The virtual landscape of COVID-19 makes intimacy and connection seem impossible. But Amour Caché’s guest writer, Gabrielle Forman, has made familiarity feel easy. Her quarantine journey has consisted of taking the time to explore and express herself both online and “irl”, all while learning to prioritize her mental health.
Her blog began as a portfolio to document her professional pursuits. But since navigating the “go-big-or-go-home tenacity” of New York City at the onset of her career in the beauty industry, Gabi started documenting the toll it took on her life and self-perception. The site, and her Instagram, have become platforms of unapologetic vulnerability. Which explains why her ability to maintain an open, honest dialogue over Zoom felt so effortless.
“It’s about owning your narrative and owning your journey,” she said of her writing and the lessons it’s taught her. “Your journey is unique, and I think that should be more universal. Instead of everyone being a clone of each other and everyone being perfect... I think imperfection should be romanticized.”
This candid conversation with Gabi was not just a fascinating peek into the mind of an ambitious young woman. It was a reflection on the simultaneously idiosyncratic and universal nature of our journeys as young women, and the pressures we face to do it all.
IJ: Why don’t you tell me a bit about your blog and the transformation of that space?
GF: I’ve always wanted to start a blog but—and I say this in my writing—I've never had the time or the audacity. Communicating your feelings and ideas to people in a way that resonates is hard. It was just a project that seemed too intimidating to me... but in March I was asking myself “What can I do in this hour that I’ve always wanted to do but never had the time? Never really had the confidence?” I wanted to do something crazy in this watershed moment. And that’s why I started the blog.
I never imagined that my words would resonate with people the way that they are... and all the heartfelt comments that I got confirmed that what I was doing was good. I just want other people to feel less alone. My blog is very vulnerable. It’s very self-exposing. I want more people to do more of that, you know? And this is the time to do that.
IJ: I think using the term “self-exposing” is very interesting because something you’ve alluded to in your social media and blog is your mental health journey. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
GF: I had normalized the burnout culture, I had normalized the New York energy that I realize in hindsight... may not have been that healthy. When I moved to New York I knew it would be hard... but I wasn’t ready. I was a high-functioning depressed person. I would describe it as carrying a bag of stones around; your mind is always fogged up. I think I just hit a wall in 2019. I had been working for about 12 months and I thought, “This isn’t sustainable, I need to do something to work on myself and then go back [to work].” It was hard making that decision, because ultimately there were parts of myself that felt like this was a career setback.
I think that sometimes mental illness, for some people, it’s kind of like a wound. You can put band-aids on it and you can cover it up, but it will always fester until it’s cured - until you really address it and face it head on. That’s what this time has been for me; addressing everything that I kind of brushed aside and thought would sort itself out but never really confronted. It’s been a long time coming though. I’ve gone through peaks and troughs of anxiety and depression for maybe six years or so… But for the first time in a long time, I can finally say that I feel like I’m really moving forward and going in the right direction.
IJ: You used the term burnout culture as an identifying component of your experience in New York… How would you define burnout culture? When did you realize it was impacting your mental health?
GF: New York is expensive and it’s ruthless. Burnout culture is the way of life there; it’s hard not to be burnt out when you live in that city! It’s kind of what you sign up for, and some people just have those personalities where they always have to be doing something, they don’t need a lot of sleep…so for some people that might be really ideal and there’s nothing wrong with it. But I think for a lot of people it’s hard to navigate the right balance.
I just felt like if I were to fall off for just a couple minutes somebody would just swoop in and like…take everything from me, [laughs]. It sounds really paranoid but…
IJ: No, but that’s what it is! Did you feel alone in that experience?
GF: I did feel like a lot of my coworkers and my friends were coping better than me. I think everyone was burnt out – like I said it’s inevitable, which is horrible but it’s just the way of life there. It was hard not comparing myself to my friends, and I always did and it made me feel down.
I felt like, being in the beauty industry, too, it’s this culture of perfectionism, especially being a woman. You’ve got to be high performing and doing your best, but also, you’ve got to look good while you do it.
IJ: That said, you talked about wanting people to be more “self-exposing” and transparent on your social media, and it looks like this is a process you’ve begun. What changed in the way you were thinking about perfectionism that allowed you to be more vulnerable online?
GF: Ultimately, I wanted to free myself and I wanted to help other people... Instagram is so contrived in so many ways. It was hard to constantly put up that front and it always felt bad to be fake; when you’re not having a great day but you post a really great photo and it’s like... “This is a lie [laughs].” Like I said, you’re comparing your worst self to everyone’s best self. I just wanted to be real, just let my guard down, and it felt freeing. I feel like I’m communicating who I really am and who I’ve always wanted to be. It’s not a lie, it’s the truth. This is who I am - take it or leave it. Unfollow me if you don’t like me, unfollow me if it’s too much.
IJ: What I hear in what you’re saying, in your description of people “comparing your worst self to others’ best selves", is the experience of shame and guilt on social media. What role would you say shame has played in your mental health journey?
GF: There’s still that stigma that mental illness is a disability. That makes me feel like I need to suppress it - that I need to hide it. And that’s not healthy. I would love to see society get to a place where people could have mental health conversations with their supervisors, with their mentors.
IJ: I wonder to what extent you’ve had these conversations with your peers. Or do you think people still have trouble talking about mental health?
GF: The latter. I don’t have enough of these conversations with people. I don’t. It’s a hard thing to talk about because a lot of people still see self-care as being lazy or something that only privileged people can do. And there is some truth to that; some people, to make ends meet, they’ve got to work three jobs... self-care isn’t an option. Which is horrible, but it’s true. So, I’m very grateful to be able to take this time off and focus on my mental health to get back on track. With that being said, focusing on yourself and your mental health, it’s not lazy, it’s not unproductive. In fact, in order to actually progress in life, you need to address that. Otherwise, you’re just going to be pacing and treading water - stuck - which is what happened to me.
IJ: What finally happened to make you see for yourself that mental health was something that you needed to take care of?
GF: It just wasn’t sustainable... it was taking a toll on every corner of my life and leaving me empty. And I knew; I had to focus on myself, otherwise things would never get better. Or I’d reach a breaking point and it’d be too late.
It was almost like I was carrying around this secret; I felt like everything was a big lie that would be exposed if I became too close to anybody. In order to really free myself I had to deal with this.
IJ: What other changes have you made to your lifestyle to be more mindful of your mental health?
GF: I’m very in tune with my body and what I need. But then again, the context of this situation — the pandemic — has allowed me to have all these privileges that I don’t know if I’ll have when we get to some semblance of normal. I’m just very honest with my body, I don’t push myself past my limits anymore.
I also... I’ve been taking therapy pretty seriously. I don’t know if I said this before but I completely rejected therapy for the longest time. I completely was in denial, and was like “I don’t need therapy, that’s dumb.” Finding the right therapist is hard, sometimes it’s like dating; the first couple therapists aren’t good but you’ve got to keep trying. But I didn’t know that; I just thought “Oh, well the first therapist didn’t work, therapy’s not for me.” I was really stubborn, honestly, and I’m finally taking therapy seriously.
IJ: What advice would you give to advice to women in the same stage as you – young aspiring professionals who are still figuring it out?
GF: Don’t compare yourself to other people. There’s always going to be people that really seem like they have their shit together, and people that are fresh out of college and have already made strides in their career. But everyone’s path is very different!
IJ: One last thing that I’ve found so striking throughout this whole conversation is this balance or dichotomy between the inability to compare your experiences and the universality of what you’re describing at the same time. I don’t know if you agree with that but...
GF: No, I do! I do. But I think we need to make the imperfections more universal. Rather than the perfections, I think we need to embrace imperfection... on Instagram, everywhere. The things we go through in our journeys, the dark times and everything, that makes us beautiful. That molds us into who we are.
Imperfection has become so beautiful to me, and that, in itself, has freed me. Now that I see my imperfections as beautiful, I see other people’s imperfections as beautiful too. And I hope that’s the energy I continue to spread around.