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Unhappy-Go-Lucky: Kate Spade and the Perils of Perfection 

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The death of designer Kate Spade in June came as a shock to most. Kate Spade? She— of the polka dot phone cases, sparkly Keds sneakers, and professional but playful dresses, shoes, and handbags? It was the same reaction that followed actor Robin Williams’ death in 2014— how could someone so outwardly happy feel so much inner turmoil? 

Spade’s sister Reta Saffo painted a different portrait of her younger sister to the Kansas City Star. “[Her suicide] was not unexpected by me,” Saffo told the Star, saying that Spade was hospitalized several times for mental health treatment but wanted the press about it minimized to not affect the “happy-go-lucky” image of the Kate Spade New York brand. “She was definitely worried about what people would say if they found out,” said Saffo. 

When the women’s news website Jezebel reported on Saffo’s comments, a source close to Spade’s family admonished Saffo’s statements, saying “The family is disgusted and saddened that as [sic] this time of great sorrow, Kate’s sister, who has been estranged from the entire family for more than 10 years, would choose to surface with unsubstantiated comments. Her statements paint a picture of someone who didn’t know her at all.”  

But by that point, women all over the world had related to what Saffo claimed her sister said, that the pressure to hide mental health and other issues to protect the image they presented to the public was insurmountable. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that one in five American adults struggle with mental illness, with one in 25 struggling with a mental illness that “substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” NAMI reports these statistics with the caveat that the actual number might be much higher because many don’t report their mental illnesses. 

The rise of social media has exacerbated the problem. What started as a way for regular people to share their regular lives with each other was rapidly taken over by brands looking to make a buck and influencers who monetized their perfect-looking lives. The idea of women “having it all” predates social media and even the Internet, but even ten years ago, traditional media channels focused on how, for the most part, only celebrity female actors, journalists, politicians, or CEOs “had it all.” Spade especially was proud of her story of how she went from a humble magazine accessories editor to the designer of an enormous, lucrative fashion empire.   

But with social media, more regular people are becoming celebrities and present themselves as “having it all” in a more attainable way, which makes people feel worse when they themselves don’t appear to have it all. It seems like it’s not enough to “just” be a mom anymore, one has to plan Pinterest-perfect birthday parties for children who will be too young to remember it, make their own organic baby food, and also kill it at work, look cute, and please their spouse, and on top of all that make it seem effortless. “You have the same number of hours in the day as Beyoncé” mugs and T-shirts are popular Etsy items. It’s supposed to be an inspiring sentiment, but what people don’t seem to remember is that Beyoncé is not taking care of everything all by herself. She has a team of people to assist with the minutiae of daily life so that she has time to rent out the Louvre.  

Therefore, where social media was once touted as a breath of fresh air in a traditional media landscape that only showed airbrushed images and lifestyles, it has ironically gained a reputation of lacking authenticity as people feel the pressure to present their lives not as they are, but as perfect and happy as they could possibly be. And though on an intellectual level, people know that images and videos on social media aren’t “real” anymore, that doesn’t mean it we’re unaffected emotionally. A study from the University of Pittsburgh said that teens who are heavy social media users are 2.2 times more likely than their more unplugged peers to feel negative body image and low self-esteem.  

Occasionally an influencer will open up about their struggles, such as singer Demi Levato being honest about her struggles with bulimia and substance abuse, actor Emma Stone about her anxiety disorder diagnosis, and actor Catherine Zeta-Jones about her hospitalization for her bipolar disorder. Their fans will briefly commend them for their bravery, under the unspoken condition that they treat their issues as a small bump in the road and still continue to produce the happy, funny, or uplifting content that their fans want. The reality is that many people with mental illnesses start feeling symptoms as pre-teens or teenagers and will live with them for the majority of their lives. The narrative that mental illnesses are merely “chapters” in a person’s life, ones that they are done with once they’ve written them, are not only mostly false, but dangerous. 

There are cultural issues at play, too. Only 8.6 percent of Asian Americans with mental health issues seek treatment, well below the national average of 18 percent—which is itself an abysmal number. This is due in large part to the pressure to live up to the “model minority” myth, that Asian Americans have “risen above” America’s racial tensions by being smart, beautiful, and successful—in so many words, perfect. Similarly, adult African Americans are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites but are less likely to seek treatment. This is also due to a stigma that sounds complimentary but is insidious, that of the “strong, independent black man/woman” who doesn’t need to rely on anyone for help. Of course, Spade’s privilege as a wealthy white woman didn’t save her from depression, and at 21.5 percent, white women diagnosed with a mental illness are more likely than any other demographic to seek out care, but it’s important to examine the ways the pressure of perfection manifests itself in different communities.  

This is not to say that if everyone deleted their social media accounts at the same time and immediately told their communities about their struggles, stigma be damned, the problem would be solved overnight. Getting rid of the mental illness stigma is a huge step, but ultimately only the first hurdle. The second hurdle would be to figure out a way to pay for all the mental health services; cost is a huge factor that people weigh when deciding to get treatment or not. Still, Spade was a wealthy woman and that couldn’t save her from the pressure of perfection that permeates feminine American culture. When someone’s life seems perfect, we need to remind ourselves that we’re not getting the full story, be it as light as the messy kitchen not shown in those Pinterest cookie photos or as dark as their inner anguish that they mask with a brand that brings joy to so many. 

 

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