“If you don’t step outside of your comfort zone, you never know what can happen.”
Today, Tori is on a mission to empower others through her art work. Specializing in gesture drawings and vibrant paintings, Tori creatively and bravely transforms personal obstacles into opportunities that support healing, healthy self-image, and self-reflection.
While Tori articulated her story to me confidently and courageously, she shared that it has not always been easy for her to see herself in a positive light.
In 2011, Tori recalls waking up one morning feeling “different.”
“I did not have the same perspective on things. Everything felt different. I was cynical and emotional, and I did not understand why I felt that way. I thought it was just a phase.”
Assuming she needed a change of pace and scenery, Tori decided to go travelling through South East Asia with her friends during the spring of 2012. Unfortunately, the symptoms of anxiety and depression that she was experiencing soon followed.
“I was amongst the most beautiful beaches in the world, but I could not appreciate them. I was so afraid of losing control of different parts of my life. I didn’t know how to go with the flow. Related to having a sense of control, my eating habits changed drastically. I nearly stopped eating. I had lost 15 lbs by the time I got home,” Tori shared.
At the end of her trip, Tori received acceptance to a prestigious fashion school in New York City. Upon moving to New York in fall 2012, she managed to juggle school with work and an internship at a sports management agency. Although Tori loved fashion school and the excitement of her work, she was still unhappy.
“I was living what some people would call ‘the dream life.’ I appeared to be successful from the outside. The reality, though, was that I was still not eating well. I would work out every single morning at 5am, I would count every calorie I ate, and I would constantly examine my body in the mirror.”
When Tori visited her family in Vancouver during the winter break, her family members acted awkwardly around her.
“They didn’t know how to talk to me and how to help me. They didn’t recognize me, and I did not even recognize myself.”
Following medical attention and an intervention from her family, Tori learned that she had anorexia. She withdrew from her fashion school classes in New York to focus on her overall health.
“When someone is living with an eating disorder, they are facing their fears every time they eat,” she explained.
Following the kind words and support from friends and family who knew about her creative talents, Tori reconnected with her art.
“It was the first time that I had picked up my paint brush and sketchpad since high school. Whenever I felt my anxiety come on, I would bring out my paints and take it out on the raw canvas. It was a great way to express myself. It was therapeutic and helpful for my emotions. I would feel what I was feeling and transfer that on to a canvas. I soon started taking art classes to refresh my skills and learn new techniques.”
Tori shared that her initial paintings were filled with dark hues. Over time, as her wellbeing has improved, she has started to use brighter, vibrant colours. This shift was representative of her personal progress.
Through the encouragement of her social support network, Lululemon, and The Distrikt, Tori hosted two successful art shows that showcased her talents, her moving story, and her ideas of what true beauty is.
“I had gotten into gesture drawings and drawing nude figures of women with full curves. I was drawing women who are in full expression of themselves…standing boldly, proudly, and confidently. With this focus, women started to ask me to commission a few pieces for them. So, I’ve been drawing women nude. And, each woman has left feeling so happy, proud, and empowered in who they are. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to provide that for someone.”
Most recently, Tori hosted an event called BARE in collaboration with Giulia, a dear friend of hers. BARE was an art show, a celebration, and a speaker series that sparked honest conversations around body image and self-esteem.
When I asked Tori about her style, she shared that she likes to work with a blank canvas. She opts for versatile pieces that are black and white, and she chooses accessories that add pops of colour.
“My style is sophisticated and trendy. I like to mix it up,” she elaborated.
Earlier this year, Tori dealt with another anxiety setback.
“I always had this weird feeling in my gut. It would come in waves. I eventually realized that it was anxiety. In my mind, my stomach was my ‘problem area,’ and I was always afraid of being bloated. My anxiety would fester in [my stomach]. I was afraid to wear fitted clothing.”
During this time, Tori wore lots of baggy tops and pants.
“I did not feel great in what I was wearing. I was hiding. I was scared that people would think I looked fat. My old dieting habits started again, which was scary. When I went to seek help from a therapist, she told me:‘Whenever you feel the pinch, just go with it’.”
I told my therapist that I was afraid of wearing fitted clothing. I told her I was scared of being bloated and looking like I was bloated.
“Her response? ‘Wear the fitted clothing’. It was so simple. Now, I can wear form-fitting clothes, and I don’t have any anxiety around it!”
Quick Questions with Tori:
When have you surprised yourself with what you accomplished?
At the time I was most scared of being bloated and looking bloated, I invested in a local photographer to have some nude photos of myself taken for myself. They would serve as a reminder of my own beauty. I remember looking at the photos of myself and crying. I couldn’t look at them without feeling anxious and feeling angry toward myself. I ended up asking this photographer if she wanted to collaborate to host an art show together on body image, using the photos she took of me and some of my art work. We did it. I wanted people to think, “I look like her.” I wanted to show the honest curves on my body and share my whole story. This was about something larger than my personal story- it was a bigger conversation and awareness about body image and self-image.
How did you feel during that art show?
It was hard for me to look at my own body in the mirror without crying. To show it to 300 people and not give a damn was the best feeling. I completely surprised myself. That was something I never thought I would do. It was really just the work up to the event that was difficult. When the show actually happened, it was amazing. It related to my anxiety, because my anxiety was all just anticipated fear. Usually, when we actually do something, it’s not half as bad as we think it will be. Since that day, my anxiety has completely dissipated. I can control it through breathing and my yoga, knowing that it will pass because I’ve gotten through the worst.
What fashion advice would you offer to someone who is experiencing anxiety?
Don’t let how you think you look stand in the way of what you want to wear. If I ever feel anxious, I still push myself to wear something fitted. I don’t want my anxiety to control what I wear. Fashion is something that I can control. I have noticed that when I’m dressed nicely and I invest in clothes that reflect who I am, I often feel more confident.
What advice would you offer to others who are experiencing mental health challenges?
Talk about it. There is often a stigma associated with mental illness, and I think people are finally opening up about it and talking about the ways it can manifest itself. It’s important to recognize what you’re feeling. When you can connect with someone who is going though something similar, you don’t feel like you’re alone.
We’re so thankful that Tori bravely shared her story with As We Are. We’re excited to see where Tori’s creativity takes her! To stay up to date with Tori’s artwork, check out her website and follow her on Instagram: @toriswanson.