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Ariel Winter on Mental Health, Trolls and Life After “Modern Family”

The changing seasons are always tumultuous, with storms washing away the stains of months past and nature struggling to shed or regrow. This spring has been particularly uncertain, to say the least. But in early March, when actor Ariel Winter showed up in Manhattan, it seemed spring had come early, and it wasn’t just the warm temperatures and premature blooms that indicated the shift.

On April 8, Modern Family will air its final episode, closing an 11-year chapter in Ariel’s life. The 22-year-old has played Alex Dunphy on the Emmy-winning show for exactly half of her life. With more than ten million viewers per episode, Ariel is very recognizable as Alex; she is someone viewers think they know. She has a dry sense of humor and a quick wit; she speaks fast and delivers punchlines with ease. In those ways, she’s like the character she plays on TV. But that’s where the comparison stops.

Ariel seems cognizant of the balance between performing, what people think Ariel Winter is like, and actually being Ariel Winter: She’s a smart, kind, and strong young woman who’s developeAriel is now emerging from the security of her long-running show as an adult, tasked with making her way in the world as a young woman. She’s still figuring out what that will look like.

“Life is not predictable,” Ariel tells Teen Vogue, sitting on a couch with her leg tucked under her newly red hair flowing over her shoulders. “That’s why it’s unknown and it’s scary. So I try to go with the flow as much as possible.” She’s just finished one photo shoot, and is pausing to chat before she rushes to another. “I do not like lack of control,” she adds. “I don’t like that. So that’s definitely been hard for me.”

But just because Ariel doesn’t know what the future holds doesn’t mean she doesn’t know who she is.d a thick skin over the years — but she’s not untouchable.

Some celebrities maintain a quiet, different-than-you air, even when you’re standing right next to them. But Ariel isn’t like that; she speaks easily and honestly and looks you in the eye. On a gray day in New York, stylists and makeup artists flurry around her, primping and preening her for a photo shoot. Ariel jokes with all of them, remaining flexible, working with the team to find outfits she likes. In front of the camera she moves with the confidence of someone who’s done this many times before. There’s no pretension to her.

Born Ariel Winter Workman, she grew up in Hollywood. Ariel first hit the scene at age five, in a Cool Whip commercial. After various smaller roles, she landed the part of Alex Dunphy on Modern Family, in 2009, when she was just 11, playing the nerdy middle child in a quirky but close family, often acting as the grounding presence in a head-in-the-clouds bunch. In real life, Ariel’s family life wasn’t quite as picturesque. She moved in with her sister, Shanelle Gray, when she was 14, and was legally emancipated from her mother — who she’s spoken about in the past — a year later.

Ariel has said that her sister has been an overwhelmingly positive force in her life. In fact, it was Ariel’s sister who first recommended she go to therapy, something Ariel says has changed the game for her.

“I go to therapy every week and I’ve been doing it for eight years. It is fantastic,” she says. “For me, therapy is so important. I never want to quit therapy. I feel like people are never ‘cured’ [with] therapy. It’s not a ‘cured’ thing, because you’re not going in sick. You’re just going in.”

For Ariel, therapy is about putting in the work to better yourself, which she says everyone should try to do. “What’s negative and wrong and embarrassing about bettering your life?” she asks. “Isn’t that what everyone wants — to be better and feel healthier and be happier?”

Ariel’s journey to being happier has been bumpy. She started taking antidepressants a while ago, but she struggled to find the right drug and dosage. She isn’t alone: One study posited that the rate of effectiveness for antidepressants was lower than previously thought, possibly because people stop taking them when they experience adverse side effects.

“The only negative about [mental health medication] is the process to finding the right one,” she says. “Some of them have really negative side effects, and it can be really disheartening to take something that’s supposed to make you feel better but it makes you feel ten times worse.’”

Eventually, Ariel found that a low dose of three different medications was the key — they help her feel happy and stave off depression. As a result of switching medications, she also happened to lose 30 pounds. Ariel says the public homed in on her weight loss, both shaming and praising her for it. Many, she says, even suggested she switched her medication to try to lose weight.

“A lot of people commented on my post like, ‘No, she changed her antidepressant because she wanted to lose weight,’” Ariel says. “No! I thought every medication I was on, I was going to stay at that weight, and that was fine. It had nothing to do with that.”

Aside from people conjecturing about her mental health, medication, and weight, Ariel says she sees something on social media that is perhaps even more concerning: “I get so many DMs [asking] ‘What medication are you on? I want to lose weight; I want that medication.’ What I would really like for people to understand is, every medication affects everyone differently. We’re all made differently. Everything is different.”

Of course, any questions about Ariel’s weight loss because of antidepressants is missing the bigger point of a young woman taking steps to improve her mental health.

But Ariel is used to people missing the point because of how she looks.

If you Google “Ariel Winter” right now, you’ll almost exclusively see headlines about her body: her low-cut top, her thong dress, her “baring” all. You might see articles about her weight, about her “clapping back” at body shamers, about her friend and costar Sarah Hyland defending her from trolls. The theme is clear.

The headlines about Ariel’s body often overshadow her accomplishments. For example, the headline about her thong dress could have been about her celebrating the Emmy-winning show she just wrapped; a headline about her “showing skin” in a costume should have been about her 22nd birthday. And it’s not just headlines. On Instagram, Ariel gets comment after comment about her body, and it hurts.

“People on the internet really suck. It bothered me for so many years — I mean, it still does. It never goes away. When someone calls you a ‘fat slut,’ you’re not feeling happy about it. It doesn’t matter what you look like now, it doesn’t matter what you looked like then,” Ariel says. “You’re still going to read that and be like, ‘Oh, that sucks.’”

Ariel has been known to defend herself against detractors, but it’s something she’s doing less of these days. Many take her confident responses to trolls to mean the negativity is not affecting her, but the truth is, Ariel says, that she’s put in a lot of work to make the negative comments matter less.

“I feel like that [pain] never goes away. People are like, ‘How do you get that to go away? It doesn’t bother you at all anymore.’ Again, that’s missing the point. What I’ve said is, I’ve learned to deal with it more,” Ariel explains. “It’s a journey of being confident enough to look at that and evaluate my opinion of myself, which I’m not fully at yet. I’m still working there.”

When she started receiving nasty comments, Ariel said it was all-consuming. She’d fire back nasty comments to her nasty commenters, but that didn’t help.

“That doesn’t feel good,” she says. “I don’t like to hurt people. It doesn’t bring me joy. And at the same time, when I’m writing that negative comment back to them, I’m not being like, ‘Yeah! I defended myself!’ and, like, laughing and feeling good. I’m writing it back, and I’m sad that they wrote me that, and then I’m sad I wrote that back and started this whole thing.”

Now Ariel tries to remember that the only opinion that really matters is her own, taking the power away from her detractors. While years of therapy have no doubt helped Ariel give less credence to negative comments, she remembers one specific Instagram comment that helped shift her focus.

“I had someone comment on one of my pictures, and it really bugged me. They said, ‘So many people on your photos, it really is divided. So many people show so much love and support, and you spend so much time on the negative comments and ignore all the positive ones.’ It really sucked to read that because that’s true,” Ariel says. “You overlook the positive comments, because as soon as you see the positive ones it’s like, ‘Okay, great, but these people don’t agree.’ But why do those people’s [negative] comments matter more than those [positive] comments?”

Still, wouldn’t it be nice if we all noticed Ariel for who she is and what she does, and not what she looks like?

“I’d love for people to see the things I do, not really what I look like, because that’s mainly what’s talked about.”

Ariel says she’d like recognition for her actions, not her looks, but she also says she doesn’t need the world to know everything about her. Like a lot of celebrities, she’d prefer a bit of anonymity in her daily life. She posts sparingly on social media, compared with other young stars, and the bits she does share don’t tell us too much about who she is or what she’s doing. It’s not that she’s holding back or hiding things; it’s just that Ariel is busier actually living life than documenting it.

“I would like for [people] to, of course, see the real me. But … I know that’s not really feasible,” she admits. “It’s rough sometimes, people being like, ‘I don’t know anything about her at all.’ That might be because I don’t put it out there as much.”

“Some people, on social media, they love to share everything, and they know how to share everything, and they’re comfortable sharing everything,” Ariel observes. “I know who I am, and the people around me know who I am; but expressing that to somebody else and having to prove to somebody and be like, ‘I need you to see me this way,’ is not something I do very well.”

The other part of it, Ariel says, is that she’s just like anyone else. She likes sitting on her couch, ordering takeout, watching TV, and hanging with her four dogs: Casper, Chloe, Cash, and Cleo. She likes her dogs so much that on the emotional last day of filming Modern Family, to cope, she went on an online shopping spree and ordered a phone case with the dogs’ faces on the back.

“I was sitting in my trailer, and I might have gone [online] and personalized a bunch of things and sent them to my house, and this was one of them,” she says slyly, holding up the plastic case featuring the fluffy faces.

Dogs are a huge part of Ariel’s life. Her ultimate goal, she says, is to open a shelter for senior dogs and dogs that have been sheltered for more than a year. A pit bull lover, Ariel is part of many animal rescue Facebook groups, and seeing those tiny faces behind bars tears her up. She’ll post on social media to help a dog, but much of her work to help dogs, and others, goes unseen on purpose.

“People may not see the things I do that matter to me,” she says. “That’s okay, because the people I do them for, it matters to them and they know.”

Ariel will stick to firm ground as she blossoms into her next phase of life. She’s hoping to help more dogs, continue to do good by others, still planning to work hard, and trying to get comfortable with the untold path her new season holds. Beyond that, she doesn’t really have a plan — no benchmarks to reach by a certain age because, she says, “I feel like nothing works that way.” But that’s okay.

“This is new territory for me,” Ariel says. “I was doing something very specific for so long. Now I have to reset my mind and retrain myself to be in that place of, ‘All right, I am ready to look for the next thing.’ I am ready to work,” she continues. “I am ready to do everything I can. I am ready to be in the right mindset to go in there again and be able to face the rejection that will come, and be able to move past that and go to the next audition and be ready for it. And be ready for things in my personal life. Just living.”

It’s not that she has no plans. Right now Ariel is working on filming a video game, an experience she says is totally new to her. As for the bigger picture?

“I want to stay the same person I am,” she says. “It’s way more rewarding at the end of the day. I want to stay the person I am, work hard, and see what happens.”

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