To say that mental health is still a taboo topic in Pakistan would be the equivalent of stating that smoking kills; it is obvious to all. Since decades past, America observes May as the month dedicated to Mental Health, where authorities reach millions of people to spread awareness on the issue. Present day Pakistan, however, is a world apart where rampant stigma and ignorance about the subject prevails and people don’t engage in discourse with the same ease. According to a study, 50 million people in Pakistan are suffering from common mental disorders and if you’re working in creative jobs, you’re more likely to be a victim. Naturally, this transcends to fashion, an industry that has associations not only with the visual app that’s been recently declared insta-worst for mental health but also the long hours, low and irregular pay and gratuitous drama. Let’s talk about fashion and mental health.
The fashion industry is made up of the designers, media, photographers, PR professionals, stylists. They all work together, live glamorous lives and operate like a well-oiled machine. Or so think those on the outside; fashion insiders have a whole different story to tell. We know that some of the top international designers have openly struggled with mental health issues and recent “shakeups” at designer houses are proof of that. There is the constant pressure of being creative all the time, to be productive and to keep moving forward without having the time to take off and reflect as a corporate job may allow.
Kamiar Rokni, who has been a part of the local industry for as long as memory serves, weighs in. “It’s a creative field and creative people tend to be highly strung so when you’re in a perpetual state of creativity and have underlying issues you could go into a hyper state.” While international designers do have a lot more collections to cater to, i.e. resort, fall, summer, couture etc, Pakistan has its own set of engagement. There are different collections for pret, luxury pret, bridal, lawn, eid – no less. It’s a tired phrase, but one that remains true – in fashion, you’re only as good as your last collection which means the pressure is always on. A designer may not have much freedom, nor the necessary time to find fresh ideas and to innovate. Unfortunately, the issues run deeper than a lack of inspiration. Fashion designing is personal, artistic work that takes place in a unique environment where the pressure to be constantly prolific is heightened by high levels of competition, public criticism and the extent to which the creativity is tied to commercialism.
It is also difficult to separate the industry from the work culture that’s become a byproduct of it because of the nature of the work. Fashion means a packed social schedule of dinners, parties, PR events and other launches essentially blurring the lines between work and private life to a degree not seen in other sectors. Fashion professionals across the board face this unique and uncompromising combination of pressures. Constant re-invention, staying ahead of trends and the inherently fast-paced and relentless nature of the job makes it a stressful environment for workers at all levels. Despite being hugely rewarding, the combination of these factors means that isn’t always conducive to good mental health.
The fashion industry also has an unhealthy obsession with perfection, coupled with narrow standards of beauty, which directly affects those in front of cameras – the models. A leading model in the industry, Zara Peerzada shared, “The nature of the industry leaves you vulnerable to mental health issues. Especially in a country that has such singularly defined ideas of what people should be and what they should look like. Expression is judged. Personality is judged. You are judged, even more so if you are a woman. No matter how strong or self-assured you may be, it seeps in and it weighs down on you.”
It is true that the pressures of each industry are unique but what makes it more difficult is that only those in “the bubble” understand the problems. The rest find it “frivolous, glamorous and laidback,” which parts of it are but the greater portion isn’t. One pictures pressure in an industry like health care or banking but when you choose those career paths, you are coached and trained. They do things to make that professional stronger along the way but those in the Fashion designing
industry are almost always underprepared for managing the pressures of the industry and the ability to look after their own well-being.
Moreover, the stigma attached to talking about mental health problems includes feelings of weakness, failure and fear of rejection in the workplace. Many people are reluctant to speak up about their mental health problems and are therefore unable to get help from their employers. Rokni rightfully said, “It’s not a personality trait, its brain chemistry and it can be fixed but people stigmatize it. I feel that our fashion industry needs to look at the intellectual aspects of this field where we have discourse about philosophy of design, the creative experience and the effects of it. Let’s just talk about it!” Peerzada adds, “I think the evolution of society as a whole would help. If we learn to accept individuality in terms of both beauty and personality and applaud it instead of just carefully curated people.”
Unfortunately, the industry still needs to address these issues. The media, whether its ad campaigns or a magazine shoot – all thrive on glamour which cover up mental health problems. Businesses don’t profit from stories of the human behind the successful ad campaign, collections or the runway shows. It’s not as glamorous to talk about depression, anxiety and other issues people in fashion struggle with but it’s still a vital conversation to be had. Let’s talk.