Norfolk Network stories

Marie Oakes: a very fashionable breakdown

Louella Schooley

Fifteen years ago the concept of self care simply didn’t exist. If you suffered from mental health issues, you kept quiet in the workplace for fear of it being viewed as a weakness, one that could very easily get you fired from your job.

You’re not good enough. You’ll be caught out soon. Work more. Stay later. Come in early. Do more. Be more. Be better.

Back in 2004, working 24/7 was the norm in the fashion industry. A norm that almost everyone accepted. Working through lunch was a way to prove you were truly motivated, and crazy deadlines meant that in order to deliver you had to sacrifice something – and that something was always going to be you.

Marie worked as a high-flying designer for major fashion power houses and experienced a working culture that undermined her sense of self and sense of worth. For Marie and those around her too, it was a culture that said it was ok to shout; it was ok to bully; it was ok to undermine confidence; it was ok to demand everything. And when that behaviour is condoned by the people around you that you trust, it quickly becomes normalised

Eventually her deep seated drive for perfection and her desire to keep saying yes to demanding bosses, as well as the high expectations she set for herself to succeed, led to bulimia and excessive drinking. Very effective tools if you wish to punish yourself. Marie wanted to stand up to her boss and say no, but didn’t have the emotional and mental tools to do so. This continued over an 8 year period until her marriage broke down, and so did she.

Starting to recover

The New York marathon gave Marie a new focus on herself. She overcame her bulimia in order to be able to train for the big event but whilst it helped to ground her, she eventually realised that excessive exercise had meant that she was simply swapping one demon for another. She wasn’t addressing her mind.

“When we are at school we are taught about the human body, but nothing about the human mind. We now know that we can use our mind to rewire our thoughts and think differently.”

It wasn’t until Marie focussed on her mental health and self-care that she was able to start her figuring out what her new life might look like.

“What about the sustainability of our people and our talent?
How are we going to help them?”

Part of Marie’s journey has also included setting up The Trend Academy. The Academy is a learning resource that helps students access the fashion industry, whilst also giving honest answers about what it is really like. As part of the Academy, Marie has talked to hundreds of students and her vulnerability has allowed them to open up about the realities of their own lives in a very safe space. Marie’s recovery, through introspective, self help books and perseverance, has produced four key steps that have helped her, and those she speaks to, to maintain good self-care and a good mental attitude in the workplace.

Marie’s 4 steps to self care

1. Accountability for yourself – don’t let others make decisions for you. Make them for yourself.

2. Vulnerability – sharing your personal journey with others helps them to open up and smashing the myth perfection.

3. Kindness – be kind to yourself, don’t drive yourself so hard. Extend that kindness to others too – spread the love.

4. Gratitude – be thankful. Learn from your journey, be grateful for the everyday and how that can make you happy.

With these insights Marie is in a unique position to help students and young adults prepare for the future. Her mantra of “self care is about learning to say no” will help prepare our next generation to go forth and flourish.