“Being naked changes the dynamic of storytelling”: the mother-daughter duo who want you to strip for self-acceptance

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Moya Crockett
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Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum of the What's Underneath Project

Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum care a lot about clothes. But right now, they’re more preoccupied with getting people to take them off. The New York mother-daughter duo are the co-founders of StyleLikeU, a style website focused on self-acceptance. They’re also the brains behind YouTube documentary series the What’s Underneath Project, in which people talk about their relationship with fashion and beauty while slowly stripping down to their underwear.

The deeply intimate interviews are revealing in more ways than one, and make for compulsive viewing. The US series featured some of New York and LA's coolest people talking about issues that have influenced how they view themselves, from photographer Petra Collins discussing her relationship with body hair, to partially-blind model Melanie Gaydos talking about growing up with a rare genetic disorder.

Now Elisa, 58, and Lily, 26, have brought the What’s Underneath Project to the UK. A fresh, frank interview with an inspirational London woman is released every Monday, and we strongly advise you to check them out. We caught up with Elisa and Lily to talk nudity, mental health, and working with your mum...

Why did you set up StyleLikeU?

Elisa Goodkind: I had been working in fashion for over 25 years, and I had been extremely passionate about what I was doing. But I was feeling increasingly unhappy and frustrated as a stylist in what I felt had turned into a very top-down, corporate [environment]. I was trying size zero runway dresses on celebrities, and they would freak out about their bodies and how they were looking in the photos, and it didn’t give me the kind of creative expression that I needed to be happy anymore.

Lily Mandelbaum: Throughout all of my adolescence, I had struggled with body image issues. I was always really curvy, and felt that because of the images I was seeing in fashion magazines, and the culture at large, that I had to change myself physically in order to have style and be beautiful. I was on a hamster wheel of extreme dieting [throughout] my whole childhood and adolescence. But I was also surrounded by my mum’s friends – the make-up artists, photographers and stylists on her shoots – and all these cool, creative people were not just this one cookie-cutter ideal of beauty. I started to realise that true style was a little different to what I was seeing in magazines. StyleLikeU started from our shared passion for these people.

Elisa and Lily
"Style isn't about the clothes you wear": Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum

How did the What’s Underneath Project begin?  

Lily: We had many different video projects [as part of StyleLikeU]. We were always looking for people with really authentic and unique style, to try and make clear that style is not about how much money you have, or one idea of beauty. My mom used to always be to me, like: "You can be naked and have style." We realised that we wanted to literally make that point, so we started asking people to come in and take their clothes off and answer some questions about their style and their identity.

Were you surprised when the American series of the What's Underneath Project went viral?

Lily: We knew that we were tapping into something really powerful, because we were so moved and inspired. But we were really shocked and surprised when it started to just go wild and viral. It was an incredible feeling to know that a message we really cared about sharing was reaching so many people.

How do you choose who appears in the videos?

Elisa: We started with maybe 20 people that Lily and I knew, and from there it was referrals upon referrals and lots of scouting. Today we have a huge database of something like 20,000 people from all over the world. For each video we have our own set of credentials of what kind of person we're looking for, but all [interviewees] need to be open and honest and willing to be vulnerable.

Lily: They have to have an awareness of the ways in which the marketing machine of our culture has made them potentially feel less good about themselves, in ways that they don’t need to feel.

Elisa: We also are very meticulous about diversity from one video to the other, in terms of body, race, gender, sexuality, age, physical condition.

​One of the really refreshing things about your videos is that while they show women taking off their clothes, your attention is held far more by what they’re saying than the fact they’re in their underwear.

Elisa: That’s totally it. One of the main points is to take away the objectification of the body. 

Lily: The taking off the clothes is a symbolic act of being really honest, but also being in your underwear is a metaphor for comfort in your skin and being willing to put it all out there, even if you’re not "perfect" by society’s standards. I also think taking off the clothes makes [interviewees] feel a level of vulnerability that influences their storytelling.

What differences did you notice between the women you met in London, compared to those in New York?

Lily: Mental health was a big topic in London. A lot of people were really open about their struggles with depression, which hadn’t gotten talked about as much in the States. I don’t know if that’s because in the States it’s less of a taboo, or less of a problem.

Elisa: My guess is that it has to do with the fact that you guys [in the UK] are actually a little bit behind. Here [in New York], it’s more acceptable to be in therapy – it's very normal and natural – so it’s not as huge a topic. At least half, if not almost all, of [the interviewees in London] on some level talked about mental health. In one video that's coming up, she was in a terrible long depression and everyone was kind of ignoring it. In the US, you would immediately be in therapy.

What are the pros and cons of working as a mother-daughter creative team?

Lily: Turning something so pure into something that we can financially sustain our lives doing, and the lives of our employees, is very challenging, so having that family support is paramount. We share the same vision pretty much for the future of StyleLikeU, but in day-to-day work stuff, we’re opposites. I’m really strategic and big picture-minded, and she’s very detail-oriented and a perfectionist. So we work well together, but we also get into a lot of fights.

Elisa: As a mother, it’s made me have to be extremely conscious of my actions, but in a really good way. I was very conscious of not overwhelming her and dominating her, but it’s been super-interesting: she’s definitely the boss, she runs the show. But it's not without its trials and tribulations!

What are your future plans for the What’s Underneath Project?

Lily: We’re making a feature-length documentary that was funded on Kickstarter, about our journey as we take the What’s Underneath Project around the world and build a movement for self-acceptance. Immediately after we started the project, we were getting questions from all over the world from people wanting to get involved, so we’re trying to figure out how to activate people in different communities. We’re also starting up a workshop series, and working on a coffee table book.

Elisa: The point of this whole thing was to see people other than the same five celebrities over and over again, and to give voices to all these people who are submerged into this crazy celebrity-driven culture. So there’s a very good feeling around it.

Delve into the What’s Underneath Project archive here.

Images: Courtesy of the What’s Underneath Project