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What's Underneath?

By Claire Trainor--During my first quarter at DePaul University in Chicago, I took a creative writing class called Writing the Human Body. As part of the class, each student brought in a “cultural snapshot,” or a piece of media that discussed the human body in some way. One of the weeks, a classmate showed us Melanie Gaydos’s “What’s Underneath” video. While watching it, her bravery, insight, and awareness of her own identity in the world struck me. I made a mental note to watch the rest of the videos, but in the midst of the insanity of school I forgot and picked it up three months later. 

In 2008, Elisa Goodkind, a photographer and artist in the fashion industry, and her daughter Lily Mandelbaum, an anthropology and film making major at NYU, started the online fashion website StyleLikeU. Born from their frustration with typical industry standards for beauty and style, the website features individuals whose personal style intrigued Elisa and Lily.

On May 12, 2014, Elisa and Lily released the first of what would go on to be a long series of videos titled “The What’s Underneath Project.” Each segment is set against a brick wall with a wooden stool; the interviewee sits on the stool and, as the interview progresses, sheds layers of clothing, revealing their bodies as they bare their stories. As the viewer sees the plains of the women’s stomachs, naked legs, and exposed shoulders so does she learn more about the interviewee’s life and struggles. The interviews are raw and powerful, full of the individual’s personal struggles that, while unique, run the common thread of body discomfort and the struggle against conformity.

The women in the videos I watched were all, simply put, striking. They didn’t all fit into the standards of the “thin ideal” or conform to the images of how the media says women “should” look. Shoulder sloped at different angles, legs stretched different lengths to the ground, waists danced with hips in different ratios. And, as a result of the differences between their bodies and the bodies of women in the media, they all had, at some point or another, distrusted or hated their bodies for making them different. In showing these women at what could be seen as their most exposed—sitting in an empty room in nothing but their underwear in front of a camera—the audience sees them as more than a body, more than a collection of cells and limbs—they were collections of stories woven into their bones and tissue. We hear the story behind the figure and we realize that each woman looks at the world in a way that encourages critical thought, pushes them to challenge the social constructs, and creates space from the insanity that is modern media.

Although I fervently support their mission and envy the bravery of those interviewed, I felt the gnawing sense of competition budding beneath my breastbone while watching. I am two years into solid recovery but I still compare my body to everyone else’s. So while watching these incredibly smart, talented, and stunning women strip down to their underwear (which, by the way, were really cute), I wasted brainpower on comparing how I looked to how they did and ignored what they were saying in the process. Watching the videos, I made the choice to listen to what the girls were saying instead of staring at their stomachs. I pushed myself to avoid the comparison that was the building blocks for pain, behaviors, and self-loathing not only for me, but also for thousands of women and girls.

These women shared brave, intimate, scary parts of themselves and I was looking only at their bodies. Hearing the stories these girls shared about their time in the modeling industry, their experiences growing up, and the way they tried to manipulate their bodies encouraged me to challenge my own beliefs about bodies and objectification. We are conditioned to see a body and judge it. That is no individual’s fault. Until we begin to challenge our own beliefs and comparisons, nothing will change.

Each video begins with white text on a black screen. It reads, “We’ve asked a select group of individuals to participate in a project in which they will remove their clothes to honor how style is not the clothes you wear. It is comfort in your own skin. It is not a fa├žade. It is your spirit. It’s what’s underneath. Watching the videos led me to my own question: what’s underneath me?

Elisa and Lily are on a mission to transform the What’s Underneath Project into a full-length documentary and educational initiative. If you are interested in checking out What’s Underneath’s Kickstarter campaign, click here!

About this blogger: Claire Trainor is a freshman at DePaul University majoring in Creative Writing and Psychology. In steady recovery from an eating disorder, she wants to educate, support, and inspire those struggling in anyway. She likes her dogs, hot chocolate, and books.

For other incredible body image projects check out: 

Not Defined By...A Social Media Campaign Built from a Personal Story

Could You Go Mirror-Less?

The Body Collage Project

Empire of Images

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