FEATURES | WINTER ’20
Elyse Fox On Making Room For Women Of Color To Be More Than Just Strong
WORDS by ROYTEL MONTERO
IMAGES of ELYSE FOX
Long before Elyse Fox was called a mental health advocate for young Black women, she called herself a filmmaker and followed her earliest passion. When she established a platform to reach the young women seeking solace on and offline, she called it the Sad Girls Club. But even before Fox was called anything, she was called to a mission that was clearly defined. It was to set out and make something of herself and make progress for a family in a new country. While the Caribbean diasporic storyline is one shared by a sizable population in the United States, its causes and effects are always varied. “From age 5 I was always told that I needed to do something that was gonna bring home the coin for the whole family,” Fox says of her earliest inklings. With one thing in clear focus, she set out to fulfill the order placed by her parents—a mother from St. Kitts and a father from the Bronx—to not only be something but to also be someone—a notion central to immigration stories.
A lifetime of effort and good grades earned her acceptance to Cornell University, which she curbed to stay closer to the city and the art she was interested in creating. By 20, Fox was Los Angeles-bound with a head start at paying her dues in show business. By 25, she was on her way back to New York, having found the dream sooner than she expected and, with it, a slew of side effects. “I was having a great time but while I was discovering myself I was also in an abusive relationship,” she says. The relationship put several things into focus for a younger Elyse, whose early success in media did little to quell the onset of a “cloud of darkness” she had come to accept her norm. “I had my first suicide attempt shortly after that time in LA and I was feeling so low and just really trying to rebuild myself and rebuild my self-worth because I felt like I couldn’t really be happy with me until I figured out what was going on with me,” Fox recalls.
She had been gone for five years and had to adjust a few things: “ Everything was hella gentrified and the buildings I lived around were different and the people were different so I had to re-learn this other part of myself that had changed before I could even say goodbye and when I got back home I just tried to act like everything was normal and wanted to hang out with my friends, go out and have fun,” she says.
The mental health scare also gave way to a new outlet for Fox, who documented her return to New York City in the 2016 film “Conversations With Friends” combining footage from the city’s cultural scene with a candid look at her inner life. What happened next fell into place as only fate would have it. An outpouring of feedback from other young women of color around the world confirmed that she was not alone. Additionally, she was not alone in discovering her threshold for emotional hardship where the tools to do so hadn’t been offered by the mainstream outlet—or anyone.
After organizing the first IRL meetup for the online community, it was abundantly clear the response was reflective of something that had been lacking largely for women like her.
“I even joke that before I started this group, I didn’t know what gaslighting was,” she says laughing. With so much knowledge to share, the young women of color that make up Fox’s growing platform are also a community that’s learned to rely on each other. Not only for resources and facts, but also the constructive blocks for growth that can be harder to come by on social media. “We don’t subscribe to cancel culture at Sad Girls Club so if there’s something that needs to be learned, or we need to be educated on, then they’ll just DM me or pull me to the side and say No, this is what we need to do,” she says.
The camaraderie at the center of the Sad Girls Club ethos is easily what keeps it evolving. It’s a culture that rewrites a narrative about Black women that so frequently discounts wellness to prioritize strength. Fox, on the other hand, knows that wellness is a holistic pursuit and no parts should go untended. This is where the wealth of information comes to use. “I feel like just having an endless pool of lingo and language, to have that information accessible, and people being comfortable to provide it is a beautiful thing but I am learning every day without even trying. And the fact that I can share this information with my niece and my son when he gets older is just priceless to me,” she says.
The non-profit organization thrives with the support of not just its beneficiaries and followers (the Sad Girls Club Instagram page has just shy of 300k), but also the community of people offering their help and services. From therapists donating sessions to safe spaces to offering to house meetings that hundreds of young women of color have attended to find each other and provide concrete support and resources, every bit counts. What has Fox taken away from the experience? “To not be afraid to ask for what you want, what you deserve, and what you need,” she said. “Because if you ask for things and you’re able to speak effectively about why you need the things you need or what you’re asking for and what it’s going to bring to you or your organization, those are the things that are important to ask.”
For Fox, finding a way to approach her depression came after years of self-reliance that only delayed her treatment. While there’s plenty of discourse surrounding the triumphs of Black women in the face of multiple oppressors, Sad Girls Club creates room for a holistic approach to wellness. “I always hate that we’re praised for the things that we bring to the table but not for our personal beings and our personal selves,” she says.
Examples of strong Black women are everywhere. In popular culture, she’s lauded for her resilience and will. Colloquially, she’s how we identify the triumph of existing- and thriving- in spite of systemic oppression. While more overtly harmful stereotypes like the Mammy, Jezebel or angry Black woman aim to be dissolved by the variety of Black women becoming more visible, the label of strong has some stronger side effects. This is because being superhuman comes at a cost and for Black women by and large, the price is mental health. With barriers like stigma, lack of resources and a cultural expectation to override intersectional oppression by sheer will, studies have shown Black women are less likely to seek help for mental health.
Is the strong Black woman trope to blame? “It’s like a bandaid statement that people use to make themselves feel better because they either don’t know how to help or they don’t wanna help so they say this person is fine. She’s a strong Black woman,” Fox says. The numbers show it: not only are Black women twice as likely to experience depression compared to their male counterparts but their symptoms are often misdiagnosed or ignored by professionals not taking cultural context into consideration.
As she rewrites this narrative, Fox is embracing a new reality for young women of color. “To me, strength means being vulnerable,” she says with the same certainty she’d call the sky blue. If the success of her platform doesn’t already show that she’s struck a chord, her collaborations with huge brands like Olay, Nike, and institutions like Harvard University help awareness too. Through brand partnerships and an ever-growing community, she has connected countless young women of color to mental health resources and, just as importantly, to each other. Fox knows for sure that her greatest strength is also expressed through tenderness—and that comes in so many different forms.“Strength is in healing yourself, setting boundaries. I think strength comes in many different ways and that might mean something to someone else so to generalize it for Black women, you’re doing us a disservice,” she says. As the embodiment of strength in spite of oppression, Fox knows the sky’s the limit.