the end of the day I may be unhappy with the way my mind works at times, but I can be happy with how I look.
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