Aweng Chuol and Alexis Henry Talk the Importance of Mental Health in Fashion

The two models chat with us about their mental health awareness panel, organized by Austell Place and Heart for Art.
Reading time 9 minutes
Photograph by Sydney Claire via Instagram

As conversations surrounding Mental Health become less stigmatized, the topic has been brought up in its relationship to fashion. According to the National Alliance of Mental Health 1 in every five adults experience a mental illness, and LGBTQIA+ individuals are 2 or more times more likely as straight individuals to have a mental health condition. In this Instagram era where perfectionism is often highlighted, it is events like Heart for Art’s Mental Health in Fashion Talk was so vital. 

The event was produced by Austell Place, the former industrial building in Long Island City, that 138,000 square foot industrial building that has been transformed into a creative office building. Moderated by photographer Sydney Claire, the panel included: Holistic Nutritionist and Painter Bianca Valle, DJ and Art Director Aurielle Sayeh, Writers Shelcy & Christy Joseph and Model Alexis Henry. Icon, model, and activist Aweng Chuol had to jet off to London for a shoot so she was not able to be present for the panel but answered questions from viewers via Instagram live stream. The event the first of a new series aimed to make conversations surrounding mental health more transparent amongst young creatives.

Photo by Kwabena Appiah-nti via Aweng's Instagram

What was it that made you want to be apart of this event?

ALEXIS HENRY: The need for more transparency in today’s fashion culture, honestly. I know what I go through on a daily basis and I know I’m not alone. Yet, I also know that some don’t speak up or get the help and I think reminding my peers and culture that it’s okay to go through this was needed.

AWENG CHUOL: I have been involved in many ongoing mental health initiatives throughout my career. In fact, I will be speaking at the UN’s mental health forum this year. This panel presented the opportunity to discuss issues that are very prevalent in the fashion industry. I really wanted the opportunity to share my experiences as a young, South Sudanese refugee working as a high fashion model. Austell Place's vacant corporate office space was the perfect setting with their beautiful and serene skyline view. 


Since you started modeling, how do you think it’s affected your mental health?

AH: I’ve noticed my anxiety has risen to some degree but it also forces me to learn how to manage it. People looking from the outside wouldn’t even know to be honest. The pressures to be a specific way can take a toll on how you view yourself but I’m happily at a point in my career where I’m okay with the outcomes as long as I’m achieving the goals I’ve created for myself. The fashion industry is so highly unpredictable and I’m a woman that likes to plan. It can sometimes be disappointing but you learn to get through the challenges and be happy for the wins. 

AC: As a model, I am constantly feeling pressure all around me, as well as the own pressure I place on myself to create a platform and constantly strive for success. The pressures can become very taxing, and sometimes I am left feeling anxious or disappointed. My job allows me to have the opportunity to work around the world and as blessed as I am to have these opportunities, it can become very demanding.


In the industry who have you looked to for support? What resources have your agency put in place, or what do they need to put in place?

AH: I look to my creative team for support or my stylist who is also my best friend, Kafui Akapoko. I also talk about it on my social media with those that also are going through their own mental health challenges. To me, I think that if agencies made mental health a top priority for their models, you would help combat so many other issues and disorders we face within the industry. Set up a monthly retreat for your models, invite a yoga instructor into the agencies, do wellness checks on your models. If we cared more about the mental health first, you would have happier more balanced models that actually enjoy their jobs. That’s where the real confidence comes from; happiness. 

AC: Throughout both my life and career, I have always looked to my mom and family for support. I am the oldest of twelve children, and I have the utmost respect and love for my mom who raised us with such grace. She continues to be a major foundation of support for me. Regarding my agency, I am often booked for shoots across the world in 12 hour time periods. This type of work schedule is very demanding and it sometimes can be too much in too little time. 


Being a model in 2019, social media is really important to your career but studies have shown that Instagram can really have a negative impact on your mental health? How do you navigate having a healthy relationship with it?

AH: Balance. Instagram is a highlight reel of our best accomplishments, right? So knowing what’s triggering and what causes us to judge ourselves off of photos we don’t even know the backstory too, I think is key. Mute or unfollow accounts that don’t bring you joy or inspiration and log off when you feel low about what you’re seeing. I also think by spreading positive messaging helps. Genuinely supporting other creatives by sharing their work, giving true affirmations on posts , and just being a good person to everyone. Kindness will take you further in life than anything in this world. 

AC:  Instagram can be whatever you make of it, so for me I try to navigate it in a way that is very positive and impactful. Rather than looking to instagram for comparison and critique, I use it as an outlet for creative inspiration and support. I have the ability to connect with so many people who share similar experiences and aspirations in the fashion industry, and this form of connection has allowed me to cultivate a community of support. 


What are some things in your respective fields that contribute to negative mental health that people wouldn’t necessarily think about it?

AH: As a model, I would have to say people being surprised when I say I’m a model in the first place. I’ve been sized up on the basis that I’m a size 18 until they see my work. Another would have to be negative comparison. I’ve had past agents and industry people tell me “why can’t you be more like her”? Or “you really need to model like this model”. That drains you over time until you find your superpower and start doing what you want. 

AC:  I am a full-time law student, and this is often overlooked by many people. It is so important for me to pursue both my education as well as my modeling career. Making time for my personal interests is so important to me, and sometimes the amount of travel that my job entails takes priority over many other important aspects of my life. Finding the balance between all of my aspirations is very challenging, yet absolutely necessary as a young adult navigating my career.


What is one misconception about your job?

AH: The biggest misconception about my job is that my life is fully and completely fabulous. I make tons and tons of money and everything is perfect. It couldn’t be further from the truth, but we’re working on the “tons of money” part. 

AC: Everyone is quick to assume that the fashion industry is glamorous, when it really isn’t. It entails long hours, crazy travel, and a strenuous schedule.


What advancements are you looking forward to in the modeling industry?

AH: The biggest misconception about my job is that my life is fully and completely fabulous. I make tons and tons of money and everything is perfect. It couldn’t be further from the truth, but we’re working on the “tons of money” part. 

AC: There have been great strides in increasing inclusion in the fashion industry, but I believe there can be major improvements to be made. The fashion community needs to be an environment where individuals in all roles—whether it’s models, stylists, makeup artists, creative directors—feel comfortable and confident to talk about the importance of mental health.


Heart for Art's and Austell Place's next panel will take place in early August. The theme will be How Mental Health in Fashion is portrayed in Media and Advertising. For more information follow @austellplace


related posts

Recommended posts for you