Paloma Elsesser possesses insight that stretches beyond many of those twice her age. A true global citizen, born in London and raised in Los Angleses, she has African-American, Swiss and Chilean heritage and now calls New York home. Paloma is part of a movement debunking mainstream ideals of beauty. INPRINT sat down with her post-shoot and chatted openingly about owning her status as a symbol of change and pushing the agenda forward for a more inclusive view of beauty.
On building confidence and staying positive: Paloma’s approach.
What has helped me in building my confidence is honing the fact that I’m special... I used to feel to awkward going into a room and feeling like everyone was staring at me, but now I flip it and I tell myself, “Okay, cool, these people are staring at me because I have energy, because I am beautiful and because I am different.” So I still have to combat those (negative) thoughts, I am not immune to them... I’m not naturally just positive. I am introspective and think a lot. I think luckily, as women, and despite all the heavy hands we are dealt, we are naturally introspective beings. I have a mantra that I tell myself: you know what, there’s room for fucking everybody.I still see qualities that I don’t love about myself, those feelings are still there, of not being good enough, of not being as good as the next girl, of feeling like there isn’t room for both us. I mean it’s still so easy to be triggered and let those negative thoughts creep in. This is a minute to minute exercise - I’m not over that hill. But I acknowledge it and I am conscious of it.
On the Millennial brand of overtly sexual feminism: Paloma’s thoughts.
We are living in a generation whereby we read the back of a book and we think we know what the content is, and that is not what it is. It’s fast, it’s quick, it’s access. It is not thorough.I see a lot of these younger girls being incredibly overt with it (their sexuality) - even my little 16-year old sister, who I love and is so smart! I’ll be like, “Babe, you can see your nipples through your shirt,” and she’ll be like, “Who constructed your heteronormative ideas?” and I’ll be like “What Instagram caption did you read? You don’t even know what that fucking means!” It drives me crazy - and sometimes I am left there thinking “Am I conservative? Yes, I get that you have to do these things (i.e., show your nipple) to change the status quo, but in the meantime you just can’t do that alone and expect change automatically. I think, “okay how else are you, my 16-year old sister, enacting and imparting your activism and beliefs?” I have friends who are part of the new wave of feminism, like Petra Collins and Mayan, and they give back to a community of younger girls as role models. They offer an alternative image of beauty and see poetry in their bodies and other women’s bodies in a realer way than most main stream media. They take ownership of their bodies, but don’t over – sexualise for reactions sake (aka Miley Cyrus). It’s not about simply being overly provocative or reactionary. It’s about wanting to feel equal and being equal. That’s why personally I try to use my activism more visually. I am an intelligent girl, I don’t need to use my Instagram in an overt sexual way to get a message across. There are some things I don’t know about as thoroughly that I don’t want to comment on because I am trying to create change through conversation. I don’t need to constantly be like, here’s my nipple. And that’s just my choice.
On Racism both passive and blatant: Paloma finding her voice.
When I was younger say 15, 16, 17 I didn’t have the knowledge or information and strength to have the conversation I wanted to have. I remember this instance vividly of a girl saying to me in school, “OMG I just got back from vacation and I’m literally black”, and feeling awkward about feeling weird about her comment. I felt as though I couldn’t say anything to her about finding her comments offensive and I just told myself I was being waaay too sensitive. This same girl said to me later on, “your mom is, like, barely black.” And all I could say to her at the time was, “OMG I know!” I look back now and I am soooo startled by those comments, they really stuck with me... I mean my Mom’s not ‘barely black’ and WTF does that even mean?!?
Being completely reborn now from those feelings came from reading Bell Hooks (Bell Hooks is a Black American author, Feminist and Social Activist, most famous for her writings on impact of race on feminist theory) in my junior year - it was like the floodgates opened. I discovered through her that it isn’t a weird thing to feel sensitive and uncomfortable or ostracised by those sorts of comments I had come to regard as normal. To feel that you are constantly having to justify yourself in a world that asks, ‘What are you? Why are you what you are?’The safety in finding contextual knowledge was my refuge and still remains to be. I feel completely armoured and equipped to have a conversation about being a woman and about being a woman of colour.
I feel like the conversation about racism has been so repressed in the last 15 years. Racism is still so present in very insidious ways and what is so alarming is the comfort and passion people have towards these inherently racist views. I had an argument with a guy who was passionately stating that white privilege doesn’t exist and this was someone who was one degree of separation from me. In this aversely racist space to say we are all equal is just not true, that “all lives matter”, no, that’s ignorant. If you’re smart you know that shit is plainly not equal. I shouldn’t have to fight that case with you... So let’s just abolish the myth that we are starting from a level playing field.
On the Plus Size Modelling Industry: Paloma’s place in it.
Sometimes I feel like I look at the plus size industry with a permanent furrow because the way the conversation has been designed glazes over the majority of insecurities larger girls feel. You don’t just go from hating to yourself to now #loveme, #confidence, #beyou!! I think it’s dangerous to forget that for 90% percent of your life you weren’t confident, you were told you weren’t beautiful and that you were fat and that those are still very real feelings that don’t just go away just because you see it on Instagram.
Don’t get me wrong, I think It’s amazing that now there are women and girls that we can look to as roles models, I definitely didn’t have anyone to look to when I was 11, 12, 13 there wasn’t really plus size imagery and the internet didn’t exist like it does now and there definitely wasn’t this praise rhetoric. It feels incredible to me personally that now that girls look to me and feel inspired by me to wear this or that and feel good about themselves. But, as much as it’s positive, you can’t just jump over the real feelings that girls are still feeling.
I still have moments where I feel fat, worthless, depressed and without purpose. That’s real, that’s not unique. It’s frustrating that there are women in positions of power and influence who act as if the past and those experiences didn’t happen - and it’s just not true. This glazing over ignores such a huge, real part of being a woman who is bigger and being a woman that looks different. There’s a bit of Pollyanna syndrome going on in my opinion.
"We are so programmed to be competitive and think somebody is taking from us - particularly as women. There's this illusion that there is only room for one woman to do this or that...and as much as these archaic thoughts creep into my thinking at times, I just remind myself there's room for fucken everybody."
On the Fashion and Beauty Industry: Paloma’s platform for change.
I’ve come to really surrender to the industry and what I have going on. I guess we tend to live in arenas of dissatisfaction, especially living in major cities - and yes sometimes I’m still like, ew, am I a model???... But I have to be grateful and use it as a tool. I never ever, neeeevvverr thought that this would be a reality for me. I thought I was going to write, get my masters and be a therapist, I thought that was my trajectory and I still want it to be. It’s insane that my life has just taken this sharp left turn, but I see it in a good way... Still sometimes I sit in makeup chairs and am I like; how did I get here! What is going on!?!’ But there’s power in being in this position. It is important to me that some girl might see me in this context and maybe feel better about herself.
I have this thing called insights on my Instagram - it’s incredible. It shows that 70% women follow me only 30% men... RAD... My main age bracket is 16–24 which is my age group, and then it’s from 24–35 which represents all the women that didn’t get to see ‘me’s’ growing up. I get a lot of comments from the 30–35 year olds saying ‘you remind me of my best friend at school’, cos I’m obsessed with the 90s and saying that they wish there had been someone like me when they were growing up. My largest demographic is first New York, then London, then LA and then Australia. And it’s like wow, I have a message and I get over that hill (of acceptance of being a model) and embrace it.
I am also really conscious of checking my privilege within the fashion and beauty space. I don’t have the archetypical plus size body, but where I gain weight I am able to dress it right. I don’t really gain weight on my face ace, I know I have a ‘typically’ beautiful face, I have nice skin.... I understand that even though I identify as a black woman I don’t look like black women in the sense of what a black women is perceived to look like. Men and women see me as a Latina, which is to be fetishised, whereas to be a black woman is to be demonised. Within this space it is very important to be conscious of privileges you have. We are still models at the end of the day, we are here to make it look good. It’s startling how much further there is to go, but I’m excited to be able to look back and tell my kids that I was part of this.
Beauty is so fantastical - and I’m really excited to be part of a conversation and a movement to unpack what that fantasy is, which I believe is still to be skinny and white or to have white features. I have a good friend who is from Bangladesh who recently brought this home to me. She said, ‘it’s really hard for me, I’m really excited for you, but at the end of the day you are conventionally beautiful, you have a little nose and big lips’. It highlighted to me that our realities within the same space are so different and that there is still so far to go. While makeup and hair isn’t size specific, it is a concept that has to do with fantasy and what people want to represent... and what people want to represent in the mainstream sense of beauty is still really askew and super one-dimensional.
I’m super grateful to have been scouted via Instagram by a visionary like Pat McGrath as one of her beauty ‘muses’. She has been super supportive of me and what I represent in the beauty space. Essentially what I want is a contract for big beauty (L’Oreal, Maybelline, drug-store makeup brands), not for me, but for what I’m trying to do here... I see it as less exclusionary on a consumer level and more relatable. Women who are buying drug-store makeup aren’t just skinny and white the whole time as a rule - they generally represent a wider cross section of society.
On her Neighbours: the Hells Angels.
I live across the street from the Hells Angels. They’re cool, I mean they still cling on the nostalgia of it. They have watchmen and all these car-parks out the front of their building - I have to program my Uber to go 3 or 4 doors down which kind of annoying but I also know if I’m ever in trouble they’ve got my back, they are actually really sweet. I’ve gotten into conversation with one of them before, you’d be very surprised, you know one has just had testicular cancer and turned a vegan, he was like to me, “you know I meditate”. I was like you’re amazing (laughes).