“We find that through deeply personal stories, sometimes the most universal political messages can get understood and shown,” says Lily Mandelbaum over the phone from New York. It’s 9pm in London, and we are talking about What’s Underneath – a series of videos that catapulted her and her mother, Elisa Goodkind, to the forefront of the self-love movement that has been thriving on the internet and slowly but surely making its way to the mainstream.
Working under the moniker StyleLikeU for the past eight years, the mother-daughter duo started documenting the personal style of their acquaintances; not for a love of fashion as it’s usually sold to us – subdued, branded, very thin – but as a wish to offer an antidote to the boredom and sameness that had taken hold of the industry. This antidote, they found, was fairly straightforward: Celebrating non-conformity and style through self-acceptance. Building a relationship with clothing that is not based on aspiring to be someone else, but instead, on embracing exactly who you are, struggles and all.
Starting with a peek into the closets of inspiring people, they developed their vision into the What’s Underneath Project and now, after hundreds of interviews, part of these stories leave the screens to become a physical manifesto of self-love in the form of a book. We caught up with Elisa and Lily to talk about how far they’ve come, politics, and the importance of turning pain into something beautiful.
How did StyleLikeU begin?
Elisa Goodkind: It started when I was a stylist – I was incredibly frustrated creatively, and felt alienated by the fashion industry, which I once thought promoted authenticity and individuality. It was very non-uniform and it became very uniform. We started StyleLikeU interviewing people who possessed comfort in their own skin and a certain way to be that exuded style, as well as being inviting and inspiring – the opposite of what the fashion industry had slowly become, which was very exclusive. Lily was starting college and also, as a curvy girl, didn’t fit in the stereotypes of the prepubescent caffeinated, thin, blonde, prototype of “beauty”. We both felt like we wanted to explore and understand what beauty really was.
After doing the closet series for many years, breaking all these boxes of body image, race, age, gender, sexuality and expression – seeing what real style was, we had the idea of driving the point home by asking these interesting people to take their clothes off as we interview them about style, identity and self image. This made the project become even more powerful, and it was amazing how much deeper the story became when we started discussing how people really felt about their bodies and society.
Nowadays, an outsider point of view has become almost cliché – how did you manage to steer clear of that?
Lily Mandelbaum: Our interest in people that possess this intangible essence is just really genuine. We’re drawn to all these people naturally – and they can be of any size, shape, body type, race, gender, sexuality. Obviously, we are conscious and try to keep it as diverse as we can, but this unique style is just what we’re drawn towards. We are genuinely inspired by every single person that we’ve spoken to – until that goes away, which I don’t think it will, the integrity will stay there.
There’s a big grassroots fashion movement thanks to the internet – do you feel like we’re entering a new era of actually creative fashion?
Elisa Goodkind: Yes, I mean – I pray so. I really believe we’re heading to a really exciting time where fashion is much more about the exploration of what it means to be an individual. The demand for that will create much more authentic and unique designs, allowing more artistic people that might not be as ‘big’ to thrive as designers.
Obviously, social media contributes to the possibility of that – it’s not just fashion magazines or advertisers dictating everything anymore. I think that the two worlds are sort of parallel right now – we have this giant corporate world that is very oppressive, but at the same time, there’s this tremendous amount of creativity.
“We feel that the process of self-acceptance, while it might sound flowery, it’s actually not – it’s a heavy duty important shift that has to happen” – Elisa Goodkind
The corporate world is trying really hard to to co-opt the idea of loving yourself for their benefit. Do you feel like people will continue resisting that?
Lily Mandelbaum: Yeah, every brand is trying to be all about diversity now, in a very tokenistic way. I think It’s so awesome that social media exists and that so many different movements and grassroots communities can find each other, that designers and models can come out on their own. That ends up creating a need for these big corporations to do what the people are into, instead of dictating it completely from the top down. But I still think that the corporations seem to be finding a way to co-opt – wherever they see numbers they put their money. Right now the numbers might be starting to be on a more positive place, but it’s not authentic. I don’t know what we’re going to do about that.
Elisa Goodkind: I’m an optimist – I feel like at the end of the day the people will win. Our whole message is to show people love and to get people to understand that beauty and style are internal, that getting dressed is an act of self-love, and I think people go to that. They’d rather feel that way – liberated and happy in their own skin, once they’re aware that the corporations are making them hate themselves.
Do you feel like this project is inherently political?
Lily Mandelbaum: Yes, definitely. We find that through really deeply personal stories, sometimes the most universal political messages can get understood and shown. If you can understand a person’s struggle, no matter how unique, when they’re sharing their story in a really vulnerable, intimate way, it’s harder to be judgemental or detached. There’s a greater level of understanding in hearing a story told in honest, unfiltered words. It bridges differences and shows that we all have the same heartbeat at the end of the day.
We also feel it is political for all people, but especially women, to be reclaiming their body, by sitting in their underwear in a non-photoshopped, non-sexualised way. For them to be claiming self-acceptance in that moment, owning their body.
Elisa Goodkind: We feel that the process of self-acceptance, while it might sound flowery, it’s actually not. It’s a heavy duty important shift that has to happen. If that happens then people are free to stop unconsciously being brainwashed, spending their lives doubting themselves, trying to be someone else. They can really be free and be their greatest self and do things like they plan it – and that’s not just being politically involved. It’s about freeing themselves from the tyranny of worshipping a person outside of you. It’s a really important shift that has to happen for a deeper change in terms of consciousness to happen in the world. Understanding how you can’t disconnect from each other – there’s no such thing as that. We’re all connected.
Even though you deal with very serious topics, the tone you maintain throughout is that of celebration, rather than something solemn or very serious.
Lily Mandelbaum: That’s very intentional. To leave every story feeling empowered – we are very aware of that in the casting process, that no matter how much someone has struggled or what their journey might’ve been, there’s a sense that they are not victims, that they have a certain self-actualisation that is inspiring, and that one can look up to at the end of the day. Part of their strength of our subjects is in the way they own their struggles, the way they’re willing to not be ashamed of them.
Elisa Goodkind: It’s trying to show that the actual beauty of one’s identity is all these things that are unrepeatable and unique to you, part of your struggle. Your struggle is something that you can’t buy, and you can’t skip over it.
Out of everyone you’ve met throughout the project, can you tell me what was the experience that stood out the most for each of you?
Lily Mandelbaum: A remarkable thing for both of us was when we did the What’s Underneath open call last summer, where we opened it to the public and anyone could go in and get their interview done on the spot. That was really powerful and transformative for the project, and we really want to do more as we tour with our book. That was wild – we had no idea what to expect, and we had some really powerful interviews. For example this girl, Brittany, who had never watched one of our videos, walked onto the festival that weekend, and after watching some people get their interviews done, she came back the next morning. While we were talking to her, we found out that that weekend she’d had her first weekend in months, two days off from being in an eating disorder hospital, and she’d just gained 30 pounds, after having a really hard battle with anorexia. She had this really powerful cathartic experience – and that was one of those magical moments, because she was super articulate and brave and inspiring. It meant a lot to her and it became this awesome part of her healing journey. It was a wow moment for me.
Elisa Goodkind: It’s so hard to choose, but I would say Melanie Gaydos’ interview really stood out to me. She broke through the fashion industry despite being probably one of the most unlikely people to do so – she is so out of what’s the beauty norm. To interview her and see that, at the end of the day, even though she’s dealt with so much incredible pain in the beginning, she feels that everything she went through made her an interesting person, and she wouldn’t be who she was if it wasn’t for that.
That was one of the first moments we realised how powerful this was for everybody else. That feeling is true. Everyone that we’ve asked that’s lost a leg, or gone through something very difficult, at the end of the day, would not trade their lives for anyone else’s. That takes my breath away, over and over again.
Do you feel like, with this project, your personal way of expressing yourselves has changed?
Both: A hundred thousand per-cent.
Lily Mandelbaum: Each one of us in different ways. I think my mum has gotten louder and more unabashedly eccentric. I’ve had a totally transformative journey relating to body image and feeling comfortable being a bigger woman, dressing for my body and feeling happy that I am this way, not wanting to change it.
Elisa Goodkind: For me, in addition to being more wildly myself and more expressive, I also find that all these messages from all these people, and how inspiring they are, are an amazing tool to deal with the ageing process on a day-to-day basis. To absolutely not give a shit about it – I’m not going to say I don’t fully give a shit right now, but I will say I give a lot less shits about it, and I aspire to not care about it at all. I love the challenge of that.
How’s it working as a mother-daughter team?
Lily Mandelbaum: For me it’s all I know, because I’ve been working with my mom since I was 19. It’s been really interesting. At the beginning, I was really nervous to work with her; I had just left the nest, she’s a big personality and I’m shy, I was worried I’d just be overshadowed by her. But we share the same vision, and we have different strengths. We could not be more opposite in our work styles and approaches; I’m very organised and big picture oriented, while she’s more creative and more focused on details. None of the things I feared would happen happened.
Elisa Goodkind: I was really nervous about working with Lily because, of course, I wanted what’s best for her, to live her own life and do what she wanted to do. But over time, its become very clear that we’re both doing what we’re meant to be doing, and that this is much bigger than who we are. No matter what tensions and conflicts we have, at the end of the day, we have such an enormous sense of purpose and understanding that this is what we’re supposed to be doing that makes us unbreakable. It’s beyond mother and daughter. That’s why we’ve been able to bring this to the place that it is.
Lily Mandelbaum: The other thing is that it’s so challenging to do something out of the box like this that it’s really nice to have someone as your partner that you know you never have to worry about them leaving. We both know we’ve got each other’s back.
True Style is What’s Underneath: The Self-Acceptance Revolution is available now. To celebrate, this coming weekend Elisa and Lily are hosting an open call – if you can get to NYC and fancy being a part of the What’s Underneath project, head here for more details.
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