Editor’s note: The following profile includes discussion about suicide. Some details may be triggering. Please proceed thoughtfully.
In a world in which it’s dishearteningly easy to compare oneself to others, to rip a fragile self-esteem to shreds, to not feel enough (beautiful enough, worthy enough, smart enough), the simple concept of “self-love” can sound surprisingly novel — when it really shouldn’t be. But what does self-love actually look like in practice? In partnership with The Body Shop, a brand committed to promoting self-love with its new global initiative Self Love Uprising, we talked to three women — Elyse Fox, Kelly Knox, and Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian — whose complex journeys toward loving themselves have shaped them into who they are today. Here, they share their struggles, their own interpretations of self-love, and how they’ve turned this abstract idea into tangible, life-affirming actions. Read their inspiring stories, ahead.
When Elyse Fox uploaded her seven-minute documentary, “Conversation With Friends,” on Vimeo six years ago, she had no idea it would go viral. The film was a compilation of raw footage, funny snippets of dialogue, and interviews with close friends, spliced with intimate self-shot videos voiced-over by Fox that gave viewers insight into her innermost thoughts. In the end, it was a deeply personal, uncontrived, poignant way of talking about mental health without, you know, “talking about mental health.” There wasn’t a trace of condescension nor judgment — and it became an instant hit.
“When I released ‘Conversations With Friends,’ there weren’t many women of color speaking out about depression, and I was 25, young, and I seemed ‘normal’ but I also had this going on,” says the 31-year-old filmmaker. “I think that’s why it resonated with a lot of people — it was casual, down-to-earth, and I wasn’t wearing a damn pantsuit.”
The New York native had originally made the film to express herself, to heal. She had just returned home after spending time in Los Angeles, which ended when she attempted to take her own life. Fox can trace her experience with mental health back to when she was as young as 10 years old, struck with these inexplicable bouts of depression. She’d look at her friends and classmates and wonder: Why am I not enjoying life like everyone else? She brushed those feelings aside, but she could no longer dismiss her depressive episodes when her thoughts took a turn.
“Even if people were sad the same way I was sad, I took it to another level where I was thinking of self-harm, and that’s when I knew I needed to get help,” Fox says. “Everyone online had this beautiful life, and I thought if I had a similar lifestyle, I’d be happy, too. When that didn’t work, I felt myself getting worse and worse.”
The road to self-love was challenging — the hardest thing she’s ever had to do. She had to learn to be alone with herself, and after five years of living in LA, she also had to readjust to living in New York City. She spent weeks figuring out what she wanted in life and rediscovering the city, and it got a little bit easier as time went on. Being around her support system helped, too — and bringing her camera allowed her to attend events without answering prying questions.
“People don’t talk to someone if they’re filming, so I was able to control conversations from behind the lens, and I learned that through these real, honest conversations I was healing myself,” says Fox, who always knew she was going to be a filmmaker, recalling childhood memories of her father with his camcorder glued to his hand. “I do think filmmaking has always been in my blood, and it has manifested itself in my healing. It’s how I communicate with the world.”
At the time of her film’s release, Fox only had something like 2,000 followers on Instagram and seemingly overnight, young women from Paris to Nigeria, who saw themselves in her story, reached out, wanting to know how they could be more open and vulnerable. That’s when she knew she needed to create a safe space for women — specifically women of color — to come together and share their experiences. A few weeks later, she launched Sad Girls Club, a nonprofit organization with the intent to provide women of color with mental health resources. A month later, the club hosted its first gathering.
Providing access to therapy became Fox’s main goal when she conceived Sad Girls Club. When she was first diagnosed, she was put on medication (though it only lasted for a week; she didn’t like how they made her feel), she was given deep breathing exercises (to help her work through periods of anxiety), and she was told to seek therapy — but she wasn’t able to afford it, and the therapists who were covered by her insurance weren’t the best. Offering free therapy finally came to fruition during the pandemic when she introduced virtual “Soul Sessions,” 10-member group counseling sessions led by an accredited therapist of color three times a week.
“Not only did we bring Sad Girls Club into the digital space, but it’s also a safe space to see people who look like you and heal with someone who is there to provide support and advice,” she says. “Therapy is something people tell you to do, but it’s not always accessible. And it’s not like you can go to a session only once or twice — it has to be sustainable.”
It’s the culmination of life events — therapy, her work with Sad Girls Club, being a mom to a soon-to-be 2-year-old son — that has led to Fox finally prioritizing herself. “I know that sounds weird, at the age of 31,” she admits, “but it’s turned my life around — I feel like a much lighter, happier, healthier Elyse.”
This progress is especially impressive as a working mom living through the pandemic. A huge saving grace for Fox has been learning to communicate her needs to her partner, scheduling time for herself the same way she’d schedule a meeting, reveling in the joy of knitting, being present with her son, and reciting self-affirmations (her go-to mantras for when she’s feeling low: “My presence is a present” and “You are where you need to be right now in life.”)
“I’ve been trying my best and there are moments when I just want to scream or cry, but I just have to remind myself to love myself, to be kind to myself,” Fox says. “Just remember, you aren’t a machine, and even machines need to be oiled and tended to. Every living thing needs to be cared for, including you.”
London-based model Kelly Knox always understood, ever since she was a child, that being born with only one hand didn’t diminish her light, nor her beauty. It didn’t make her less of a person or less worthy of opportunities. And it was this profound sense of self-love — which wasn’t taught but just simply known in her soul — that she’s been able to brush off hurtful comments, reject anything that wasn’t authentic to her, and pursue a career in modeling that would disrupt the status quo.
Knox never intended to model. Twelve years ago, she saw an advertisement for a disabeled model competition, and even though she never felt disabled, she entered on a whim — and won. “I thought, Where are the images of people like me? Growing up, I never saw myself represented in magazines and campaigns,” the 36-year-old recalls. “When society thinks of a disabled person, they have a specific image in mind, and I wanted to challenge people’s stereotypes and what it means to be disabled today.”
She offers examples of how trolls and narrow-minded strangers have perceived her, like a man who was aghast when he learned that she could hold down a job, or a woman who was in disbelief that she could swim, or an online bully that demanded she “grow an arm.” “It’s these absurd perceptions from people who think that if you have a disability, then you’re completely disabled in life and you’re unable to do anything,” she says.
It’d be an understatement to say it was hard navigating the industry as a disabled model. Doors were slammed in her face. She was told that if she wore a prosthetic arm she’d probably get more work. “It was definitely true, but there's no way I wasn’t going to be who I am, because what’s the point? This is who I am. My arm is shorter, it’s weirder, but it’s me and it’s still beautiful,” she says. “I realized how invisible a body like mine is in the fashion industry, especially at a time when disability wasn’t represented at all, and that’s what made me want to do it even more.”
Knox was determined to be vulnerable, to put herself out there, to be a role model for all those who will come after her, to inspire others to be their truest selves, and to pave the way for a more inclusive future. She found support from people in the industry who shared the same values and chose to only work with brands that aligned with what she wanted to achieve. One of her most rewarding moments arrived a few years ago: When she was the face of a major fast-fashion retail campaign, a mother took a photo of her 3-year-old daughter, who was also born with one hand, in front of the store and posted the photo with the caption, “I think it’s an amazing thing for her to see when she’s older; it will make a big difference to her to know she’s not the only one.”
“It meant so much to me because that girl can grow up thinking, ‘I’m alright. I don’t have to change my body.’” Knox says. The more people a brand represents, the better it is for business, she notes, pointing to the Purple Pound, which refers to the spending power of disabled households (in 2017, a study found that businesses in the UK lose approximately￡2 billion a month by ignoring the needs of disabled people). “We live in a beautifully diverse world and that's what we need to see in campaigns, on the runway, in magazines — we want to be empowered, not oppressed, by the images we see.”
The past few years have brought about some change, but not enough for Knox’s liking. She believes disability still too often gets brushed under the rug. But for now, she’s focused on carving out time for herself, especially as a mother of two during a pandemic. Her daughter was born right before the first lockdown, and the time at home allowed her older son to bond with his infant sister. But now, a year later, both are older and require more attention, and she admits it’s been a challenge, relying on micro moments (drawing a bath, reading a chapter, dancing to music, going on a short hike) and communication to help her with her mental wellness. Using her platform to inspire self-love in others helps her, too.
“When you have a physical disability, you can't hide behind a filter or an edit,” Knox says. “It’s permanent as well, so it’s important to empower yourself, otherwise your mental health will really suffer.”
It all circles back to self-love — which Knox defines as truly accepting yourself in all your raw, vulnerable moments and knowing that you don’t have to change a single thing about yourself. When you have that, she’s certain that anything is possible.
“Society loves to label us, put [us] in a box, and stereotype us, conditioning us to believe we’re not good enough or beautiful enough,” she says. “But just know that self-love is your birthright, it’s owning all the parts that society deems imperfect, flawed, and unpretty. This love is your greatest weapon — wear it like armor.”
Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian first dreamed of competing in the world’s leading sports competition at the age of five. But she considered herself a dancer, and she didn’t understand why the summer and winter games didn’t count dancing as a sport when rhythmic gymnastics or ice skating did. So, with the help of her mother, she wrote a letter to the committee, presenting a case for why dancing should be recognized as an official sport. Nothing came of it, but Fenlator-Victorian cherishes the memory because it was the first action she took for something she believed in: “[My mom] fueled my passion to fight for myself,” she remembers, “to fight for diversity and inclusion in sports.”
Her parents encouraged her to stay active, whether that was playing tennis, kicking around a soccer ball, or hiking. By the time she was in high school, she pivoted from dance to track and field — an official sport in the games — and was well on her way to qualifying when, during her senior year of college, she was invited to try out for the national bobsledding team. “My friends and parents told me to jump on the opportunity, and I did. I ended up loving the sport and the challenge, and I never looked back,’” says the 35-year-old athlete. “Bobsleigh is a blue-collar sport, and it teaches you a lot of lessons on how to adapt to your environment, push yourself, and be your best self.”
In bobsleigh, there are brakemen and drivers, and even though one doesn’t necessarily impact the job of the other during game time, it’s still a collaboration: pushing the sled, traveling, and training together. Fenlator-Victorian was on Team USA for eight years, which consisted of six women athletes (three pilots and three brakemen) and competed in the 2014 games before branching off and launching Team Jamaica two years later, at the suggestion of her then-boyfriend, now-husband.
“I didn’t know I could change nations, but I’ve always been proud of my heritage,” Fenlator-Victorian says. “My father is from Jamaica, and a lot of times, when you immigrate, it’s because you want your children to have a better life, but it also means your culture can be lost, but I was fortunate to have parents who pushed me to embrace both sides of my heritage.”
But the main reason for creating Team Jamaica was representation, especially in a male-dominated winter sport like bobsleigh. So, not only was she advocating for racial, gender, and cultural inclusion, she was also promoting event diversity in a world led by skiing and ice skating. She points to the 2018 games in Pyeongchang, South Korea as a sign of progress — it was the most diversified sporting event ever, with more nations (including Jamaica, Ghana, and Nigeria) participating in the games.
“I was super honored to be a part of the movement, to open those doors because a lot of times, as minorities, we’re put in a box — ‘if you’re Black, you must be fast so you must be a good baller’; these stereotypes have to be squashed,” she says. “It matters when you see someone who looks like you going after things because then it becomes a reality for you.”
At the same time, Fenlator-Victorian, who is biracial, has struggled with reconciling all parts of her identity, like wrestling with the diasporic displacement of being Jamaican but growing up in New Jersey or feeling neither Black nor white “enough” to fit in with each respective community.
“I was dealing with an identity crisis, of picking and choosing parts of myself and suppressing others. I now understand that growing up differently from people who have the same heritage doesn't make me any less part of that community,” she explains. "In the states, we talk about inclusivity, but in reality, we’re trying to label someone. I’ve learned that I don’t fit one label.”
Factor in the pressures — to represent women in sports, perform as an athlete, and speak out on race issues as a Black woman — and it’s enough to make anyone buckle at the weight. Fenlator-Victorian firmly believes that “if you love yourself and you’re taking care of yourself appropriately, only then can you serve others in the community that’s depending on you.”
She’s found validation externally, through fans, members of her community, and her family, all of whom have reached out and encouraged her during periods of self-doubt or self-deprecation, reminding her that her work is bigger than herself, that she’s making a difference. She’s found acceptance from her team, because at the end of the day, they’re all there to achieve the same goal: to represent their country and be the best. And she’s found self-love by being kind to herself.
“During a workout, I’ll think, I don’t got it anymore, but I’ve learned to change my vocabulary: ‘I’ve put my body through the wringer and it gets up every day and shows up for me,’ and that’s self-love,” Fenlator-Victorian says. “You can do all the self-care you want, but if you’re not loving yourself, then it’s just stuff. Self-love is about owning your truth, being authentic to yourself, and being vulnerable.”
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.