It is not unusual for a Vogue cover to make headlines. Just think of the acclaim that Judi Dench acquired last month, or the celebration surrounding Meghan Markle’s ‘Forces For Change’ issue back in September. As one of the biggest, if not the biggest, names in the print industry, whatever Vogue does is always met with a great deal of attention.
However, this time Vogue Portugal are making headlines for all the wrong reasons. On Friday, they announced their latest publication ‘The Madness Issue’. With four different covers of the magazine, Vogue Portugal were keen to emphasise how this edition was all about showing unity, focusing on a pertinent issue and, most importantly, facilitating the conversation surrounding mental health. Despite the apparent ‘good’ nature behind the publication, one of the covers has been met with a great deal of outrage and criticism. Featuring a model curled up in a bath, being bathed by two models in old-fashioned nurses uniforms, the cover draws parallels with psychiatric treatment associated with twentieth century mental asylums.
According to the World Health Organisation, we are experiencing a crisis of mental health. Globally, over 450 million people suffer from some form of mental illness, with this figure likely to be an under-representation given that it only accounts for diagnosed cases. One reason why people with mental health conditions fail to disclose their issues is because of stigma. Defined by Goffman as instances whereby an individual is alienated and defined by the majority as deviant, stigma is the result of societal norms. Given that the media is central to defining what is normative and what is not, it is an important mechanism in determining people’s health-seeking behaviours. As a result, by Vogue Portugal reintroducing images connotative of outdated mental asylums back into popular discourse, they are inviting audiences to regress in their attitudes towards mental health.
Although Vogue Portugal have since released a statement saying that this cover ‘explores the historical context of mental health’, the concept of ‘The Madness Issue’ is inherently degrading. By ignoring the progression of the mental health movement, both visually and linguistically, the publication glamorises mental illness and appears gimmicky in its execution. Using outdated terms and reductionist stereotypes of the mad and incapable individual, Vogue makes an aesthetic out of mental health. For them, it is a capitalist accessory used to sell clothes and flog magazines. While the sentiment may have been to open up discussion, Vogue instead exemplify the risk associated with the commercialisation of health promotion. In the process of making the cover assimilate with the Vogue brand, the issue loses its informative value in favour of its economic potential.
The consequence of disseminating trivial and negative depictions of mental health is twofold. Firstly, it risks reversing the progression made in the mental health movement during the past decade. Secondly, it also risks creating ‘self-stigma’ for sufferers whereby they internalise the negative attitudes of those around them and thus legitimise the judgements made of them. In turn, these consequences function collaboratively: Vogue perpetuate the stigma associated with mental health, causing sufferers to accept their ‘lack of’ status and therefore validate the stigma of mainstream discourse.
Admittedly, we do not know what the magazine article has to say, but the romanticisation of mental health under the guise of health promotion is intrinsically harmful. Likewise, what is more shocking is the matter that this cover went to print. Knowing the business of magazines, the artwork will have landed on the desks of numerous editors, sub-editors and creative teams before going to print. Processes like this serve to highlight the change that is necessary in order to alleviate people’s existing prejudices.
For the stigma surrounding mental health to fully disappear, those in positions of power must recognise their influence. Organisations such as Time To Change and Mind are helping to move this conversation along and are committed to ending mental health discrimination, inviting media outlets to work with them to create accurate depictions of the illness. With the uproar evident on social media, hopefully Vogue Portugal will recognise the mistakes they have made and understand the influence of their platform. Seeing the backlash of the cover has made me feel positive about people’s feelings towards mental health, although it should not have taken such a problematic cover to light this fire.
Words by Lucy Robinson