The Key To Being Sexy & Stylish Isn't What You Think

Meet Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum, a mother daughter duo who characterize their bond as one bound by a "commitment to spread self-acceptance through style." In 2009, they jointly founded StyleLikeU, a movement to elevate the authentic, vulnerable stories of people of all ages, body types, races and genders, and to challenge what they refer to as the "sea of cookie-cutter beauty norms."

How? They picked up a home video camera and began shooting raw footage of people telling their stories, ultimately producing thousands of documentary-style episodes about a motley crew of individuals.

To probe their project further, they began asking the people they interviewed to take their clothes off — not in an effort to "sensationalize" their bodies (to use Elisa and Lily's term), but to take a closer look at "what's underneath." The term ("what's underneath") is a key idea in the title of their soon-to-be feature length documentary, "I Am What's Underneath: True Style Is Self-Acceptance," recently announced on their Kickstarter, which ends this Saturday, December 20, 2014.

In each of the episodes, Elisa and Lily highlight one person's individuality, his or her story, revealing vulnerability and honesty in the process. But together the episodes show a powerful trend: the pervasiveness of negative self-image, manifested in everything from food issues to drug addiction to identity crises based on race, gender, sexuality (and more).

Are Elisa and Lily immune to the impossible ideals of beauty that are plaguing all of us, including their interviewees? Absolutely not. In fact, their story is what got them started. Lily spent her adolescent years (at 19 years old in 2009) struggling with body image issues, convincing herself that style was equivalent to starvation, or something along those lines.

At the same time Lily was struggling with low self-esteem, Elisa was working as a longtime fashion stylist, though quickly becoming disillusioned with the business' focus on an impossible ideal of beauty. Unsurprisingly, this ideal was the very same one that was taking its toll on Lily (and so many other young women's) self-worth.

As they describe in StyleLikeU's mission video, Elisa and Lily are on a "crusade" to awaken the idea that "style is an art, an art that everyone should be able to access in themselves." In other words, having style is precisely about being vulnerable, about being brave despite feeling vulnerable, about expression, and about exposing "what's underneath" without busting your butt to fashion yourself in someone else's image.

While many of us have surely heard and read about the power of self-acceptance, it's rare to see self-acceptance and "style" or "fashion" seen as not only symbiotic or mutually reinforcing, but actually equivalent.

I have certainly touted the power of self-acceptance in my past. But much of the time along the way, I have felt on some level that I was choosing self-acceptance at the expense of style and fashion. After all, if I were to accept myself — namely, my body — really and truly, I wouldn't really be able to wear half the things I see in magazines, on TV, in stores and so on (and I can't say I am sure I'd want to, either).

In short, I somehow always felt that self-acceptance challenged style and fashion. And for good reason: style and fashion necessarily keep us feeling down and inadequate, right? Why not embrace the unsexy-but-happiness-inducing alternative of self-acceptance? Wrong.

This attitude is precarious, even if it seems better than not recognizing the importance of self-acceptance at all. What do I mean? Well, if you think you can't be stylish and sexy while accepting yourself, then are you really accepting yourself? Probably not.

I'll echo Lily's summary of the StyleLikeU project: "Hearing people's stories, and hearing people's insecurities and vulnerabilities quickly washed away facade that can be alienating about fashion." After realizing how much energy, intellect, opinion and other capacities for connection, that the interviewees brought to the camera, Lily and Elisa realized the sexiness of self-acceptance. In fact, the mother-daughter pair goes so far to say that self-acceptance is style.

With their Kickstarter, Lily and Elisa have many goals in mind, all of which work to promulgate the mantra of self-acceptance-as-style further. Specifically, they want to film in more places around the world, including in Africa and the Middle East; they want to create opportunities in schools for children to learn about "What's Underneath" as a tool for self-acceptance and discussion. Finally, they want to add more voices to the conversation, making StyleLikeU into a more interactive and social community.

They may be just two individuals, but this team of women is doing really, really important work. They may be focusing on "real people," but they are showing us that its authenticity — not a size zero — that keeps things real-ly glamorous.

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