Young, Beautiful, Mentally Ill
When xoJane, Sassy founder Jane Pratt's new website for women, debuted this spring, it began tackling mental health issues—like how to maintain beachy, piecey hair while institutionalized. In "I Spent Two Weeks In a Mental Institution, But Left With Better Hair," xoJane beauty editor Cat Marnell writes about a recent stint in the Payne Whitney Manhattan psychiatric ward. "I got so run down and emotionally exhausted that I finally just snapped," Marnell writes. "But I wasn't so crazy that I forgot to bring beauty products!" Thanks to a tub of Davines NouNou conditioner, "Even though I tossed and turned every night—my roommate needed the lights on, you see, to eat kosher burritos and scribble epic missives to God—morning snarls were consistently minimal."
Mental illness and beauty have a long history of pop culture pairing. In her classic 1960s memoir Girl Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen is institutionalized for popping a zit. Elizabeth Wurtzel became a '90s literary it girl after penning a compelling depression memoir—and posing for its pouty, tousled book jacket photo. Eating disorder lit aimed at young women can be surreptitiously converted into thinspiration. But with Pratt's coverage, the link between beauty and mental illness has now been extended to the styling tip.
In "My Mental Hospital Hair Secret for Subtle Punk-Pretty Pink Streaks," a nurse accuses Marnell of falling asleep at meals and dousing her bleached blond hair in cafeteria juice cups (the streaks were actually courtesy of a temporary hair dye wand, Streekers). Other beauty pieces on the site are peppered with winks to drug abuse ("the only drug left that I haven't done is meth [...] I'd never use meth only because I'm so into my physical appearance") and food issues ("I was cleaning out my kitchen cupboards, where I keep my beauty products, because I don't keep food in the house"). Marnell recommends one scented candle that recalls "dewy mornings on the lush grounds of that really fancy Connecticut rehab I got to go to two years ago."
Reaction to the articles has been mixed. "I have been institutionalized, and it wasn't in a highbrow Manhattan sanitarium," one woman wrote. "I realize that people have different experiences in life, but I don't see being institutionalized as anything close to 'cute.' Believe me, the condition of my hair was nowhere close to a concern when I was in this craphole." Another commenter criticized Marnell's "chic" framing of illness: "Lots of things happen inside inpatient facilities that are funny ... But they’re funny because the situation is terrible, mental health crises are painful, and you lived through it," she wrote. "Not because you ended up fixing split ends." One commentator described it as "some sort of awful self-parody."
But the majority of public responses have been fawning. "Thanks for your honesty, Cat, and your beauty product recommendations," wrote one commenter, after detailing her own hospitalization history. "I'm thankful that you are so honest about this shit because it takes some of the dreaded stigma off these diseases and maybe makes readers feel less singled out," another woman wrote in. "I am getting my hands on these little hair wands." The comment threads that unfurl beneath Marnell's posts have emerged as venues for women to casually discuss their experiences with mental illness between product recommendations. "I spent a few days in the most awful mental ward last week and I think it's good that you can admit it like this," one woman wrote. "I won't lie, I was in there for something pretty serious and I was still really frustrated that I didn't have my moisturizer."
Marnell has acknowledged that her linking of mental illness and physical appearance is no accident (she didn't respond to an interview request in time for publication of this story). "For the record, it was my obsession with being perfect—including perfect-looking—that got me hospitalized in the first place. Hence the obsessive haircare," she wrote in response to one critic.
For women in particular, mental illness does intersect heavily with issues of the body—the connections are most obvious in the cases of anorexia, bulemia, and body dysmorphia. That also means that even the most incidental pairings of mental illness with beauty are treading on complicated ground.
I know this because as I battled severe depression as a teenager, I devoured Wurtzel's Prozac Nation. And though I followed her journey all the way through depression, addiction, and recovery, what I remember the most are the cocktail parties. Wurtzel was young, thin, beautiful, complicated, and in possession of an impressive book deal—to young teenage me, her recovery was hardly the most captivating part of the package.
And my own little version of a beauty-blog support group didn't help. At a middle school where girls traded thigh diameters and flaunted their physical insecurities like designer purses, even ugly habits like cutting took on a glamorous tint—anything to achieve a physical expression of inner complexity. Over the years, I found myself drawn to more and more depressed style icons like Wurtzel: The Royal Tennenbaums' Margot, the girls of The Virgin Suicides, the collection of flawlessly sad young women who stared back at me from the covers of young adult novels.
In many ways, the images of these women helped me to come to terms with my own mental illness—depression was easier to own when it came in such a pretty package. What they didn't do was encourage me to get help. "The implication, at least to teenage me, was that it made you sort of doomed and haunted and irresistible, and thus VERY VERY PRETTY," my friend Jess told me recently about her similar consumption of pop culture depression. "I was not convinced of it to the level of ever talking to any psychologist-type person about it," she said, "maybe because that would puncture my fantasy."
It bears noting that pairing breakdown stories with high-end beauty tips does not necessarily aid conversation about mental illnesses among women who are not white, young, and well-to-do—in other words, the group of women most capable of accessing treatment. But by couching mental health discussions in a beauty column, xoJane has made those conversations more accessible, at least, to a certain kind of woman—even if it simultaneously teaches her how to deep condition her way around it.
In a reflective post on the death of Amy Winehouse, Marnell began to tease out these issues. "As someone who has romanticized/glamourized rock star junkies throughout my prescription-drug-devastated young adult life, I am famous among those who know me for my wildly skewed thinking," she wrote. But in the end, "It is important to think seriously about addiction. And maybe Amy didn't always."
I'll never view scented candles as a very compelling access point to mental illness. But at least someone is starting to poke holes in the fantasy.
Publicity photo from Prozac Nation