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Putting mental health and fashion in front of the camera

The co-founder of StyleLikeU – known for their videos that encourage ‘stripping down’ to open up – discusses her mission for radical self-acceptance

This week (May 16-22) is Mental Health Awareness Week, with “relationships” as the theme. We’ll be running features all week about the mental health of those close to you, the mental health of the artists that inspire you and the different ways that communities and individuals deal with the issue. Slowly but surely, progress is being made in the ways in which we discuss a problem that affects each and every one of us.

It’s no secret that the fashion industry breeds insecurity. Glossy magazines and runways worldwide are dominated by narrow ideals of beauty and limiting sample sizes, and the mental health implications of these common practices are devastating. A 2012 study conducted by Model Alliance revealed that around 68.3 per cent of models suffer from depression or anxiety – which seems hardly surprising given that someone like Charli Howard claims she was told she was ‘too fat’ to model at a mere size 6-8. These problems extend beyond the industry; target audiences worldwide are often left feeling excluded and unable to identify with the beauty standards represented in (usually airbrushed) editorials and campaigns. The resulting message is that we should aspire to these standards of perfection; a pursuit which can lead to low self-esteem triggering depression and serious eating disorders.

It was back in 2009 that mother-daughter duo Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum decided to challenge this dangerous homogeneity by creating their StyleLikeU platform. The idea was to spotlight individuals of every race, age and ability to prove the point that true style is the result of self-acceptance. Their message stood out in a world of sponsored content and has led them to enormous success; their YouTube channel, featuring their often viral ‘What’s Underneath’ clips, where women take off their clothes and open up about their lives, bodies and struggles, currently has almost 200,000 subscribers. There’s also a documentary in the works, due for release in spring 2017.

What sets StyleLikeU apart is the fact that any criticism of the fashion industry is balanced by a genuine passion for clothing and its transformative potential. In fact, Goodkind herself is a fashion industry veteran, working for 25 years as a stylist and editor before becoming disenfranchised with the effect it was having on her teenage daughter’s self-esteem. So, in order to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, we got in touch with Goodkind to talk tokenism, mental health in fashion and the best ways to begin the journey towards radical self-acceptance.

What motivated you to start StyleLikeU?

Elisa Goodkind: I was feeling very frustrated. I was a fashion stylist and editor for about 25 years, and I was feeling increasingly frustrated with my ability to express myself freely and authentically through editorials. I was confined by the marketing machine and advertisers – confined personally and confined creatively, as an artist.

At the same time, Lily was feeling very curvy as a teenager. She was tall, curvy and voluptuous and felt alienated by fashion magazines and their portrayal of waif-like girls in skinny jeans. There was no other ideal; there was no ‘woman’, everything was about pre-pubescent girls. On the other hand, Lily loved my style, she loved my friends and she loved the people behind the camera, so we came together when she was around 17 or 18 years old to begin this together.

Given the link between low self-esteem and depression, do you think the fashion and beauty industries have a moral obligation to discuss mental health and their potential impact?

Elisa Goodkind: Absolutely. Everything that we’re doing is in an effort to overturn the status quo right now, because it’s creating a tremendous amount of low self-worth at a young age and creating misery and unhappiness. I don’t think anybody can escape it at this point, and I think it’s a crime. It’s absolutely criminal. From a young age, men and women are being brainwashed to think that they need things outside of themselves to be happy and feel good about themselves – there is no cultivation of self-worth in either the fashion or beauty industry.

It used to be less pervasive, less insidious, less greedy; there was a hope that you could just believe in yourself first and then buy beautiful things, and that’s great. Where is this coming from in the end? That’s our message and our mission. We want to get this to start over from the beginning so it begins with self-esteem, and then we can have an industry and a market of things being consumed from that place.

Are you starting to see changes within the industry already?

Elisa Goodkind: Yes, I think it is definitely changing. They can’t crush peoples’ spirits and their souls, because people are always going to go where the love is. I’m a huge advocate for aspiration, I love aspiration and fantasy. I love fashion, and style is something that gives me tremendous pleasure every day. What I’m advocating is a freedom linked to radical self-acceptance, which I feel is, right now, undermining the commercial fashion industry and is what will slowly change the norms. Radical self-expression and self-acceptance is the new fashion.

Do you think the definition of diversity usually discussed within the fashion industry is too narrow?

Elisa Goodkind: Yes, it’s not just body image. It’s race, gender, sexuality, age, physical conditions; it’s anything that makes somebody in their own skin and their own humanity feel ‘less than’, which is absurd. There needs to a break from the tokenism that says one or two people represent curvy bodies. Dealing with race is not just Beyoncé. It needs to go beyond that, to every shade, every shape and every form, because that’s aspirational. All shades of humanity need something to identify with which empowers them to be more themselves.

Do you think fashion is still seen in a positive light?

Elisa Goodkind: That’s a good question. Lily and I used to talk a lot about this, and within her peers it was largely seen as superficial. The word itself had become embarrassing. I still think it’s something positive. I will be the first person to embrace fashion as I did before when I see new designers and a bottom-up approach, but I haven’t been feeling that way for a long time. I have no interest, because I find it so superficial and homogenous.

Now there’s clothing that’s disposable, is ruining the planet and is not of value. The concept of buying something to last and then handing it down has faded. Then, these luxury items – are they worth it? I finally got to a point where I was buying the likes of Dries Van Noten, Maison Margiela and Comme des Garçons, and I loved and treasured these pieces and still do. Now it’s not worth it, it’s too uniform and trend-driven. Despite that, I am eager to see what comes out of this, because I believe that out of darkness comes light.

“You can absolutely relearn and retrain yourself to love yourself. Think about what you’re spending your time looking at, what you’re giving power to. Is it making you feel good? Is it adding to your life?” – Elisa Goodkind

Your interviews are always characterised by their level of intimacy. How do you encourage your subjects to get so personal?

Elisa Goodkind: We ask them questions that they’re never asked. That’s one thing. We give them a lot of love; we shine the light on them and who they are, we care about their story and we understand that, in the end, their vulnerability is their beauty. We get there by relating to them ourselves. The audience doesn’t hear the entire conversation, but both Lily and myself interview them and we interact with them in a very organic way as if we’re just hanging out with them. We relate, and we’re very open, so it’s this amazing zen-like connection that we make. There’s just a presence.

What advice would you personally give to anybody struggling with self-acceptance?

Elisa Goodkind: You can absolutely relearn and retrain yourself to love yourself. Think about what you’re spending your time looking at, what you’re giving power to. Is it making you feel good? Is it adding to your life? Try to make little steps to change what you’re absorbing and what you’re giving your energy to, then try to look at things and people that actually inspire you to want to be more yourself.

It’s like looking at a picture of yourself and hating it, then looking back ten years later and thinking you don’t look so bad after all. You can break that pattern because we’ve been brainwashed to feel this way. Take a step back, look a little harder; start to say to yourself “Yes, I do look good enough actually.” You’re not going to look enough if you consistently want to be someone else. Ultimately. if you really want to feel beautiful, you do have to truly break that pattern and actually feel beautiful.