Losing Their Clothes, Finding Themselves

Stephanie Thomas stared down the video camera, steeled to shed her clothes and share her deepest insecurities with a roomful of strangers.

Her audience at Zen House on the Lower East Side of Manhattan had arrived late last month for an open call to participate in a YouTube project called “What’s Underneath.” It was organized by Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum, the mother and daughter who are the fashion impresarios behind a multimedia venture encompassing StyleLikeU, a popular website, and its offshoots on YouTube — and most recently, a book. Its message is explicit in its title, “True Style Is What’s Underneath: The Self-Acceptance Revolution.”

Self-appointed style-world evangelists, Ms. Goodkind, 59, and Ms. Mandelbaum, 27, gently prodded their subjects to talk about the emotional struggles and idiosyncrasies that underpinned their fashion sense. They aimed, Ms. Mandelbaum said, “to encourage people to value the things that make them different, even the things that they might hate about themselves — they’re what make you unrepeatable.”

Ms. Thomas, who is 47 and works at Trader Joe’s, seemed to have gotten the memo.

Ms. Goodkind asked Ms. Thomas when she last cried, and urged her to peel off her leggings. She obliged. Reduced to her brassiere and rose-tinted panties, she recalled that a recent visit to her former home in Baton Rouge, La., brought her to tears. “I was missing the sense of community,” she said. “You don’t find that much here.”

What was her favorite body part?

“My boobs are my favorite and least favorite,” she said, unabashed. Sure, her sizable breasts often drew unwanted stares. “But I love them, because they’re mine.”

Deft at pushing emotional levers, Ms. Goodkind, a former fashion stylist, and Ms. Mandelbaum, a documentary filmmaker, pressed on, encouraging visitors, some of whom had responded to online invitations — others who had simply wandered in from the street — to step to the makeshift stage, strip off their clothes and, with them, psychic inhibitions. The filmmakers’ ultimate goal is to showcase diversity in its myriad forms: racial and ethnic backgrounds, gender or sexual orientation, age and size. That last was of particular relevance to Ms. Mandelbaum, who struggled with her weight as a teenager.

“My mother was less accepting of my body at the time,” she recalled, adding quickly that Ms. Goodkind began changing her tune when the two began their project nearly a decade ago.