Getting Dressed from the Inside-Out: Fashion, Body-Image, and Self-Worth

I stood in front of my open closet, with my head tilted to the side, and asked myself again: “Are my clothes too boring?”

I reflected back over the themes my choice in clothing had taken over the years: bold and bright colors; patterns and textiles abound; long, loose and flowy tops paired with fitted and structured bottoms; and now, a minimal, capsule-like wardrobe that is more suited to throw on and go…with a few professional ensembles hiding towards the back of my closet, for those (pre-COVID) times I would speak at a conference or facilitate an in-person training.

As someone who works on the educational/prevention sides of the sexual and mental health fields with minority communities, I am well versed in the content that I teach. I speak about topics such as body image, self-esteem, and fostering identity from the inside out, yet I still succumb to the challenges posed by mainstream media and the capitalistic side of the fashion industry. I am not immune from looking at my genetically endowed 5’9” slim frame and criticizing it from all angles, nor am I immure from changing outfits four to five times and asking my husband numerous times “does this look OK?” I’ve sometimes spent an entire day ruminating endlessly over what I will wear to a dinner event. And as much as I chastise myself or try to shift my focus to “who really cares what you wear!,” the self-questioning thoughts are incredibly hard to silence.

All of this is to say that I too am impacted by fluctuations in self-worth and body image at the hands of the fashion industry.

While I do not work in the fashion industry, I have to admit that I am smitten by it. I love to browse new releases by my favorite clothing companies, and recently have been looking into ethical clothing practices, to support companies that take this seriously. While I love browsing through luxury women’s clothing brands that I cannot afford nor justify purchasing, my heart lies with clothing that doesn’t dehumanize individuals during the manufacturing process, nor produces excessive amounts of fast fashion that expires three months down the road due to the new season’s clothing line being released. Which leads me to share what has come to really drive my interaction with fashion, as it relates to my wellbeing.

A few years ago, I would have defined my taste in clothing according to the latest trends and fashions. I was all about acquiring new releases and pieces, making sure that I put them to good use as much as possible within the narrow timeframe of their half-life. Over the last couple of years, however, as I’ve learned more about clothing production, I’ve drastically shifted away from fast fashion and trends, and more towards a minimalistic and ethical stance on clothing that attempts to do more with less. And as I come to reflect on how this shift occurred, a lot of it has to do with my body-image and self-worth.

The fashion industry – alongside others rooted in capitalism – want consumers to feel like they will only ever feel good about themselves if they acquire the latest clothing item of the moment. We see this reflected in ads and commercials all the time, to a point where we have become desensitized and numb to its effects, and often fall into its traps. It’s why certain streetwear brands sell out within minutes after dropping limited quantities items, why we feel like we belong more when we wear a clothing item with a red background and white bold letters emblazoned across our chest. It’s why certain dresses worn by celebrities and royal family members alike sell out the moment it’s seen in public on someone’s body whose worth is seen as well above our own. We want to feel like we belong, like we are whole, worthy, and feel good, and far too often, we fall into the easy trap of defining all of this from the outside in: the clothes we wear dictate how we feel about ourselves.

Now image a revolution – a real fashion revolution (!!) – where the opposite occurs. Where individuals spend more time on their values, self-worth and body image from the inside out, and then choose clothing that represents them on the outside. What would happen if we were so comfortable in our skin that we wouldn’t need the latest fashion trend of the season, or we would be alright with rotating a closet with thirty items of clothing throughout the whole year? What would happen if we already felt so good about ourselves that the clothing we wore only amplified how we felt? And we wouldn’t change how we felt about ourselves when we took those clothing items off? This sounds radical, and yet, when we learn about mental health – especially body-image and self-worth – this is how things should be. A self-informed and defined body-image and self-worth that is tied intrinsically to the inner-most aspects of ourselves.

I’ve sat in circles with many individuals over the years and talked about mental health, body image and self-worth. I’ve talked to youth in middle and high schools about what we consume online – the thousands of images and videos – and how it impacts us in ways that are not immediately apparent. I’ve taught about critical thinking skills to negate the constant barrage of “you’re not good enough, you’re not trendy enough, you’re not fashionable enough” with their own values aligned with who they are as individuals. Because at the end of the day, you can wear the most fashionable, on-trend items and still feel like you’re crumbling on the inside. And that is counterproductive and should not the end result of the fashion industry. Our inner mental health and wellness should be reflected by what is seen on the outside, and not dependent on it.

So how can we foster body-image and self-worth that manifests itself from the inside out? The following are a few ways to start this journey:

  • Journal on a daily basis about the thoughts that circulate through your head about how you see yourselves. Notice the words you’re using and know that we need five positive and constructive thoughts to counteract one negative one. Attempt to rewrite the critical thoughts into positive ones.

Example: I hate myself for having gained weight over the last few months, I don’t want to look my reflection.

Changes to: It’s been a challenging few months and I know that I haven’t been as motivated to take care of myself. I’m mentally exhausted and this makes me feel physical exhausted. I would like to find ways to bring more self-care into my day. Maybe I can start by walking around my block for 10-15 minutes a day?

  • As you notice yourself thinking critically about yourself, recognize that this is happening, and allow that thought to float away. Recenter your thoughts back on something productive about yourself, such as an inner quality or skill.

Example: This is my body for right now, and it’s been going through a rough time. I know that when I plan to do something, and set my mind to it, I follow through with it. So I will follow through on my self-care.

  • Spend time fostering grounding practices for yourself – moments of time during the day that allow you to be present in who you are as a person, rather than what you think you look like or how you appear to others. Foster a connection with your heart and values.
  • Encourage yourself to digitally detox from what you consume online. Perhaps set limits of time of how much you access social media, and even more so, which accounts you follow or the type of media you consume. Search for content that aligns to your values, that will build you up rather than tear you down.
  • When thinking about clothing and fashion choices, attempt to shop from the inside out rather than the outside in. Rather than making trendy pieces fit who you are as a person, shop for your personality so that the clothing you wear reflects who you are on the inside.

It’s been an interesting fashion journey for me over the years, and as I write this, I realize that my clothing choices have often manifested what was happening on the inside. And in 2020, I’ve come to embrace a minimalistic wardrobe with simple, classic and timeless pieces, that allow who I am to shine through the clothing, rather than attempting to wear pieces to fit into a trend of the moment. I want a no-fuss wardrobe that is grab and go, comfortable over #ootd picture worthy, so that I can focus my time and energy where I want it to go: on work that I am passionate about, on bettering myself as an individual, and getting to know myself on a deeper, internal level.

And I hope that we all are able to make that shift towards dressing from the inside out, rather than the outside in.

Sameera Qureshi, MS has spent her career working in the mental and sexual health fields, to develop and facilitate educational programs within minority communities. Currently, she is the Programming Strategy Director for HEART, a national non-profit in the U.S. which is focused on enhancing sexual health and confronting sexual violence within Muslim communities. Apart from her work, Sameera is a registered yoga instructor and proud Canadian, living in the Northern Virginia area. She can be found on Instagram @sameera.q and her website is