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Is Social Media and Fashion Turning Mental Health Awareness Into A Gimmick?

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

By Megan Barbera

“Did you eat today?”

The phrase screen printed across a Gildan sweatshirt and sweatpants is a part of new merchandise for TikToker Sienna Gomez. She revealed on Instagram that the pieces will be sold in her “Confident is Cute” online store. 

Gomez received immediate backlash. Many online users argued that the merch was insensitive and a mockery to those with eating disorders. And completely brushed over the complexities between eating habits and mental health. 

The merch was eventually taken down from the store, but its initial creation did nothing but reveal how commercialized mental health is becoming in the worlds of social media and fashion. It is great that society is now able to openly talk about topics like depression and anxiety.

But, are we really talking about it in the right way? 

When COVID began, everyone was stuck scrolling through their phones and unsure what to make of anything. Many brands and companies opted to use their platforms to promote healthy mental habits, mindfulness, and generally positive messaging. This was all great to begin, but as it has continued, this trend of “positive messaging” has created a false sense of understanding towards mental health and what those struggling actually need.

An idea that has been discussed more in 2021 is “toxic positivity.” It can be defined as the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations.

A basic example of what it would be when you tell someone you are depressed, and they respond with something along the lines of “just look on the bright side!”

 Social media has created new levels of toxic positivity. While the pretty graphics you see on Instagram and on t-shirts promoting optimistic thinking and “good vibes” don’t mean any harm, what do they really do? 

They commercialize and glaze over the complex world of mental health. Something that should be taken seriously and spoken about with actual knowledge instead of generalizations.

Everyone you cross is struggling with something. It is no secret that on top of all the damage COVID-19 has done to physical health, it has also created a mental health crisis. Suicide rates are increasing worldwide, and about 1 in 4 American adults have a diagnosed mental illness.

The mental health crisis is not something that brands should try to profit off of, but instead, take time to truly understand. The reason so many people, specifically young people, are becoming increasingly depressed and anxious is not because they are refusing to “think positive”. It is more likely because of unrealistic standards of beauty, work ethic, and lifestyle that have largely been created and promoted on social media.

If we can all agree that Instagram is merely a curation of good moments, why is it suddenly a hub for mental health support? Should a platform that is so heavily edited and curated to be “perfect” really be pushing out so much content telling those struggling what to do?

In terms of fashion, T-shirts and sweatshirts with positive messaging on them are nothing new, and for the most part, harmless. But then there are people like influencer Demetrius Harmon, who recently gave out a 40% off code to his “You Matter” online shop, and made clear that the code was only to be used by those who have self-harmed in the past.

While his intentions might have been good, using self-harm as a way to get money off clothing is problematic at the very least. There is also something so ironic about rich influencers creating expensive merchandise that promotes mental health awareness when mental health issues are something that disproportionately affects lower-income communities.  

What creators like Harmon are doing is making mental health management something that is corny and gimmicky, when it should be handled with actual meaning and care. Is a $65 dollar sweatshirt with the words “You Matter” printed on it really going to do something for someone who is depressed, anxious, or suicidal?

Criticizing brands promoting positivity probably seems counterintuitive. But what many influencers and creators are neglecting to realize is that mental health is not a singular thing that can be tackled with one form of messaging.

If a brand or designer is going to promote something that involves mental health, they should treat it like the medical issue it is and fully educate themselves before throwing it on a T-shirt. Without this, mental health issues are minimized to something that can easily be solved with “self-care tips” and “positive affirmations,”when they are far deeper than that. 

Since the open discussion of mental health is still newer, mistakes and unintentional mishaps are inevitable. And while the world could always use more positivity, there is a fine line between an uplifting message and a false understanding of how mental illness works.


What are your thoughts about toxic positivity? Let us know on Instagram and Twitter!

Reach the writer on Twitter and Instagram


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