Psychopaths & Office Culture in Amina Akhtar’s #FashionVictim

If Patrick Bateman were a woman working for Miranda Priestly, you’d get a character similar to #FashionVictim’s narrator, Anya St. Clair. Anya is an ambitious, people-pleasing psychopath with three hobbies: Law & Order: SVU marathons, mood boards, and murder. Casual.

In her debut novel, Amina Akhtar presents us with a character who is equal parts disturbing and fascinating. Anya works for fictional fashion magazine La Vie—a job she landed in an effort to be close to (or become) New York socialite Sarah Taft. Single White Female vibes, anyone?

Drawing on Akhtar’s 15 years in the fashion industry along with her fascination for why people do terrible things, #FashionVictim explores both the fashion world and female office culture. And—ya know—murder and psychopaths and what happens when women hit their breaking points.

It’s over the top. It’s relatable. It’s thrilling. It’s fabulous. It’s satirical. It’s hilarious.

Akhtar let us in on the inspiration behind her novel’s characters, storyline, and tone. While the fashion world made for a familiar setting, it was just one influence among many. Another big influence was her love for horror movies and stories. “I love them,” Akhtar says. “I love being scared or creeped out. I love thinking about characters long after I’ve finished a book. And honestly, nothing is more terrifying than other people and what they’re capable of. I wanted to combine that feeling with fashion. The result is Anya.”

“Nothing is more terrifying than other people and what they’re capable of.”

In addition to fictional villains and mosters, Akhtar drew insights from real people as well. To help convey her narrator’s motivations, Akhtar turned to a book called The Wisdom of Psychopaths. “I used that to help develop Anya,” she says. “I really did want her to be this monstrous—yet relatable—person. We’ve all wanted something so badly we could (metaphorically) kill for it. That’s Anya.”

Throughout the novel, Anya is belittled for her weight, her ethnicity, and the way she presents herself. Her boss enforces a strict diet-and-workout regimen—complete with daily weigh-ins—leading up to Fashion Week. She’s told by her coworker, Sarah: “You just need some willpower. Size two is the maximum you should be. She wanted you at a zero. But I told her it wasn’t possible. I mean, you have such big-girl bones.”

Despite the idea of being publicly weighed and dragged to SoulCycle sounding outlandish, Akhtar says that part is actually fairly true to her own experiences. “All the racist and size-shaming things came from real life,” she says. “I was never weighed (thank god!) but I was put on diets, not allowed to eat at lunch meetings, and had my weight openly discussed. I was told I was the token diversity hire.”

Fashion is, inarguably, its own world, but some of its challenges can apply to office culture, in general. While another office setting might not have been as image-obsessed, its female employees are subject to plenty of stress and trauma. And these issues all stem from women being pitted against each other (a common theme in #FashionVictim).

Ambitious women aspire to be like other successful women, compete with each other for opportunities, have to prove themselves to upper management, and constantly struggle with working with others with different priorities.

“Being ambitious as a woman has always been a bad thing.”

“I think when offices set up women to compete with each other, everyone loses,” says Akhtar. “I’ve had that happen countless times. Women I should have held up and admired I now wanted to beat them at the job at all costs. It creates a toxic environment. There was one moment when a boss said she wanted to see me and another editor fight that I’d had enough. I wouldn’t participate in it.”

“And being ambitious as a woman has always been a bad thing. You’re too aggressive, too tough. You’re not using enough emoticons in your emails (that was said to me by a boss). But why can’t we be ambitious and raise our fellow women up? Success isn’t a finite resource.”

Success isn’t a finite resource.

Competitive, high-stress workplaces are all too common, and they’re incredibly toxic. Psychotherapist Sharon Peykar says, “High stress in the workplace is strongly associated with psychological illness. Studies show that negative feedback from workplace peers can lead to depression, anxiety, and other more serious mental health issues, like suicide.”

And it gets worse. Stress and unhealthy competition aren’t just bad for our mental health. “As a woman, working in a high stress environment can have a negative impact on physical health,” says Peykar. “When the body undergoes chronic stress, it experiences a constant fight-or-flight response which can lead to poor cognitive function and poor dietary habits. Over time, chronic stress can lead to adrenal fatigue, or—in some cases—cardiovascular disease.”

Okay, so toxic workplaces can trigger serious mental and physical health issues—but these environments don’t just turn us into psychopaths and murderers. We’d all be in trouble, if that were the case. It’s when you combine someone’s physiology with their upbringing and throw them into a toxic environment that could lead them to snap.

“An individual’s behavior and personality is deeply impacted by the presence of our primary caretakers and the quality of the relationship between our caretakers,” says Peykar. “Our parents’ relationship can serve as a blueprint for future relationships and can have a significant impact on the way we relate to others, how we resolve conflict and how we cope with distress.”

Why, then, does Anya do the terrible things she does? “I very much wanted her to be a psychopath, to have no concept of right or wrong except within her rules,” says Akhtar, who puts us inside Anya’s head, letting us get a taste of her internal conflict. She’s ambitious, insecure, and sensitive—which are traits that both make her relatable and contribute to her actions.

Relatable, yes—but only to a point. After all, she does commit very horrendous crimes, for which she feels no guilt. “Anya’s lack of remorse reflects her antisocial personality,” says Peykar. “Antisocial behaviors are often characterized by aggressive violations of others’ rights, including homicide and other violent crimes.”

“Anya holds the false belief that by committing acts of violence, she will receive the love, validation and admiration she has been seeking from her colleagues.”

While Anya doesn’t seem to feel guilty over her actions, she does try to justify them with language like I did this for you and You made me do this. Of this internal justification, Peykar suggests paranoid schizophrenia, which is “characterized by delusions and hallucinations that severely debilitate an individual’s ability to differentiate reality from fantasy.”

Peykar continues: “Anya’s language reflects her delusions, or false beliefs, surrounding herself and her behavior. Anya holds the false belief that by committing acts of violence, she will receive the love, validation and admiration she has been seeking from her colleagues. Anya’s delusions contain an element of grandiosity, which is typical among schizophrenic individuals. Anya’s feelings of superiority and disconnection from reality serve as ‘coping tools’ for the distress she faces at work.”

You can find Amina Akhtar’s #FashionVictim on Amazon—available in hardcover, Kindle, and Audible formats.


Kaitlin Willow

Kaitlin is Founder and Editor in Chief of The Vim. She works for Dermstore during the day and writes novels and short stories in the evenings. She lives in Long Beach, California with the coolest dog in the world, Benny. (Find him on Instagram: @bennythejetsetter)

 
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