It's not often we see a brand come into the beauty space with a clear goal beyond just creating products. Stephanie Lee, founder of SELFMADE, a budding skincare line that merges mental health with beauty, is here to change that.
The beauty industry is often credited as being a major catalyst for mental illness spurred by unrealistic image standards. Of course, over the past few years, more and more beauty brands have touted "unretouched, diverse bodies, flawed skin" as a means of marketing, which feels inauthentic at best and pandering at worst. Only recently have we begun hearing buzz words like "self care" truly used as intended, while the global wellness industry tries to address adverse mental health affects brought on by the pandemic.
However, while larger beauty brands have only just begun discussing these topics, SELFMADE's foundation was created with the blend of wellness and beauty in mind. A true skin-deep ethos.
From a trip around the world to discover her passion, to working with the Obama administration, Lee had quite the journey before developing SELFMADE. Read on as we discuss all things mental health and her success.
Tell me about your upbringing and your career path that ultimately led you where you are today in the beauty world.
I'm the oldest of three kids, born to two refugees from the Vietnam War. My parents worked super hard and learned English but essentially existed in survival mode for most of my life. My dad went on to become an electrical engineer after completing college, while my mother went to trade school and became a hairstylist. I remember always looking up to her, begging to try on her lipstick while sitting atop her bathroom vanity or hiding in her closet to try on her heels. She was a woman that never left the house without being polished, to the point of even being overdressed for the occasion. She didn't care. I think that's where the seed of my love for beauty came from: my mom. Also, the hardest relationship to date!
I was devastated to move to North Carolina in grade school, and quickly became an outsider given the way I looked. Things didn't get any better when I had to wear glasses, and as sometimes the only Asian girl in my classes it was notable that I stuck out like a sore thumb. In middle school, I was relentlessly picked on and bullied and without wanting to worry my parents, I just kept it to myself.
"We shame others for the exact shame we feel inside. We inflict pain on others when we feel pain."
Unfortunately, in high school, with a bit more money allocated to looks and highlights, I actually became the bully. Searching for ways to validate my worth and that's something I think of often nowadays. We shame others for the exact shame we feel inside. We inflict pain on others when we feel pain. And that's exactly where I was in my "ugly duckling" story. And I blossomed in a superficial way: I paid more attention to what others thought of me, rather than how I felt about myself. In college I joined an all-white sorority and donned the polo shirt, pearls while tying hair ribbons in my bleach blonde hair from root to tip, without a second thought. All these experiences, in the name of vanity and belonging, never brought me closer to who I was.
Until I worked at MAC Cosmetics at the local mall. It was my first time creating intimate relationships with people who had similar experiences to me. It was the first time I ever felt like I belonged because I was no longer feeling misunderstood.
Given the world we live in and experiencing it as a woman, I didn't know how much my anxiety and depression were manifesting into reckless behaviors, couple that with my sexual assault it felt as though I lost all control. I never really spoke a word of it out loud to friends and certainly not family. Without tools or resources, I turned to work and the goal of getting out of college as quickly as possible to feel in control where I had none. I remember subconsciously, dumbing down my "beauty" and appeal in order to seem less attractive to predatory men and essentially just shut that part of my life down.
How did your career start after college, and what led you to create SELFMADE?
I worked as a field organizer on the Obama presidential campaign in Virginia. I had never felt a sense of urgency and purpose to make change in the name of progress as I did when I went to my first organizing meeting. At 20 years old, I stood in a packed room listening to a stranger talk about this candidate of hope, while surrounded by an older Black woman in her Sunday church hat, unruly college students and stood next to a white dad holding the hand of his young son. I thought to myself, "if someone can pull together folks as different as this from so many backgrounds, then I will do whatever I can to do this work."
Upon joining the Obama Administration, after deferring my admissions into a Masters program, I quickly moved from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to the White House staff of the First Lady Michelle Obama. There, I learned that leadership comes from people who care. That you don't have to look a certain way or come from a certain background to make an impact. It was there I felt belonging again as one of the most diverse and young Administrations to date. I learned representation is key as a WOC to see the boundaries we can push and aspire to grow to. In the case of Michelle Obama, I saw how powerful fashion and beauty can be used to connect and create needed discourse. After managing teams across the world and working with the Air Force, Secret Service and the Nikes and Walmarts of the world, I opted for something that felt more creative.
"Leadership comes from people who care...You don't have to look a certain way or come from a certain background to make an impact."
In 2014, I transitioned into the prestige beauty industry as a product developer at the global brand MAC Cosmetics in New York City. My lack of mental health and avoidance of my emotional self led to a crisis. As I navigated a deep depression and anxiety from this personal crisis, I embarked on a painful yet enlightening journey in therapy. I also realized as a WOC I didn't have the same tools, resources or community around my emotional wellbeing as some of my white or affluent friends. I was always crying off my mascara and tear stained cheeks; it was worth it. But what I saw while working in the beauty industry and working on my mental health was that — while I'm trying to improve my self worth, the messaging and beauty standards are in direct conflict with it. To the industry's benefit and bottom line.
With that I left the corporate world to travel the globe solo and hear from women about their experiences about their own self-worth and emotional wellbeing. I found we all experience the same emotions: loneliness, sadness, excitement, joy, doubt and it's actually that sameness is what connects us all.
That's when SELFMADE was born.
You have travelled all across the globe. Where have you been?
Technically I did a bit of a U-turn. I made it to New Zealand, and something in the universe called me to Sri Lanka. It was the best decision I made.
I had the privilege of traveling around the world for a year — 11 countries and 16 states. And acknowledge it very much is a privilege to leave a stable life to wander about. I visited my homeland for the first time, Vietnam, where I visited my dad's childhood home. The experience was unexpectedly emotional and added to my immense sense of privilege. I won the DNA lottery, I could be these young women that stand in front of me serving me pho on the side streets and it spurred in me the question "What do I do with that privilege? How do I take the tools that people get inside a therapist's office and bring them to the real world and make them accessible to all people?"
What was the most important takeaway from your journey?
My largest takeaway was the power of empathy. See people live their lives, hear their lived experiences, experience their humanness and see yourself in their stories. The pursuit of self worth is not a solo game it's a call to engage with humanity. It comes to us when we take a closer look at the relationship with our self and others. And knowing we are a work in progress is powerful.
The deeper I investigated mental health and beauty the more I found systemic racial issues from generational trauma, epigenetics to even just access. SELFMADE has also made it a priority to work with Black and WOC beauty developers and Black mental health experts to develop the debut product, our Secure Attachment Comfort Serum+. Each product ties back to a different mental health concept and, to that end, we have launched the Common Room, a digital platform that provides mental health tools and resources. With the launch of our Secure Attachment Comfort Serum+, we provided customers tools to explore and understand their attachment styles. Our newest product, True Grit resilience scrub, launching at the end of this month, will tie into themes of resilience.
"What do I do with that privilege? How do I take the tools that people get inside a therapist's office and bring them to the real world and make them accessible to all people?"
What made you feel the importance of tying mental health to beauty/ skincare products? What's the underlying connection?
To make mental health as visible and routine as our products are. I want it to be on your vanity, shower and nightstand. It should be as connected to our lifestyles as seamlessly possible, not only in a doctor's office, journal or your iPhone. We don't live in silos, so why should this very important thing be?
More so, our bodies are very much connected with our emotions. When we are excited, we get goosebumps, and when we are nervous our hearts pound. Chronic stress can lead to increased levels of cortisol, our body's main stress hormone -- also known as our "fight or flight hormone" — that works with parts of our brain to control our mood, motivation and fear. Increased cortisol can lead to a number of health problems, including signs of skin stress.
At SELFMADE, we emphasize feeling whole, over feeling accepted. We've engaged mental health professionals of color to provide insights and advice into the connection between emotional and physical wellness and how this link can be incorporated into the product. All of our products are made with good-for-you ingredients and rooted in credible emotional health sciences. That means not only do we avoid using hormone-interrupting ingredients and gross things like sulfates, parabens and formaldehydes, we also incorporate ingredients that can actually bolster your mental well-being.
"At SELFMADE, we emphasize feeling whole, over feeling accepted."
And I've been asked, is this a marketing tactic? Yea it is — we are building a movement to upend harmful, white-male centered messages from the beauty industry — that certainly involves marketing! Learning emotional vocabulary is the first step in engaging with our mental health journey. By bringing these topics to discourse and in the palm of your hand, we are kick starting that progress. But for extra impact, we created 21 days of programming with our mental health experts — called the Common Room — that is completely free with purchase in order to emotionally skill build. These are muscles we need to identify, strengthen and maintain. We want to give you tools, resources and a community to do so.
What are your thoughts on how COVID has amplified or even uncovered some mental health struggles that people across the world are facing?
We know mental health issues in communities existed well before the pandemic. With this global trauma where we've been forced to sit with ourselves in isolation, confronting our mortality and feeling the range of human emotions, it's a lot!! The coping mechanisms that we engaged in may not even exist anymore, or we're saddled with new ones, healthy or unhealthy. Just trying to survive each day takes a lot of energy — emotionally, physically and mentally.
Then on top of all of that, in the past year we've seen many significant forces collide — from COVID, and its disproportionately negative impact on Black and Brown communities, to renewed attention to America's systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd's murder and, more recently, the spate of attacks against AAPI Americans.
Any one of these triggers would be enough to impact our mental well-being but, taken together, the effect is really significant. There are studies that found that people who identify as AAPI are searching for mental health resources more than ever before, jumping from 9% in 2019 to 16% in 2020. Similarly, during the past year, this study found that Black respondents had the highest average percent change over time for anxiety and depression. And to our target stakeholders, Gen Z's focus on mental health — 72% say managing stress and mental health is their most important health and wellness concern.
On top of all this, America still suffers from a broken healthcare system. Too many people either still lack insurance or don't have adequate insurance, contributing to disparities with both physical and mental health. It was thinking about these disparities, particularly in the access to mental health resources, that spurred the team and me to start SELFMADE and to launch the CommonRoom to democratize access to mental health tools and emotional wellbeing resources.
Tell me about your hero product: Secure Attachment Comfort Serum+.
It feels like a hug for your face for real. Secure Attachment Comfort Serum+ is a multi-use skincare, self-care and priming supercharger and was developed with our mental health experts.
"And I've been asked, is this a marketing tactic? Yeah it is — we are building a movement to upend harmful, white-male centered messages from the beauty industry — that certainly involves marketing! Learning emotional vocabulary is the first step in engaging with our mental health journey."
I wanted to make Secure Attachment Comfort Serum+ feel like everything you'd feel in a secure relationship. From a beautiful water break that fills your skin up with instant hydration for loved up skin, our star active ingredient helichrysum italicum is proven to lower cortisol levels for ultra-comfort and tame stressed skin, and helps to rebuild the moisture barrier for protection — wear alone or take advantage of a beautiful polymer that gives a slight grip and bounce as a primer for your favorite makeup.
Modeled off of the psychological concept of secure attachment styles — when you're secure emotionally, you radiate confidence, possess self-awareness and approach relationships (with self and others) from a healthy place where it is comfortable to give and receive love.
This is especially important for our overall health and at SELFMADE our foundational development principal is that our mental and emotional state affects skin and body function. With our Comfort Serum+ we address skin stress, when we are affected by internal and external elements. The common signs of stressed skin are dryness, dullness, irritation, premature aging (fine lines and wrinkles), texture and blemishes and increased sensitivity (skin feels raw, burns easily from low barrier function).
We encourage our community to build meaningful rituals into their lives — little moments throughout the day where you can focus on an activity, behavior or routine that bolsters your physical and mental well-being and offers a respite from your normal responsibilities. Whether that's gua sha, going about your skincare routine, meditation, exercise or even taking a minute to linger over your morning coffee, we shouldn't underestimate the power of seemingly "small" moments in our day to pause and improve our mental health.
"Our foundational development principal is that our mental and emotional state affects skin and body function."
In developing Secure Attachment Comfort Serum+, we strove to not merely create skincare products but to create new rituals that can provide a moment to pause, reflect and check in with yourself — to take a beat in the midst of a busy day.
Mental health is not something commonly discussed in households with first generation immigrant parents, especially during formative years as teens. Tell me about your experience.
As a Southeast Asian kid of immigrants, my parents escaped poor neighborhoods of Vietnam. When they were 15 and 18 years old, they were alone on a fishing boat in the middle of the sea, struggling alone in refugee camps and came to America over 40 years ago. They provided a life where, at 15, I was learning how to drive my own car and at 18 I was figuring out which prom dress to buy.
Because of their trauma of war and being torn from their sense of secure attachments, family and their country, they could only focus on surviving. This is true for many Americans where their psychological, safety and love needs are lacking due to many circumstances and even more so relevant today.
Their story has always served as inspiration but with therapy and working on my own secure attachments, I realized that I internalized those messages in sometimes unhealthy ways. None of these are true, but I recognized them as core beliefs driving my thought patterns, behaviors and ultimately my actions: in order to have value, it is based on my accomplishments and what I can give to others. Others before myself, always. Emotions are a weakness and that I must act stronger than others in order to continue to overcome obstacles no matter what.
Teen years are hard for everyone. Especially when you look like no one else around you. This coupled with the internalized beliefs translated into keeping my shame about loneliness and ultimate desire to just be accepted and belong a secret. One that I overcompensated for by being loud or pushy. It didn't feel safe to tell my parents about being bullied or my sexual assault because I was afraid, they would think of me being weak.
While going through my adult mental health crisis, I was so worried about bringing shame to my family. Going to therapy and reckoning with my mental health forced me to put a mirror up to my relationship with my family. I spoke words to them I had never said before. They were so timid about my going to therapy and my mother was especially worried about telling a "stranger" aka my therapist our "secrets." This is also the time where I learned to tell them that I know I needed help and that therapy was the only way to get out of this. My dad likened going to therapy as going to any other doctor, you break a bone they fix it. He was confused why I wasn't "fixed" yet.
"Whether that's gua sha, going about your skincare routine, meditation, exercise or even taking a minute to linger over your morning coffee, we shouldn't underestimate the power of seemingly "small" moments in our day to pause and improve our mental health."
The thing with Asian families though, is that we are fiercely loyal. After quite a bit of convincing, my parents reluctantly agreed to join me in therapy. I was terrified to have their approval of using therapy for a tool and breaking a "code of silence." But it was there I learned to listen to my parents and everything they wished for me. I learned patience and empathy at the same time they learned to listen for my needs and to stop fixing things for me. It wasn't perfect and it wasn't pretty but being able to learn with my family had healing ripple effects across all my relationships.
Photos courtesy of SELFMADE