Selfmade Founder Stephanie Lee Is On A Mission To Prioritize Mental Health For POC
Dubbed the “first emotionally intelligent personal care brand,” Selfmade bridges beauty and wellness.
When the beauty and wellness industry talk about mental health, so rarely does it center — or even include — people of color. What already has a stigma attached to it in several non-white communities only further isolates them, making it hard to seek help when you need it most. But one brand wants to change all that. Meet Selfmade.
Founded by Stephanie Lee, Selfmade aims to bring these tough conversations to the forefront and encourage people of color to put their well-being first. Calling itself the “first emotionally intelligent personal care brand,” Selfmade formulates products with a board of advisors (which includes beauty expert Robyn Watkins, psychologist Dr. Jeshana Avent-Johnson, and psychiatrist Dr. Byron Young) to teach consumers about different mental health concepts and make personal care an intentional ritual that makes you feel good from the inside out. It also provides tools and mental health resources for those who need them.
As the Asian, Black, Latinx, and other communities of color in America are all coping with systemic racism and ongoing violent hate crimes, cultural biases against therapy are starting to change and people want healthy ways to feel better in a society that doesn’t take care of them. Below, Lee talks to Bustle about how she started Selfmade, how therapy led to healing, and how the brand hopes to change the conversation about mental health within communities of color.
How has working at M.A.C. Cosmetics, both as a makeup artist and a product developer, and being a former White House staff member for First Lady Michelle Obama, helped you create your own brand?
For someone who grew up in the south, it was always, “How do I fit in?” The first time I felt [that] was at M.A.C. I was 19 years old [working at the M.A.C. counter] and I met my first outed lesbian, my first trans person, and all my coworkers were Black. I was like, “I think I belong here.”
With Michelle Obama, I was 24-years-old and managing teams across the world. I loved it because it was a very diverse place to grow up, work, [and] learn lessons from her; [she] is somebody who deeply cares about how you speak to someone — especially when you're talking about these policy initiatives that are super dry. She was not afraid to like roll up her sleeves and just be like, ”Let's do this sh*t.”
What inspired you to create Selfmade?
I [ was working] for Estée Lauder ventures and [saw] all these founders who were basically all white and male. I was like, “Well sh*t, if they can do it, I can.”
As a consumer and person in the beauty industry, I wasn't feeling great using [any beauty product] because of the way brands were talking to me about the way I looked. I was [also] getting really pissed that people were using self-care in a dainty, weird way. Self-care is really hard. I did a TikTok of me at CVS bored out of mind and waiting for my ADHD medication prescription to be filled. That’s self-care, you know what I mean? It doesn’t look beautiful all the time.
You talk about going through a mental health crisis during the creation process. What incident made you go to therapy?
My ex-husband at the time had an affair with our neighbor. It was an absolute shock because everything that I thought about my life was the exact opposite. I had created this picture-perfect veneer: A Brooklyn brownstone, a beautiful dog, a beautiful newlywed couple, a great job. [But] we had no emotional intimacy or deep connection. Basically, I learned [that I was dismissive-avoidant because] my parents were emotionally unavailable.
I’m so sorry that happened. Generational trauma is something a lot of people are dealing with and striving to heal.
We didn’t talk about sadness [when I was younger]. They had their own traumas. When you're just trying to survive in a new country, you can't raise yourself to like self-actualization. For me, I only had my professional side; that's what I devoted myself to because it was so much easier to get that positive reinforcement. I didn't know how to develop the skills to understand, “What does Stephanie need first?” By the end, I didn't know how to take care of myself emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically.
There’s such a stigma when it comes to mental health, especially within the Asian community. But recently, more Asian Americans — including myself — are starting to take it more seriously. Why do you think that is?
There's racial terrorism and there are hate crimes happening [in the U.S.]. We do need to be strong to move through those things, but how do we find harmony with the rest and stillness? Historically, for people of color, we get in trouble if we're not working harder. If we go farther back [and think about] indentured servitude and slavery, you just keep working. So we actually feel guilty when we're sitting still. So part of burnout that we're all going through is how do we unlearn all that sh*t? How do we learn to just sit still and give it to ourselves? When you think about resilience, it's about how you do what you need to do for yourself in order to bounce back.
How has therapy helped with that burnout and your overall mental state?
We're working on embracing the inherent worth that I was born with. I started recognizing that and the racial systemic issues around it. I was like, “What the f*ck? This is f*cked up.” We're paying money and [shaping and boxing] ourselves into this version of what other people think the beauty standard is, [which] is through the male gaze and [white].
Have your parents changed the way they look at mental health after seeing how therapy has helped you?
I asked my mom four times to come to therapy with me [and] every time she said no. Then we got in this huge fight where she said, “Nobody wants to live with you if you're gonna be this way.” It tore me down. I was so sad and I just remember being like, “Okay, you know what? Instead of getting angry, I want to choose something different.”
So I said, “Mom, you may be right. But that means I need help. I need your help to explore this in therapy.” And she finally said yes.
That’s great she agreed to go to therapy with you. How did that go?
When my mom first came, she was very closed off. By the end of it, she was open. I think she finally felt that validation of, “Oh, my feelings that I felt for years upon years are super valid and I can talk about these things.” That was incredible to learn about my mom's experiences when she was younger, and her and my dad's expectations of how they wanted to raise me.
They wanted to raise me as an independent person in the U.S. at the same time it's in conflict with Chinese and Vietnamese cultural things. So a lot of those conversations and hard reflection came. Have they changed just a little bit? They listen more.
Selfmade puts the Asian, Black, Latinx, and other communities of color in the center of mental health discussions. How have you been able to talk to others about making a brand that speaks to all people of color?
It's such a universal experience when you're sad. It's such a universal experience when you feel joy. That's what connects us beyond what we look like, what our skin tone is, and what our face shape is. We develop our products with two Black mental health experts because it was important for me to also speak to the Black experience and lift up those perspectives and see [mental health] through their lens. Every single person that comes to the table, we build a table. We’re not just saving a chair or two for the Black community or Latinx community like the corporate world does.
What do you hope beauty lovers walk away with when using Selfmade?
I hope they have a moment where they sit still and use something with the intention to feel good. Whether that's feeling good because you've brought something positive into your life, that's asking you to reflect on things and that's a new experience, or whether you feel good sitting and touching your skin, because self-touch [is] self care. It’s really about how do you sit still and be in your skin.
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