- Photography byAlexandra Nataf
- Styling byIlona Hamer
- WordsNicholas Goodman
Of all the ways a person’s identity is formed, none is as immediate as the way they perceive their own body. It is in the moments when a girl first studies herself in the mirror that she begins to recognize who she is. In that reflection she sees not only her self, but her narrative, and in turn, how she imagines she is seen by the world. There is a psychological side to all this that may be just as important. It resides not in her appearance, but in the way she sees and feels about it, the way she pictures her body in her mind.
A person’s body image is entirely subjective and changes with experiences throughout life. Early on, it is parents and peers who shape one’s image, but as kids grow up in a society so fixated on physical beauty—one that praises a slim physique—they quickly absorb and internalize this new ideal. They learn to project the same obsessions and preoccupations about weight and appearance onto their own body. Over time they become hyper aware of, and insecure about the way they look.
Obviously, none of this is new. The construct of the “ideal” female body has always been untethered from reality, even as it has changed over time. But it’s never been this pervasive. Social media has fundamentally changed the way we perceive and understand beauty. It floods our brain with images until we become conditioned to recognize the narrow view of women depicted in them. The anxiety and the pressure placed on women has only become more aggressive and more explicit. Girls are told that the highest value is beauty, and that their life’s work is an endless pursuit to attain it.
A lot of this is due to fashion. It’s a culture literally defined by individuals who orient themselves around appearances. The industry creates and sells beautiful things, but it also shapes an ideal of beauty expressed through models. Until recently that ideal had only gotten progressively thinner and younger. Women with “real” bodies were relegated to the margins, if at all. There have been a handful to disrupt the prevailing body type, but none that pierced through, none quite like Paloma Elsesser.
For too long fashion and modeling have served to narrow the ways we perceive beauty and the female body. Just by her presence, Paloma has changed that discourse entirely. She is a sign of things changing—an idea of beauty of course, but beyond that, a change in the very way this industry looks at women. Her success is proof that the industry is finally learning to appreciate that beauty exists in as many body shapes and sizes as it does colors.
The utterly low-key nature of Ms. Elsesser belies the significant nature of what she has accomplished. She’s one of those rare women you only find in New York who are part of the scene first, then switch into a creative lane and take it over. Her debut in 2015 was something of a turning point. Not only did it announce her arrival, but it marked a shift in the landscape. Now it’s possible to imagine that someday, perhaps years from now, but eventually, models will reflect the world around them. Until then, Paloma’s presence—the images she’s creating—will be here to show girls what it looks like when a woman is in control of her own body.
Nicholas Goodman: You mentioned earlier that your background is pretty unique. What’s your family like?
Paloma Elsesser: My family is very much it’s own thing. My mom’s African American and grew up in Los Angeles, actually in the same house I grew up in. My grandparents lived downstairs; my grandpa was a Quaker and a conscientious objector. Then my dad is Chilean and Swiss. He left Chile during the coup and was raised in the UK. I think both of them felt a sense of otherism in their communities in a way. My mom’s always been super hippied out and my dad practices Rastafarianism. So I have a pretty complex racial identity.
NG: What was it like for you growing up and going to school in Los Angeles?
PE: It was nuts. I hated school. I would never go and I always talked back. I was a really curious person, like, the type who would never do work or pay attention but would turn in a popping essay. It was obvious that I was capable. I just wasn’t getting it. I was always running around and partying, basically doing anything else besides studying.
NG: Did your parents try to rein you in?
PE: They couldn’t because I was never home. I didn’t really have boundaries but then I was also just real sassy in this way. Either I wouldn’t come home or I did and I was like a tornado.
NG: How did you jump from being this wild kid in high school to attend The New School?
PE: I’ll just say my mom is a G. She just sat with me while I hammered out all of my essays. Then we did this East Coast college tour where I went and met with all the schools and essentially just charmed their asses off. So I got accepted to a lot of them. I had also visited my older sister who lived here and went to Pratt. The more I came to the city the more I started to feel a little more at home. I always had friends in LA, I wasn’t lacking in that sense, but I still felt like an outsider there somewhat.
NG: It’s crazy to think about you as a freshman in college not that long ago to where you are right now. This last year especially it seems like you’ve been everywhere.
PE: Well, for the last six months I’ve been focused on working smarter not harder. That wasn’t something I was able to do when I started. At first my goal was just to work every day. Whether it was no money, money, I just tried to hustle. I wasn’t really given a voice in it. So it’s interesting to be in a place where work is quite thoughtful for the most part. I definitely appreciate having that stillness, but it’s also awkward. Now I have more time to do what I want. I work three, four times a week versus every single day, and I get to have an opinion about what it is I do. I’m at a point where I’m really involved in the process, which is amazing.
NG: Obviously your career continues to evolve but also you’ve changed. And at the same time, the industry itself is being reshaped.
PE: I look at my emotional growth, especially where this industry is concerned, like that one game. What’s the one where you have to bop those little animals but every time you do another one pops up? It’s like that basically. There are things that I wasn’t insecure about before I started modeling that I am insecure about now. Feeling validated in my work is new, but then so is having to be so invested in how I look all the time. Having to be conscious of myself like that doesn’t come naturally to me, at all. Something else that’s changed is that I’m not really able to allocate time to myself anymore. Outside of all that, the business has changed a lot, even just within the microcosm of the plus size industry. I never really fit into that archetype, but even that has shifted so much since I started.
NG: Did you feel like an outsider early on because of that?
PE: I just don’t think my agency at the time had the vision to be honest. It’s not even on them. They just looked at it like—How is this girl going to make money? Is this girl too weird? Is she not sexy enough? She’s Hispanic but doesn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t fit into any one box. I think it helped that I started a bit later and had already established relationships with a lot of people in New York who were excited and down to support me. For instance, I remember Stevie [Dance] was one of the first people to be like, you know you have to do this. I was working at a T-shirt store, thinking the whole time that the idea of modeling was insane. I just couldn’t get my head around it. It took people like her who were genuinely excited about it to make me realize that I got this.
NG: And people just being like: I want to shoot you, or, I want to put you in this thing.
PE: Exactly, but even then it was hard trying to match that energy in an industry where everything is incredibly surface.
NG: One where you might often get the opposite reaction…
PE: Yeah, which is hard. From the outside you know that this is a very topical industry. There are levels of critique obviously, but as you get deeper you realize that most of it is designed to make people feel bad enough to buy things they don’t need. So it’s lost some of that fantasy. But I’ve also seen the shift away from all that. It’s like with you guys making Unconditional or other new things that have sprung up, there’s new imagery being created for people to rely on.
NG: You’re definitely at the center propelling that change. You could have had this regular career as a model, plus size or whatever, and been known for that, but you have this lane now that is completely separate. It’s not just about your looks; it’s also about who you are, your point of view and your voice. All of that adds so much to a picture.
PE: I think that’s also what’s changed. Now more than ever, not even just models, but anyone can feel validated in having something to say. Whether it’s wrong or right, we all have that access and that language. I was surprised honestly because the conversations I have—in relation to politics, or mental health, or feelings, or just life in generalare the same ones I’ve had with my peers forever. So it was kind of crazy to me that having them in fashion was so shocking. I know all these people are going through the same shit. Everyone’s got their thing they’re dealing with. I feel like there’s a lack of empathy in this business. I’ve always been vocal about things I care about and always will be. If nothing else just to tether what I’m doing to something real, and also to have some grounding.
Paloma on social mediaSo it’s funny when I’m on a job and get asked if I can do something for social. Oh, can you do a boomerang throwing up a fist? No, actually, I can’t. Not only is it commodifying my identity, but that’s also my struggle, both of which are my choice to talk about.
NG: It’s also pure in that sense. I think people respond to you especially because they can tell it’s not a front, like this isn’t just a way to get attention or likes.
PE: The Instagram thing has been hard, even though it’s such an important part of so many models’ careers and a big part of mine. I constantly struggle with it. When I first got on it, it was just natural. I naturally wouldn’t only post pictures of myself. I’d post a book I was reading or a weird railing or what the fuck ever. I still do that because I think it’s good to create a space for girls, particularly for fat girls and fat brown girls to show the nuance of identity. You don’t have to be the sexy girl. You don’t have to hide. You can also be smart. You can be vulnerable. And you can be sexy one day; you can do whatever you want. The main thing for me is I don’t want to perpetuate that Insta baddie culture, like at all. Even me, I’ll look at some model’s page and think like, damn, this kind of makes me feel bad. I don’t even realize it and it’s not their fault, but you start to get that feeling of, wow, her life looks sick, she’s so thin or whatever. I love my life though, but despite that I can still catch that feeling randomly. I just want to make some room in the ecosystem where it’s chill for girls to do what it is that they do, that’s all. So it’s funny sometimes when I’m on a job and get asked if I can do something for social. Oh, can you do a boomerang throwing up a fist? No, actually, I can’t. Not only is it commodifying my identity, but that’s also my struggle, both of which are my choice to talk about. I don’t ever want to feel complicit in some inauthentic shit like that.
NG: Do you think that awareness is something you got from your parents or how you grew up?
PE: I’d say yes and no. I have a memory of being in the 4th grade, when America had just invaded Afghanistan, and they wanted us to sing “Proud to be an American” and I was like, I’m not fucking singing that. So I’ve always been pretty strong-minded because of the environment I grew up in. When I would ask my parents questions about race and identity, my mom would give me bell hooks essays to read. I was sixteen maybe, telling her things didn’t seem equal for women and my mom was like, they’re not, and especially not for black women, here’s a whole fucking book about it.
NG: It also just misses the point. I feel like that’s such a perfect analogy for the Internet in general. Something genuine gets turned into a gimmick and loses all of its meaning. Sometimes it just makes things worse. We all need to be more critical in how we engage with these platforms. When you think about all the things that influence what we consider beautiful or cool, and realize how much of that now is being dictated by Instagram, it’s crazy. Every woman has insecurities and things they love about themselves, that’s the reality. But now there’s this weird relationship especially with girls and Instagram—where all it’s doing is creating new insecurities.
PE: It’s fucked up, but I also have sympathy for people. At this point everyone’s absorbed all this imagery that they’ve been told is beautiful. Whether it’s the way that girls pose, or editing photos, or surgery, they’re all just trying to conform to that idea. It’s become this hamster wheel where everyone is just perpetuating that look. These girls are so visible and have so many eyes on them that they’re just trying to keep up and avoid criticism. It’s not their fault; they’re not the ones who normalized this warped new beauty standard.
NG: It’s almost hyper real and a little cartoonish.
PE: Girls look like cyborgs. They’re just subscribing to what’s being fed. Just like there are trends of sneakers or colors, there are trends of body. When I was a kid, girls wore Frankie B jeans. It wasn’t sick to have a fat ass; it was all about massive tits and skinny legs or whatever. The standard now is this cartoon, one that actually plays off of a very natural body type for black women. So now black women are forced to play into this weird, dark standard that isn’t real. Even though black women have been blessed with these bodies and have beautiful features, they’re getting liposuction and getting their ass done because it’s just about seeing who can do the most. It’s so crazy.
NG: And it seems like it’s never ending.
PE: Things will shift at some point obviously. I will say that there are glimmers of hope. Even if I wasn’t a model, I think that modeling as a whole has finally gotten to a place that validates parts of my confidence. It also erodes other parts at the same time, but I do feel that it’s shifted to be more inclusive for different kinds of girls.
Paloma on beautyAs women we’ve all been programmed to register a standard of beauty that is completely unreal and judge ourselves against that. Hopefully when someone sees an image of me, or any woman who doesn’t play to those standards, it registers in their mind and gets compartmentalized in their subconscious in a way that makes them feel good about themselves.
NG: Being as visible as you are do you feel you have a responsibility to younger girls?
PE: I do, because I’ve put that service at the forefront of why I do what I do. There are a lot of uncomfortable feelings that come with having your photo constantly taken, even just having to be seen in this way all the time. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel responsible because that sense of responsibility is what’s guided me this entire time. Some days I might hate the shoot, or hate the outfit, or hate that my eye is wonky, but I know somebody, maybe just one person, is going to see an image of me and feel excited or inspired or just feel okay in that moment. As women we’ve all been programmed to register a standard of beauty that is completely unreal and judge ourselves against that. Hopefully when someone sees an image of me, or any woman who doesn’t play to those standards, it registers in their mind and gets compartmentalized in their subconscious in a way that makes them feel good about themselves.
NG: It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there like that because in a way you become even more visible than you already would be.
PE: It’s also hard because you might feel that there’s this new visibility and that change is really happening, then post something and have people respond like, she’s obese, she’s disgusting, stop promoting obesity. Everybody becomes Dr. Oz all of a sudden and wants to bring you down. It just perpetuates the worst behavior and validates every problematic idea about women’s bodies. Even with the political situation, you might feel that there’s energy for change and people are on one page, but then you realize that there are still a lot of people who love what’s happening at the moment. That’s real, like these people are really about this shit. It’s just super dark and depressing.
NG: What’s been your coping mechanism the last couple years?
PE: Well I had to turn my CNN alerts off because it just messes up my whole mood. I love to access the news, like go on BBC or The New York Times when I feel ready and I feel equipped to deal but I can’t have the alerts on. I can be having the best day then get some alert and it just ruins my entire day. I’m obviously invested and involved but the time I allocate to be engaged is controlled at this point. I also delete Instagram off of my phone constantly, that helps a lot.
NG: What do you think you would be doing if you didn’t model?
PE: I studied psychology and literature at The New School; so I would probably finish school, maybe get my Masters in Psychology. It’s nice for me because I never wanted to model. So it brings me joy. The service of it brings me joy; the act doesn’t always. When I have a lovely day with lovely people I’m down, but having to be consumed in this way all the time isn’t something that I like. That aspect of it will never come to me naturally.
This profile was originally published in Issue Nº8, 2019
Model: Paloma Elsesser at IMG, Hair: Jenny Kim at M.A.P. Sydney using Oribe, Makeup: Chiho Omae at Frank Reps, Manicurist: Elina Ogawa at De Facto, Photographer Assistant: Jon Ervin, Stylist Assistants: Mackenzie Thiry and Candice Ho Lem, Production: Bridge, Casting: Megan McCluskie, Production Assistant: Aidan Heigl, Post Production: Griffin Editions