Tom Ford’s Path to Sobriety and Social Learning Theory
One way humans learn is by observing the world around them. Tom Ford has arguably made the world a more beautiful place. Tom Ford is an iconic American fashion designer, filmmaker, husband, and father. Ford made his mark at the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci by taking dying brands and breathing life into them and making them successful once again. Ford is open about a midlife crisis he experienced as well as his alcohol use disorder, which led him to seek help and make changes in his life trajectory that he is very proud of now. Ford believed that part of dissatisfaction and one of the root causes of his mid-life crisis was some level of emptiness on a personal level as a fashion designer and being part of that subculture. One of these changes was that Ford decided to pursue an alternative avenue where he would be able to communicate more of what he wanted through a medium he found more expressive: film. Albert Bandura is a prominent psychologist who created social learning theory, which stipulates that humans learn by observing and modeling behavior of other humans, which is an apt conceptualization theory choice for someone as omnipotent in the fashion world as Ford. Bandura is well known for his BoBo Doll Study (1963), where children were shown to demonstrate the behavior of physical aggression that was clearly learned through watching and modeling the behavior of adults and indirectly learning from one’s environment. Albert Bandura’s social learning theory has since been expanded and built on by other theorists. Other models look at both prosocial behaviors and antisocial behaviors, and were birthed out of necessity to explain complex nuanced phenomena (Berger, 2017). Tom Ford’s development can be conceptualized through social learning theory in terms of how important times in his life were influenced by Ford’s observations from his adult role models, his peers and his cultural milieu. Ultimately, through gaining insight, Ford expressed his dissatisfactions with the fashion system which can be explained through Social Learning Theory in that beauty is constantly redefined and forever in search of the fleetingly unattainable. Ford’s journey can most easily be understood through Bandura’s social learning theory to conceptualize his distress in childhood due to nonconformity, conformity in his addictions to substances and success, and later his dissatisfaction with the system he was in as a fashion designer, which caused him to look to other outlets such as film and to create his own label in order to resolve his midlife crisis.
The basic details of Ford’s childhood seem normal for the Southwest. He had a Christian upbringing in Texas, and when he was 11 years old he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico where he went to a Catholic high school (Advocate Contributors, 2009). However, Ford’s sensibilities and talents did not blend well into the traditional male culture of the Southwest. Ford shared with Galloway (2016) that he had very “overprotective parenting” ( par. 14). Also notable to Ford’s development was that he was small for his grade because he was one year ahead. Ford’s role models were his grandmother and mother because they encouraged his interest in art and painting (Tom Ford Biography, 2014). Ford especially stood out from the norm at school because he liked art instead of team sports (Galloway, 2016). Ford shared that he was bullied for not conforming to the other young children, which was especially apparent when Ford showed up at school wearing formal attire and carrying an attache case. Also, important to Ford’s development was that he had thoughts of suicide occurring around the age of 8 (Galloway, 2016). At a young age, Ford ruminated on perceived flaws of his attire such as the silhouette of his shoes. He condemned and cast these items out for being “wrong.” Another peculiarity from a young age included his rearranging the furniture at home. Ford would often tell his mother what was wrong with her appearance and attempt to make modifications to her makeup, hair, or outfit (Art in Fusion, 2015).
Thus Tom Ford has a documented history of eccentricity in childhood and did not enjoy his childhood due to being outside the social norm. Bandura posits that children learn behaviors from parents and it is likely the case that he was nurtured by his mother and grandmother as his role models. This may have added to his propensity to present as more feminine and less conventional than some of his peers. Ford saw himself as an “outsider” (Galloway, 2016, par. 14). He was hyperfocused on stylistic faults of his own possessions as well as his mother’s presentation. Like most children Ford loved film as a child. While Tom may have had pronounced and innate sensibilities from a young age, it would be fair to reason that he may have learned these based on social conventions from film as the basis for his standards of beauty. When Ford reflected back on his childhood, he stated, “I look back at pictures of myself in a little raincoat and briefcase and I just think, ‘Oh God…’ But that was me and my parents just let me express who I was, which was also great” (Lewis, 2016, par. 23).
Though Ford may have held his surroundings to high standards, it did not bode well for his own well being due to his lack of conformity. Tom was often made fun of, and sometimes bullied for his eccentric ways such as wearing a suit and carrying an attache case from a young age. Though he shares that there is a genetic predisposition for depression (as well as alcoholism) in his family (Galloway, 2016), if his behavior was in part responsible for being shunned, this would be a confounding factor to his depression.
Social Learning Theory is important in this regard in that all these other children have learned from observing the way children should present themselves. Thus, Ford’s deviation from the other children’s choices make him appear different, and how he is different was the cause of some bullying and teasing. Ford is still understandable under Bandura’s Social Learning Theory; he just may have been modeling more from his parents or films versus his peers. Ford seemed more inclined to look to his parents versus his peers’ influence. The report of support Tom felt from his family probably helped mitigate some of the distress from feeling different. According to Brummelman and Thomaes (2017), a longitudinal study following children who were socially withdrawn due to peers’ treatment but who had “…secure attachments had high level of self-compassion and maintained those levels over time” and children internalize the caregivers’ “… nonjudgmental, caring attitude toward themselves, forming self-compassion” (p. 1767).
Puberty and Formation of Sexual Identity
Ford was able to leave his unpleasant experience in childhood as he went through puberty and became more physically attractive. He believes this helped his relationships with others (Galloway, 2016). With his new found attractiveness, Ford was dating women before he was dating men (Dowd, 2019) . Eventually Ford also left behind his uncomfortable past of bullying and moved to New York City (Galloway, 2016). Gay men seemed to believe that Ford was gay even though he was dating women. At Studio 54 with his new peer group, he realized for himself that he was gay in the midst of the subculture’s expression of rebellion and nonconformity (Dowd 2019). With Ford’s arrival to a metropolitan area, he had more exposure to homosexuality, which could be seen more readily in New York City than his childhood small town culture. Social learning theory is an adequate explanation for Ford’s sped up, though still late, discovery of his homosexuality by means of observation in this particularly public arena among his bohemian peers. Brakefield and colleagues (2014) found that within an adolescent’s social network that sexually active peers or friends entertaining romantic relationships exert influence on one’s own behaviors and attitudes but does not influence choice of gender one finds attractive (p. 341). This is significant in that the gay men both personally known by Ford and casually observed were able to effectively mold Ford’s attitudes around homosexuality and bring about his awareness of his own biological sexual orientation.
It is possible that his upbringing, and Ford’s susceptibility to social learning and his idealism or perfectionism may have prevented him from discovering his sexual identity earlier. Having this realization happen specifically at this time of his life is definitely important developmentally, and had his life trajectory not been in an accepting environment such as Studio 54, but still within the Bible Belt, the other facets of Ford’s life may have been drastically altered by his not coming out when he did. For example, had Ford not gone somewhere as liberal as New York City, it would be hard to tell how his depression, success, interests etc, would have affected his levels of shame or anxiety coming to the realization of his non normative sexual orientation or conversely how these avenues would be affected by his romantic/sexual life being unfulfilled by being with women. In fact, Ford claims being gay was an advantage when he broke into becoming a fashion designer as it is more the norm (Dowd, 2019). This would dictate that cultural milieu of non normative masculine behavior was an observable and a notable influence on Ford’s life.
From the information available, it seems likely that Ford has been depressed since childhood. Alcohol use disorder is often comorbid with depressive disorders per DSM 5 statistics (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). As stated previously, there is a history of alcoholism and depression in his family With Ford’s improved appearance and his self esteem boost, he was no longer an outsider, and he was in New York City which is culturally more liberal not only in terms of gay identity but also in terms of substance use. According to Rukus, Stogner, and Miller (2017), “…LGBT culture and socialization play a key role” as particular alcohol and drug norms are thought to “impact individual beliefs and decisions about novel drugs” (p. 1725). Ford may have genetically and neurologically had more propensity to drinking alcohol and abusing drugs, but according to social learning theory, culture is also an important consideration for substance use, of which Studio 54 was not sexually binary. Ford’s exposure to normative substance use through more LGBT friendly venues versus Texas/ New Mexico culture of “‘a man is a man’” (Dowd, 2019) a seems like a substantial factor in creating his heavy drinking that would become problematic later, either in LGBT communities or not, and possibly more behaviorally reinforced later as “LGBT drug use would be influenced by a combination of community acceptance of drug use, usage levels among peers, and feedback from respected figures regarding usage” (p. 1714). Thus, also important was his first relationship with a man named Ian Falconer who was a type of role model. Ford distinctly remembers his first boyfriend’s cigarette and vodka smell (Advocate Contributors, 2009, par. 10).
According to Schaefer, Vito, Marcum, Higgins, and Ricketts’ (2015) examination of how social learning affects cocaine use, there is differential reinforcement where the benefits outweighed the costs for Ford, as he was more likely to continue his substance use as it was paired with his positive experience of being with his first mate and newly discovered preference after he is having the fun of starting to party, paired with the neurological either euphoric or dysphoria aversive, so he would model this drinking and cocaine use. Thus “when an individual associates with a peer who holds favorable definitions to cocaine use, he or she is more likely to adopt similar definitions.” but if he “believes a particular behavior is wrong, the less likely he/she will participate in the behavior,” (p. 824). The deviant group (non normative) provided a positive reinforcement for cocaine use.
Ford later went on to live in London for 17 years when he was building his career and becoming established as a prominent figure in the public eye, most notably as a fashion designer. Drinking is commonplace in the English culture and he would drink as many as 12 drinks per day (Dowd, 2019). Social learning theory would say that the cultural milieu masked his heavy alcohol use (as well as cocaine use) because it seemed the norm in both London and in the fashion industry. Ford told Maureen Dowd (2019) that when he moved back to hyper health focused Los Angeles he experienced a type of “culture shock,” as having several drinks at lunch began to raise red flags as it differed from the norm, and a friend suggested he might have a problem with drinking. This was part of his impetus to reduce his alcohol consumption.
A period came after 2004 where Ford was no longer working for Gucci group and found himself with more time on his hands, with less direction and purpose, drinking more, and becoming more and more depressed. Eventually all these factors came together for the perfect storm to get create a painful enough situation for Ford to seek help, which ultimately resulted in his cutting back on his alcohol consumption to absolute temperance. Ford constructs this period of life under the framework of a “midlife crisis” versus a “transition.” According to Kuther and Burnell (2019), roughly 10 percent of adults, usually with significant previous problems earlier in life as a predictor, experience a midlife crisis, which are usually not due to age but more attributed to transitions, which happen throughout the lifespan. During the middle age years, whether the transition is viewed as a crisis or a turning point, there is more of a focus toward improving life satisfaction versus establishing oneself. Ford may have viewed this transition negatively as a midlife crisis versus a transition because without his identity and purpose from work providing satisfaction, paired with his drinking exacerbating his depression, his lack of well being and self esteem was threatened and was subsequently explored. Ford sought help from a therapist to resolve his substance use and depression.
Sobriety and Crisis Resolution
Ford began to see a therapist multiple times a week in the beginning of his sobriety on his own volition. Ford started to make life changes in his transition by rearranging his values during his midlife crisis. For instance, Ford got into directing films, which is a medium he found he was better able to communicate his ideas and make a difference. Ford’s first film, A Single Man (2009) deals with themes of loneliness and isolation while also specifically describing the inequality of being a gay man when the protagonist’s partner passes away and he is not able to be at his bedside in the hospital or attend his funeral due to prejudice and stigma. Ford said he lost money on this project, although it was critically successful, creating this film was one of the best times of his life (Galloway, 2016). According to Bandura (1999) “achievement of desired changes” is integral to approaching the treatment of substance use from a social cognitive perspective as it reinforces one’s self efficacy. Self efficacy is the contrary action to observing and continuing to model destructive observed behavior (p. 215). After initiating this change, Ford continued to build on his self efficacy when he released Nocturnal Animals (2016), and this time his film was more commercially successful and also received critical acclaim, and he continued to heal therapeutically by communicating nuances of his midlife crisis through the film. Specifically Ford incorporated themes of male gender roles as well as continuing with his themes of emptiness and loneliness from chasing success through the character of Susan (played by Amy Adams) who he claims was somewhat autobiographical.
“Fortunate or not, I live in that world that Susan lives in. I know those people. A few years ago now, I really had a midlife crisis. I think a lot of my younger years – and a lot of people’s younger years, I bet – are spent achieving whatever it is, when you’re young, you think you need to do. Getting ahead in your career, getting this, getting that, buying your first apartment, getting married and then you realise, ‘OK, well I’ve done all that, now what? Is this what there is?’” ( Lewis, 2016, par. 20).
Just as Ford began to draft screenplays, he drafted new purpose and worked on his relationships. Ford also grew closer to his partner by having a son with a surrogate. Ford now has a more health conscious lifestyle per the cultural milieu of Los Angeles as he is vegan and makes a concerted effort to focus on his health. Though he is older than the typical parents of a young child at 57, he is probably encountering spheres of influence in the parenting world that will continue to reinforce his self efficacy and provide boosts to well being, to help aid in future positive choices to increase self efficacy for transitions as opposed to crisis.
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