The “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alum and recording artist reveals how learning to love herself was the key to living her happiest and healthiest life.
Mo Heart wears many hats. She’s an internationally known drag queen who sashayed to fame on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” a recording artist, and the owner of her own eponymous beauty brand, MoBeauty.
Despite the glitz and glamour of all this success and the platform and visibility it brings, she says it can be hard to push against some of the entrenched, often toxic “conventional” beauty norms and standards society throws her way.
Heart remembers growing up as a ’90s kid, looking up at those Abercrombie & Fitch ads of thin, white models staring back at her. On TV, actors like Pamela Anderson and her co-stars on shows like “Baywatch” were some of the only — and very dominant — examples of a specific kind of filtered sexuality that Heart said she didn’t feel connected to or represented by.
The way pop culture and media-driven beauty norms can affect one’s mental health and sense of belonging in the world has been on Heart’s mind a lot lately.
She was recently a featured speaker during Advertising Week New York as part of Healthline’s panel on “The Beauty of Intersectionality.”
Following the panel, Heart sat down with Healthline to talk about how sometimes, when faced with a lack of representation, you have to “become your own role model.”
“You look at yourself, and you don’t tear yourself down. You go, ‘You are beautiful, you are great, you are so smart, you are so strong, you are resilient,’” Heart said.
Self-affirming statements like these can go a long way toward protecting one’s mental health from society’s limited view of “beauty,” Heart advised. She said it’s the same advice she wishes she could give to her younger self, too.
Heart said that no matter who you are, it can be hard to be faced with a steady stream of messaging that you might not be enough. You can fill in the blank yourself for what that might mean: your skin, your body type, your hair, your voice, you name it.
“Most people wake up in the morning, look at their phones, and they are already seeing images [on] Instagram, Twitter of what beauty is ‘supposed’ to be, whether through the influencer or the brand,” she explained. “Then, you look at your face, you leave the house, and you keep seeing ads, ads, ads. You go to work, and it’s ads, ads, ads. You’re just surrounded.”
Heart said that it’s nearly impossible not to start comparing yourself to these images and thinking, “This is what is wanted, this is what is desired, because if it wasn’t, then you would see the opposite.”
It’s a problem for everyone, but especially people who are part of marginalized communities.
Heart said that for queer people and People of Color, it is a hurdle to pass every day. For anyone who might not fit into easily categorized boxes set by advertising, social media, and film and TV, you might have to go to great lengths to find the representation that will make you feel seen.
Heart recalls working in the mall as a “femme Black kid.” The sense of feeling less than was hard to avoid, Heart said, since there wasn’t one Black face in those ads. If there were, that model or actor would be sandwiched between thin white bodies.
“I’d go to the store, and my body didn’t look like that, my hair didn’t look like that, my skin wasn’t like that. A lot of these things begin to weigh you down,” Heart recalled. “Also, there was the fact I was queer, and that was not being celebrated; it was a lot on my feelings. I put on weight, and then there is the way plus-size people are viewed in today’s society. It tears you down over and over and over again.”
But some examples were offering positive reinforcement.
“I think being a little, femme Black kid, but also one who has vitiligo, which is a skin discoloration disorder when the pigmentation begins to fight itself, so [I had this] very blotchy forehead during the ’90s, where all this beauty affirmation was not there for me,” Heart said.
“My mother was the one that really helped instill life into me, because she was a beautiful dark-skinned woman, and even today, dark-skinned women are not celebrated; they are celebrated for being so dark but not for being beautiful.
“I’ll never forget there was a Revlon campaign. I was a little kid. My mother came into the living room, and I was saying, ‘This is my girlfriend, that was my girlfriend,’ this and that. ‘She’s pretty, she’s pretty,’ and my mother slid my finger over to the dark-skinned woman and said, ‘She’s pretty too,’” Heart said.
Heart said it can be hard to push back on some of this messaging. She was lucky in that her mother was there to offer an example to follow of celebrating one’s own unique beauty, embracing it, being proud of it, and being affirmed by it.
But she said she knows not everyone has that kind of support, whether in their families or the communities around them.
When asked exactly how media beauty standards can affect one’s mental health, Heather Zayde, LCSW, a Brooklyn-based clinical social worker and psychotherapist, said it often comes from who is crafting the messaging.
“Modern beauty standards are often based on a Westernized and Eurocentric version of what beauty is, meaning light skin, being tall and thin, high cheekbones, a small nose, etc. These beauty ideals come from colonizing forces, as many non-white and European countries don’t value the same things. This can cause a lot of internalized hatred of one’s body and looks when a person doesn’t fit into these very narrow ideals,” Zayde, who is unaffiliated with any of Heart’s projects, told Healthline.
Zayde said there’s an entire industry put in place to enforce these entrenched standards.
“Millions of dollars a year are spent on weight loss diets and beauty products aimed at altering people’s looks to fit into a standardized norm. Feeling as though one doesn’t fit in can lead to depression and anxiety. These Western ideals also lead people to fatphobia, racism, colorism, ageism, and ableism,” Zayde explained.
“This can also affect the LGBT+ community in terms of Westernized beauty often coming from a straight, white, male gaze that doesn’t leave space for those who fall outside of those norms,” she added.
Heart takes her mother’s lessons, well, to heart. She said you have to “become your own role model” if you feel like there’s no one out there speaking for you and to you.
“You have to see the vision and see where you want to end up,” Heart added. “I’m seeing myself whole, happy, loved, complete, beautiful, desired, and affirmed — all of these things.”
If all these toxic images are constantly around us, how do we push back against their negative influence?
“Some of the strategies I recommend are asking yourself: Does this standard of beauty come from within, or is this something I was taught many, many times in my life through advertising, movies, and magazines? Am I viewing myself and others through this standard, and if so, how can I view people differently and in a more welcoming and open-minded way? When I look around the world, how many people actually do fit in with the ‘ideal’ standard of beauty?” Zayde said.
You can fight back with your wallet, too.
You don’t have to purchase something or buy into a brand that is making you question your own self-worth.
“If you are tempted to purchase a product, ask yourself if it’s because the product will make you feel good (like a luxurious skin cream) versus ‘Will this simply make me fit more into a perceived ideal and perhaps harm me?’” Zayde explained. “When considering an eating plan, ‘Will this make me feel healthy and nourished and allow for treats, or is the goal to simply shrink down to the smallest I can be?’”
When it comes to TV, you can also turn it off.
“If you notice that watching particular shows that value these standards of beauty make you feel bad about yourself, take a break from them and try not to compare yourself to others,” Zayde said.
Heart stressed that this can all be easier said than done, especially in the modern age of social media.
“We live in a FOMO culture of ‘you’re missing out,’” she said. “I do think that you can step back and take a break, even if it’s just to take 2 hours [away] from social media and going to go do something productive, constructive. Something that fills me instead of drains me or sucks my time away.”
“I think you have to step back and put yourself out there, put yourself out in the world,” Heart added.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the negative beauty messages are going away. But you’re at least not constantly absorbing them and letting them affect you.
When reflecting on the beauty messaging of the past, Heart said many of today’s brands actively say, “We need a Black, we need a femme, we need a trans, we need to make sure that we hit our boxes, that we can hit a target.”
While those boxes are being checkmarked, Heart said the mainstream market these companies are trying to engage is still, in many ways, the white, middle-class, American “mainstream.”
Heart uses the example of “The Bachelor” and how often the more diverse contestants are tokenized and not necessarily put in a position to make great strides for greater media inclusivity.
Heart did say in the area of athleisure, you’ll see more “curvy girls” who aren’t just relegated to the “plus-size section” of the store. Some strides are more superficial. Brands are making an attempt, but for many, it’s just surface level, Heart said.
“Brands have been slowly incorporating more ages, races, and body types, but the overall rate of inclusion is poor,” Zayde added. “It is my hope that more brands practice inclusion and get really good feedback from consumers that this is incredibly needed. If a brand is trying to make you purchase a product by making you feel bad about yourself, do not support that brand.”
Today, Heart is thriving. In addition to all of her entrepreneurial endeavors, she’s hosting the third season of “The Walk In” on Amazon Prime.
When thinking back on where she is now and how far she’s come in her self-acceptance journey, Heart, who is 36, said that she would love to speak to the 12-year-old and 25-year-old versions of herself and say, “You don’t have to go through the same bullshit I went through.”
“I think a lot of us in our 30s are finally starting to heal and be able to be OK with who we are, in understanding, ‘You know what? I might not be the most popular in that group, a 10 out of 10, but in this group, I might be a 25!’” she said. “You have to affirm yourself and find love.”
Heart said that sometimes you also have to check in with yourself and check in with the friends who are there for you. Sometimes you have to turn to your friend and say, “Girl, I’m going through it!”
By affirming yourself and seeking support from those who matter, some of those negative messages and outdated toxic beauty standards seem less monumental.
“For me, I had to learn how to love and affirm myself. That’s when I started to lose weight, that’s when my skin started to clear up, that’s when I took care of myself,” Heart said. “I would say it starts with you, and it finishes with you.”