The Mother-Daughter Duo Changing The Way We Think About Style & Self-Acceptance

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It’s no great secret that, in business terms, low self-esteem is profitable. From detox teas and gym memberships to diet pills and cellulite creams, companies offer a wealth of ‘remedies’ to the superficial complaints many of us obsess over daily. Eight years ago, Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum decided to do something to try and combat this mentality with StyleLikeU, a series of docu-style interviews rooted in an ethos of self-acceptance.
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They began by exploring the hidden stories imbued in clothing, before realising that their subjects were at their most beautifully vulnerable when undressed. This epiphany spawned the hugely successful What’s Underneath Project which, this week, is being celebrated with the release of a new book.
Although sifting through the hundreds of interviews was no easy task, the result is a series of diverse stories which communicate one cohesive message: that style is not just about clothing, it’s about radical self-acceptance. From race and body image to gender and sexuality, no thematic stone is left unturned; this unfiltered honesty is exactly what makes the book a crucial tool to remind us all that we aren’t alone in our struggles.
In celebration of the release, we spoke with the mother-daughter founding duo in the midst of a busy launch week to discuss self-esteem, diverse representation and the true catharsis of confession.
What made you decide to turn the ‘What’s Underneath’ project into a book?
Elisa: It gave us a chance to see the overall connections in these videos and turn them into a cohesive message. People often ask us – how did you get there? How did you get to this place where you have this comfort in your own skin, where you can be vulnerable, open and free?
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Lily: Yes, after doing hundreds of interviews we began to see unifying threads; we wanted to unite them through these overarching themes and show how, even though they’re so diverse, they share these certain qualities. Also, in terms of why we decided to make a book, we always found ourselves going through transcripts, highlighting these quotes and stories that we want to remember forever. I know a lot people watching the videos feel that way too, so we wanted a place for those empowering quotes to be marked in something you can look back at over and over again, not just something that disappears on Instagram.
You open the book by discussing your own struggles – was that difficult to do?
Lily: No. We’ve both participated in the videos ourselves, and we’re grateful because these people helped us with our own body image; they’ve empowered us to become comfortable in our own skin. The struggles propelled us and the work we’ve done has transformed us personally, so we’re excited to share that journey with people.
Elisa: What we’ve actually discovered – and what we really want to transmit in the book – is that it’s incredibly cathartic, relieving and fun to share these stories and connect through your vulnerabilities.
Are your subjects often nervous at first? If so, how do you ease them into the process?
Lily: Yes, people tend to be nervous at the beginning but we really understand that, and the process behind-the-scenes is very warm. We know how to start by talking about things that are easy to share and then easing our way slowly into the more challenging topics. By the time we get there, they’re already feeling a little more comfortable and safe in our hands.
Elisa: The funny thing is that people often forget about the undressing part because they get so wrapped up in what they’re saying – they love the opportunity to express themselves and talk about these things they don’t ever really get asked. What we’ve found is that, when you give people a chance to express themselves fully and not be pigeonholed, boxed-in or cut-off in some way, they really do flourish and their beauty does radiate.
How do you cast for the project? Is it mainly social media?
Lily: The process has evolved over the years, but it’s a combination of social media and referrals. From the beginning of StyleLikeU, which is now eight years ago, everyone that we’ve interviewed has always recommended other people, so we’ve developed a huge network in that way. Social media has become a huge resource over the last few years – we have thousands of people on our radar, so we have a pretty intense vetting process to find out who’s right for the video at the right time.
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StyleLikeU is excellent in terms of diverse representation. Do you think mainstream media is following suit and, if so, do you think you’ve had a role to play in that?
Elisa: We do feel that we’ve played a role, and we do feel like there is a shift but it is still, for the most part, superficial, a bit commodified and rooted in tokens. We’re very committed to making sure this movement for diversity and self-acceptance in the face of beauty and fashion is something that goes all the way; not just a new thing or a new trend, but really the future of these industries.
Elisa, you worked extensively in the fashion industry and have said it was one of the driving forces behind starting this site. Do you think things are changing there too?
Elisa: No. Well, barely. It’s not enough, it’s still very much about the token curvy girl, or the token woman of colour, and that’s not a true representation of the population at all. It’s still skewed towards the skinny, white, blonde, pre-pubescent, not-even-a-woman type of girls, so no. I think it’s just scratching the surface – they must know they need to make a change, but it’s like a beast.
Do you think brands are guilty of co-opting, or commodifying diversity?
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Lily: Yes. I don’t want to hate on that because it’s better than nothing I suppose, but it doesn’t always feel like the most authentic thing.
It’s like you were saying – it’s a small change that can lead to bigger things.
Elisa: Right. This is such a huge, huge thing that needs to happen – it’s such a pervasive, insidious system that makes people hate themselves so that they buy things. So, for a system to have to reverse itself to a place where people love themselves first, it’s going to take a minute when it’s built on people hating themselves.
Why was it so important for you to create videos that humanise people first and foremost?
Lily: We live in such an image-based culture, and unfortunately we don’t often take the time to go beneath that. We buy into this idea that everyone is just an avatar of themselves instead of taking a second to go beyond our snap judgements of other people. Our videos show that everyone is multi-faceted – everyone struggles and you might not be alone in those struggles.
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Elisa: The other thing about storytelling that we found is that it’s a bit like Teflon – you can’t really criticise someone’s story, or judge or reject it. At the end of the day, that story resonates because inside we’re all so connected despite our external differences, so I think these interviews have tremendous power in that they make people question their judgements and assumptions about others.
Do you get many people reaching out to share their own stories with you?
Lily: Yes, that’s been one of the most affirming and motivating forces in what we do, those messages from people. People have said it’s helped them overcome eating disorders, to feel less alone in the world or to understand others better. Others have said they found the confidence to come out as gay or transgender to their families after watching the videos.
Do people ever want to get involved themselves?
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Lily: We have had a lot of requests from people wanting to experience that catharsis of telling their own story, so this year we’re expanding and launching an open call initiative and hosting events in different cities as we travel and tour the book. We did a small one in London last summer, that was where it started. We opened it up to the public, so people came to be interviewed, a live audience gathered and it ended up being this beautiful exchange. We’re planning on doing one next weekend in New York and then travelling with it, so we’re excited.
Finally, if someone was struggling with their own self-esteem, what would be the one core piece of advice you could give them?
Elisa: The essential thing is understanding that the things that are the most unique to you are actually the things that are the most beautiful about you.
Lily: Yes. Oftentimes those are the things that you think of as flaws, whether they’re physical traits or just something about who you are. If you can stop being ashamed of them and actually own them –if you can realise that these things make you beautiful, unrepeatable and special, that’s the shift.
Elisa: Our biggest hope is that, if people can really get to that, it will flip everything upside-down to a place where you’re coming from a place of self-love. That, in turn, would create enormous change in the world. If we were free from feeling like we have to be someone else to be okay, free from the time that consumes and the low self-esteem that creates, there would be a lot of larger world problems that would be solved.