“What’s Underneath” Video Series Uses Fashion Culture to Uncover Rape Culture

The mother-daughter team behind eclectic personal style website StyleLikeU, Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum, have produced a remarkable series called “The What’s Underneath Project,” a series of short videos in which fashion-forward people — artists, musicians, and others — sit in a studio and take off their clothes. Eventually clad in their underwear, but softly lit and beautifully styled, the subjects talk about their journeys, mostly focusing on the contrast between inner and outer conceptions of style and beauty.

Shallow promos, these films (which received funding through Kickstarter) are not. In the course of the series, interviews have delved into topics like race, sexuality, different abilities, sizeism, eating disorders, body image, gender identity, and more of the kind of hot-button identity politics issues that you’d expect in a truly radical space. Yet all these topics are made intensely personal and visceral by the subjects of the short clips, many of which explore the connection between childhood and adult identity, and the soothing, encouraging, positive magazine-shoot vibe of the interviews.

This week, their incredible interview with personal chef Sara Elise Hardman adds to the current discussion of rape culture. Hardman begins by speaking about her biracial identity and fluid sexuality, and how difficult it has been for her to find a space where she’s truly comfortable.

With quiet strength, Hardman then goes on to describe an abusive relationship in which “he essentially owned me, he ran my life,” and she pauses when she speaks about her rape. “Rape is a really confusing thing because a lot of people don’t think you can be raped by someone you know. Essentially any time you don’t want to have sex, continue having sex, and someone forces you to do that, it’s rape,” she says. Now, “After having flashbacks and after seeing the way that that situation has played into my current relationships and my current sex life and having triggering moments,” she explains. “The gravity of it has made it clear and presented itself within my body.” In a few short moments, we are hearing many of the same principles articulated in Jon Krakauer’s book-length treatment of rape and Amy Schumer’s humorous attack on rape culture.

Personal stories like these (a few more are included below) have an effect because they use compelling examples to illustrate principles of social justice. In particular, the stripping of the subjects, leaving them vulnerable, repels judgement rather than inviting it. It’s hard to dehumanize or distance oneself from another person sitting before you with skin bared, and soul bared too:

What projects like “What’s Underneath” demonstrate is that the kind of thought and language that used to exist only in the academy or in social justice organizing online and in real life has spilled over into more mainstream arenas. This website is about empowerment and style, and yet by visiting it we’re getting an education about how rape culture operates and the basic contours of trauma and PTSD. Beyond that, however, we’re meeting people who don’t fit snugly into any easy “social justice” category, and seeing their stories as conferring specialness and verve on them, rendering them style icons.

We often talk about how mainstream pop culture is benefiting from feminist and anti-racist analysis, when we discuss mega-stars, movies, and huge celebrity scandals. But at the other end are the smaller projects with local followings, like this one, that are making cutting-edge social theory into something cool.