Elisa Goodkind & Lily Mandelbaum, the founders of StyleLikeU, share the lessons they’ve learned through their radically honest storytelling platform that’s dedicated to celebrating bodies in all forms
There are certain corners of the internet that make you feel great and others, less so. The ability to get a glimpse into other people’s lives can be insightful and educational, but can also lead to a culture of comparison and unattainable aspirations. Two in five girls aged 11 to 16 in the UK say they have seen images online that have made them feel insecure or less confident about themselves. This increases to half of girls aged 17 to 21, according to research by Girlguiding in its 2021 Girls’ Attitudes Survey.
But there’s one social account that has made it its mission to leave its followers (197,000 on Instagram at the time of publication) feeling buoyed and inspired to challenge outdated beauty.
StyleLikeU was founded in 2009 by New York-based Elisa Goodkind and her daughter, Lily Mandelbaum, and they've created an online space where beauty exists without boundaries.
With more than 600,000 YouTube subscribers (with nearly 135 million views across their channel) and more than 228,000 followers on TikTok, the pair are on a mission to show us that style is more than just what we wear, it’s about who we are.
Their immensely popular What’s Underneath series is a favourite of ours and sees interviewees from all walks of life removing layers of clothing to reveal another part of themselves as they share their story. The interviews are more than your run-of-the-mill Q&As; they’re like watching pieces of performance art as participants take off their armour to present their truest, rawest versions of themselves to camera. It’s powerful stuff and is testament to the amount of trust the interviewees must have in those asking the questions.
We caught up with Elisa and Lily over Zoom from their US office to find out what goes into creating their unique videos that tackle everything from ageism to ableism, as well as their favourite pieces of wisdom that they’ve learned from their interviewees and community when it comes to self-acceptance and loving the skin you’re in. After interviewing more than 200 people in their underwear over the past 13 years, there couldn’t be a better duo to ask.
But first, some background on how StyleLikeU came about as it was almost accidental. Upon returning to the fashion industry in her early fifties after taking time out for motherhood, Elisa felt the industry shifting away from the authenticity and personal expression that she’d fallen in love with when she worked as a fashion editor and stylist in the 80s. ‘Over time, I started to see an increasing amount of homogeneity when it came to representation, from the models to what brands were looking for,’ says Elisa. ‘Editorial pages were becoming advertising for various established big box brands and no longer places where you could really change someone’s mind and turn the world inside out.’
Meanwhile, Lily was struggling with her body image, something so many of us go through when growing up, and she couldn’t see herself in any of the traditional forms of media. ‘As a consumer, I felt like I didn’t fit into an unattainable ideal,’ she says. ‘I didn’t really understand it at the time but looking back, I struggled a lot and associated fashion and style with something that was in many ways mean and exclusive.’
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Although the mum and daughter were at very different points in their lives, they shared an underlying frustration and passion. ‘We were both realising in our own ways that the media of that moment was not necessarily reflecting the concept of personal style and how empowering it can be when you embrace everything about yourself – including your so-called ‘flaws’,’ says Lily.
They were both drawn to people in their lives who had an immense comfort in themselves and their self-expression; fellow nonconformists who weren’t buying into the limitations of the media at the time. So, in 2009, they picked up an old home-video camera to interview these nonconformists about it. ‘We wanted to ask them about why they dressed the way they dressed, what it said about them and how it expressed this deeper knowing of who they were,’ says Lily. These first videos were what became Closets, the duo’s debut series and what acted as the catalyst for their next series, The What’s Underneath Project – what StyleLikeU is most known for.
StyleLikeU’s interview with model Iskra Lawrence talking about surviving the modelling industry’s toxic norms has racked up more than 35 million views
Everyone has a story
In What’s Underneath, diverse individuals claim self-acceptance by stripping down and opening up about self-image, style and identity. The series is underpinned by the belief that everyone has a story, which is why you’ll find a mixture of interviews with non-celebrities and celebrities alike challenging everything from body image to ageism and perceptions around disability. ‘I think if we all knew that [everyone has a story], we’d have a much more empowered society,’ says Elisa. ‘We’re taught to believe that we don’t have anything important to say, that only the same five celebrities do – that’s one of the reasons why we don’t focus on well-known people.’
What started as a short-term project soon became a calling. ‘We thought we were going to do maybe three or four episodes originally,’ says Lily. ‘It was amazing how the simple act of sitting on a stool and taking off your clothes while being asked a series of questions became a vessel for a range of issues. The removal of clothing became a symbolic removal of every type of shame or rule, allowing people to reclaim themselves underneath.
‘Throughout all of those initial interviews, we started to realise that the unifying thread between everyone we were drawn to was not necessarily anything external, it was just this idea that they all possessed this deep comfort in who they were internally, in their bodies and this total radical honesty.’
Do they ever get asked why their subjects can’t just do the interviews without having to take their clothes off? ‘It used to be one of the biggest things that people commented about,’ says Elisa. ‘It happens less and less now, but it still does, especially when videos go viral and beyond the community. But it's the most essential part of it – the tension, the catharsis and the lack of pretension and protection make it all so powerful. If our interviewees were just sitting on a stool, having an intellectual conversation about their identity, it wouldn't nearly have the same impact as asking them to do something so vulnerable.’
We are all connected in our pain and struggle
Celebrating diverse bodies and stories ensures that viewers always feel seen in some way. ‘Diversity within each of our series is a huge thing for us,’ says Elisa. ‘Each person has to represent a completely different body type, race, age, gender or sexuality.’
However, what’s particularly special about this duo’s content is that you can watch any interview and feel like you can relate to it in some way. ‘We celebrate true individuality as opposed to conformity, but also the connection and commonality in the underlying pain and struggle that we all as humans go through,’ says Elisa. It’s this connection of human experience that makes their work so eye-opening and unifying. ‘It’s so exciting for us when we see comments where people say that they didn’t think they were going to understand or relate to a particular interview before watching it.’
It’s understandable then that Lily and Elisa find it hard to single out an interview that has had a particularly significant impact on their own self-acceptance journeys. ‘They’ve all influenced us so deeply. I know that’s probably not the answer you were looking for! We always find that every single one somehow speaks to some aspect of what we’re going through in that moment,’ says Lily. ‘At the beginning, every interview was helping me more with my body image. But more recently, I’ve been learning so much from our interviews with couples about what to expect out of a partner and the kind of partnership I want.’
What about the most surprising lessons they’ve learned about self-acceptance from each other? ‘I’ve learned from Lily that true beauty is comfort in your skin,’ says Elisa. ‘She truly blossomed when she stopped feeling she needed to change herself to be beautiful.’
While Lily says she learned from Elisa that ageing is actually a joyous process of continuous growth and freedom, ‘should you choose not to buy into the lie that you become irrelevant’.
‘She is more relevant than ever at 64,’ she adds.
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True style and beauty is what’s underneath
Do Lily and Elisa have any dream celebrity guests for What’s Underneath? Elisa’s top picks are Michelle Obama and Kim Kardashian while Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer and Erykah Badu are on Lily’s wish list. What’s more important than fame to them, though, is that their guest is willing to go to their darker sides and are at a point in their journey where they feel comfortable doing something as vulnerable as share them.
‘It’s been hard for us to get into the celebrity world for that reason,’ says Elisa. ‘Often, the people around them don’t want them to do it because it’s too vulnerable. It’s a shame, because I feel like they could really have an impact through this type of storytelling and spread the mission of acceptance. That being said, I think the very fact that it’s that much of a challenge is what makes it so special and what makes the people that actually step forward to do it so unique.’
The duo has achieved view counts into the millions, worldwide recognition and written a book called True Style Is What's Underneath: The Self-Acceptance Revolution, but what’s their proudest moment? ‘I feel like those milestones were great, but I’m particularly proud of the work that we’ve produced in the last year and a half with our Celebrating Blackness and Defying Ageism series,’ says Lily.
Elisa agrees. ‘I also feel a real sense of pride in our tenacity. It took a long time before we saw results, but we stuck with it,’ she says.
What awaits StyleLikeU in the future? While there’s no doubt that conversations around ageism, beauty, race, weight and sexuality have progressed, Lily and Elisa acknowledge that there’s still work to be done. ‘I think things have changed enormously in many ways, but it’s also barely scratching the surface,’ says Elisa. It’s something they’ve observed particularly when posting videos around the subjects of choosing not to have children or get married. ‘There are still so many restrictive and oppressive brainwashing dictums that we have to ascribe to in order to feel as if we’re worthy,’ says Elisa.
We look forward to seeing how they tackle these and other societal stigmas head on. Whatever the subject, whoever the interviewee, we’re sure both are in safe hands.