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WEAVING SELF-LOVE WITH ISABEL VARELA 

October, 28th 2020

Unattainable ideals and the resulting corruption of one’s body image are no scarcity in today’s fashion industry. From fashion addict to fashion advocate, New York-based eco-fashion designer, artist, environmental activist and life coach, Isabel Varela, takes us on her journey from self-hate to self-love.

Words By Marine Bochsler 

Somewhere along society’s evolution through the decades, fashion lost its true purpose. Where it was meant to be a means of self-expression and artistic liberation, it now leads to judgement and self-doubt. In Isabel Varela’s case, the industry’s mentally polluting cloud of ideals and tainted glamour led her on a harrowing journey of self-hate, and resulted in a dire addiction to fashion. Having worked in almost every area of the industry – from retail, production and tailoring to wardrobe, styling and designing – she knows all too well the venomous impact the industry can have on one’s wellbeing. Caught in a socially constructed cage of unattainable ideals, her body image suffered, followed by her mental health.

With any artist, the process of creating is a journey in itself, drawing from personal experiences and traumas in life to fuel one’s creative fire. Propelled by her own battle with mental health, Isabel embarked on a mission to educate consumers on the psychological effects the fashion industry can have, and to empower them to build a positive relationship with themselves. Since launching her fashion brand in 2012, she has seen it evolve alongside her to become a “brand with a conscience”. Adopting a holistic approach to fashion, she focuses not only on environmental sustainability but on how consumers can shop in a way that positively impacts the body and the mind.

Isabel wanted to challenge the industry’s negative influence on people’s body image – a multidimensional concept comprising one’s perception, attitude and behaviour towards their body. And this starts at a young age. “It’s growing up in a society that is constantly telling you ‘this is what you’re supposed to look like’,” she stresses. In a 2015 survey carried out in the U.S., 50% of 13 year old girls reported they were unhappy with the way they looked, with this number increasing to 80% by the age of 17. It is during this fundamental life stage where teenagers are forming their perceptions of the world and of themselves that external influences have a critical impact. In itself, body dissatisfaction is not a mental health problem, but when fuelled by the relentless hounding of impossibly flawless images of celebrities and models, it can propagate a wealth of issues such as psychological distress and eating disorders.

“It’s growing up in a society that is constantly telling you ‘this is what you’re supposed to look like’”

Growing up with two older brothers, Isabel was a self-proclaimed tomboy: “I’m supposed to be tough. I’m not supposed to be girly, feminine.” Her gut feeling was telling her one thing, but then the external influences started rolling in giving her a totally different message. These mixed signals created an inner turmoil with who she thought she was and who society was telling her to be. “I come from a Latina background. What I thought beauty was, was the actresses on the Novela [Latin American teleseries channel],” she explains. “So I see perfect skin, long lustrous hair, big boobs, big butts, and I’m like ‘I don’t look like them’.” Isabel began changing the way she dressed, changing her body and getting breast implants to fit into that mould. When an action does not align with one’s values or authentic self, it can lead to mental unease, a concept known as cognitive dissonance. And so Isabel’s mental health began to suffer.

“[Fashion], it’s like any other drug…it’s the same rush, the hit of dopamine that you get”

Isabel became addicted to fashion. Her relationship with clothes was both toxic and intoxicating. “It’s like any other drug…it’s the same rush, the hit of dopamine that you get,” she explains. Having maxed out seven credit cards, she tumbled into a void of debt and dissonance, into the perfectly polished claws of the fashion industry. “I was constantly searching for validation, instant gratification, something to fill an empty void,” she continues. Dressing a certain way to meet these idealized standards, it is easy to feel validated. However, as Isabel poignantly states, “You can’t fill a spiritual void with any material possessions.” Realizing things had to change, she reached out. She began seeing a counsellor. “I addressed my mental health issue of not feeling deserving enough, not having enough self-love – because I had more self-hate,” she discloses. Gradually, as she healed her wounded self-perception, she stopped seeking external validation and started to wear clothes that felt like HER.

“You can have a trash bag on, or you can have a suit on or a gown, you’re still a beautiful person inside”

Research has found that the clothes one wears affects their psychological state, known as ‘enclothed cognition’. For instance, a lab coat is often associated with intelligence. With this preconception, studies have shown that when a person wears a lab coat, they perform better on certain cognitive tasks. We have been conditioned by society to associate clothes with a certain meaning or value. It is not the clothes themselves that are influencing how we feel, but the mental construct attached to them. As Isabel phrases it, “It is how people interpret [fashion] and the intention behind it.” When we wear a certain outfit, we can choose how it makes us feel. Isabel says that we need to recondition our brain and break the associations we have made with the way we dress. Because the clothes we wear do not define who we are nor are they a reflection of our capabilities. “You can have a trash bag on, or you can have a suit on or a gown, you’re still a beautiful person inside because it’s about who you are as a person. You can be confident in a trash bag, or you can be confident in a suit.”

Collecting the pieces of one’s shattered self-perception takes time. Healing is a constant journey of learning and growing, and of self-forgiveness. When asked how to nurture a corrupted body image, Isabel explains that you have to take all the negative beliefs and “transmute them” into positives. “Instead of measuring your worth based on external factors, look at the fact that you’re funny; you’re smart; you have a silly, really unique smile; you’re a hard worker; you’re fun to be around,” she elaborates. After all, we are unique beings: “There’s no one else like you. No one. How you speak, how you think, how you write, how you look, how you’re funny… no one has your same mission or journey.” And the more we challenge ourselves to find all the other reasons why we are amazing, the more we start to believe that “our core, our spirit is always good and loveable”, regardless of the warped messages society projects onto us.

“The more that I’ve shared vulnerable AF topics, the more they inspire someone else to [reach out]”

Sometimes, however, it takes a little more than positive affirmations. Isabel could not stress enough the importance of reaching out. There is often shame around needing help as it ruptures that intricately weaved image of perfection. However, It is in reaching out and sharing one’s story that others will realize that they are not alone. “The more that I’ve shared vulnerable AF topics, the more they inspire someone else to [reach out],” Isabel reflects, referring to her workshops and events aimed at breaking down consumers’ self-limiting barriers. After her life coach helped her surface from the depths of her mental struggles, she decided to become a life coach herself, advocating wellbeing and self-love in others, as fashion consumers and as individuals in society, helping them “face their shadows”.

On her mission to enlighten consumers, Isabel created her exhibition, “Clothes Minded”, back in 2018 to shed light on the malpractices within the fashion industry and how these can lead to psychological damage. One of her installations, “Inclu-Life”, focused on promoting inclusivity, diversity and social justice in response to the industry’s long-standing discrimination against race, gender and size. Isabel was once criticized for not using models that fit the idealized standards, choosing instead to represent all women in her brand. “Fashion Addict” was another powerful installation she produced to take her audience through her personal mental health journey from addict to advocate. Using her own clothes, she created a maze to symbolize self-discovery, unearthing the positive relationship one can have with themselves. Essentially, “freeing yourself” from the seemingly endless labyrinth of psychological trials that characterizes the fashion industry.

 

Isabel is amongst the minority when it comes to spreading awareness about mental health in the industry. Is the industry ready to wake up and undergo a sorely needed mass shift in its culture? “It’s a new idea, so it’s going to take some time,” Isabel states truthfully. “[But] the more you keep spreading awareness, it’ll keep catching on.” At the moment, she is channelling her vivacious energy into building a community, reaching out to as many people as possible to share her message, inspiring a positive relationship with our bodies, and striving towards inclusivity, not just as a fashion marketing campaign, but as a long-term path towards a future of equality and acceptance.