Representation in the Millennia: Reimagining Yourself and Your Power / transcription
On this episode we explore the idea of re-imagining your power with model Paloma Elsesser. Paloma walks us through her experience as a plus size model of color in the digital age and the differences between prescribed and ascribed identity. You will hear Paloma's inner monologue about the fashion industry, growing up mixed-race in Los Angeles, and how she keeps her side of the street clean.
June: This is the third talk of the day, Representation in the MIllenia, I’m with Paloma today, Paloma introduce yourself.
Paloma: Hi, I’m Paloma Elsesser, I am a model and I’m originally from LA. What’s up?
June: Ok, so I know that you’ve been doing these talks for a little bit now, people keep inviting you to talk about representation. So I’m interested in what you have learned from going and talking at these things.
Paloma: What I’ve learned is that there is so much work to be done that my commentary is vital, but I also feel like it’s a conversation that I have generally with most of my peers and the fact that I’m speaking about this in normal spaces that aren’t this kind of space it’s mainly with white people. A lot of the time with white women at The Wing. And it’s so surprising! And that’s what I’m learning and it gives me a drive to not feel exhausted by it because at the end of the day I’m having these conversations in my daily affairs constantly, in my mind, with my peers, with my boyfriend, with my friends. So I’m finding worth and vitality in that and continuing to do so and seeing the response it elicits but yeah, the part that’s really interesting for me is very much surprising at times.
June: Like why you’ve been invited into that space or, what about it is surprising?
Paloma: Or just even if it’s not even on a panel, if it’s an interview with a magazine and it elicits like “Oh my god this response is so crazy.” And it’s like really not crazy, or that it’s so our thing and it’s really not.
June: How do you see yourself in comparison to how other people tell you they see you all the time? Because I’m sure you get that being in front of the camera all the time.
Paloma: For sure, I mean my entire life boils down to prescribed and ascribed identities. I grew up in LA, lower middle class family and my mom is black and my dad is Chilean and Swiss but grew up in London with all Jamaicans so like still has dreads down to his ass. You feel me. And I grew up going to white private schools my whole life, but I also grew up in a predominantly black household with my grandparents from Tennessee downstairs. My dad was completely peripheral in my rearing. Like he’s never showed up for a parent teacher conference but I definitely stole weed from him. And that’s his service! But, my prescribed identity is Latina. Nobody knows or believes half the time that my mom is black. I don’t speak Spanish, then on top of it my name doesn't help. And I do feel as I’ve gotten older such an intense attachment to what that experience is like. But growing up I struggled with so much identification even within the community. Within my cousins, I was the Mexican cousin. And then with the Hispanic and Latino community I didn’t speak Spanish enough or my mom was black and there’s an inherent prejudice in that context, and then I went to school with white kids who were like “What are you?” So it was a lot. And now I’ve found so much strength in that discourse of experiencing that struggle at such a young age and on top of it I was fat. There was just a lot for me that was like, there is contention and there is struggle here and how am I gonna handle this and coming to terms with that internally and obviously in the family dynamic I was very much so supported and empowered in other ways so that helped but then it’s interesting to fall into the career path that I’m in which is all about prescribed identities, and what people’s intended belief about you is. For example, there’s a girl who, I would say maybe she’s a peer, but she commented on this photo that I posted that my friend took and she said “I wouldn’t wanna get in a fight with you.” And this girl is a young white woman, and I just sent a slanty face. Then she texted me like “I’m sorry did I offend you in some way?” and I’m like you did offend me because a commentary on brown and black women being tough, “I don’t wanna fight with you.”, being violent, this is the commentary that we have to brace on a daily basis and that is traumatic and you may not think it’s offensive but it is and you have no space to tell me.. Whatever so I’m talking to her and I’m like that is our lived experiences. So I walk into a set, which Phoebe mentioned earlier, which is cool there’s so much diversity and I’m there, here I am banging my chest, and it’s all white people half the time it’s all white men who are the producers who are doing the make up who are doing the hair who are shooting it, who are the photo assistants who are doing the props so I’m there feeling like I have something to prove. And I’m already going there with people thinking that, and I’m not kidding, I walk in and they’re like “Her girl!” like you don’t talk like that, and I don’t talk like that, and if I did it’s none of your business if I wanted to or not, so we’re not connecting because you wanna throw some slang in there. So I think that that is kind of the experiences that I’ve had. And I don’t normalize or pacifiy by any means but I have built in myself armor for those kind of situations which I’m sure you can identify with as a photographer.
June: I mean right now I’m praciticing... just for my own sake and not that anybody needs to practice this as a woman of color, just so that I can sleep better at night, how do I practice patience for my own sake? How do I practice breath? And knowing that at the end of the day you just have to meet people where they are. How do you practice that on a small scale, day to day?
Paloma: On a small scale I think I have to revisit what my, and I’m not even talking about my physical goals but my intrinsic goals are, to feel ultimately at peace with who I am and the world which I’m participating in and that for me largely comes from being of service to a situation. So it’s like ok does this serve me? Or when I’m on a job for instance which is my livelihood, the service is the visibility, a check, dismantling and proving to these people that I am capable and I am worthy. And it allows me to navigate these very uncomfortable testing experiences. And just kinda realigning myself with what I want which like I said is peace and knowing that what I’m doing is worth it.
June: And integrity too I think about, we talked about this in the first talk, but how I went from being influenced by outside opinion or the way that people have done things in the past. How do you hold on tight to your integrity in an industry that does not value that? In fact, they wish you didn’t have any. How do you hold tight to that on a day to day basis, from communication with your friends or just like tangible things that people can use?
Paloma: It’s really complicated, I have to keep it simpler because I'm so capable of destroying things for myself because of the way that I have interpreted the world in which we exist in. I also think that for me I just wanna put it out there it’s kind of polarizing in my career to feel that I have to be a martyr for something that I do believe in but being a woman of color, especially being a plus size woman of color that it’s always after the fact, like I used to feel insecure or I used to feel scared and now I’m empowered by my language and now I look in the mirror and I’m like yeah I fuck with you stretch marks, that’s a lie. And some days its true but a lot of the days its not. And it’s like how do we navigate that with integrity, which for me is that, is honesty and vulnerability and knowing when it’s important to share that with your viewrship with your peers with your people. And for me keeping that and knowing that there’s power in that. We are built on a culture in which it is such physical repayment like wow, I’ve been affirmed in my integrity and voice, it is powerful, it can help somebody, and at this point I’m still learning. And that’s important for me, thats what keeps me going like ok I’ve been able to share this and be who I am and not have to sacrifice all of me despite being expected to or asked to, and then me being like fuck you thats not really what I’m trying to do here and then being like oh my god this is amazing. I think it’s just keeping it kind of head down blinders up in the situations that don’t serve you, or don’t serve me personally. Remaining authentic, constantly checking in with myself about what I’m comfortable with, where I’m at with it, with whatever situation it may be.
June: What do you constantly strive to say, whether indirectly or directly, to somebody who could have used this information a lot earlier in their lives?
Paloma: What I attach myself to even within the discomfort is, and this is a cheesy mantra but, I just try and be the girl that I didn't feel like I had. So I felt like I wish that there was a girl who was more honest about mental health, I wish there was a gorl who looked like me, just simply looked like me, or dressed like me or whatever it may be. So even though sometimes I feel pretty isolated in what my stances on things, whether it be my imagery or activism as well, that theres a person that finds solace in that. And everyone has to go through this journey on their own and I just try and lead by example that I wish I had. Which is all I can rely on at this point and continue to learn and think critically anout the way I’m existig and participating in a narrative that I’m given and reshaping that and reshaping my community. Even through instagram for instance, the community that maybe relies on me there’s a lot of praise but then I notice, and Phoebe kinda mentioned it earlier but there’s just so much more work to do at home. Which is not alarming but it gives me, for example, I went to some event and a designer made an outfit for me and it was great and I was excited. And also in the fitting they were fitting all the clothes to me and there was one option that was a sample and it was very “plus size” it was like let’s cover this up let’s snatch the waist let’s do it like this. And I was like no, let’s do off the runway because I know my whatever sized girl wants to see, they wanna feel like they can wear that as well. So I decide not to wear spanx cuz those shits are uncomfortable, and I get dragged. I dont get dragged on Nylon, I get dragged on FashionBomb Daily, which largely is a community of women of color, black women who follow this instagram blog and it’s all women saying “Disgusting! What the fuck she needs to go home! Where’s her spanx? She needs shapewear. Blah blah blah.” And it hurt my feeligs because it made me feel like that same feeling from when I was a kid, I was in the fourh grade I wanted to wear what all my white counterparts were wearing like Levi, denim cut skirts. And I was like oh I wanna wear this! I found one that fits I’m gonna wear it, I felt brave, I literally wore Dickies since I was a little kid. So I wear this skirt and I get called into the principles office, because I look too sexy and my principle goes on to tell me I should dress for what looks good on me. And it took me back to that place with this example, I’m trying to wear something in efforts to show that you too are capable and it shouldn’t be thay big of a deal and someone can look fab too. And it took me to just wanting to be a part of that and being shut down. But existing in that vulnerability and now I obviously have the tools to counteract that and where it took me was like ok I’m gonna continue to do that, I’m gonna continue to not wear spanx so that women who are watching this, we stop becoming desensitized to what that looks like, especially in the black and brown community. Being in this environment where it requires you to be “professional”, closer to something I’m not. I really think about what are the steps that I need to take in order to, if something like that happens right now in my daily life where other people are watching, my career is based off of it, how do I not automatically respond to the situation from a place of reacting to violence just because I’ve done it for so long.
June: What are the steps that you have taken in order to shift your reaction to some of these violent situations?
Paloma: Well I feel that despite the chaos that we exist in now there is such an amazing space to have a presence and have a voice that I didnt see. For example when I was growing up I remember feeling sentiments about being a woman of color, feeling alone, what that feeling is like when you’de 16 and you’re like holy shit this is crazy! That was crazy for me because I was like oh this is real, I don’t feel alone in this, there is terminology there is literature there is theory, this is not a matter of opinion. And I think that we’re able to do that on small and large scales, you can have a voice and a context in that. It’s an interesting profession in which we exist in as, I like to call myself an empath and am very sensitive, its very devoid of sensitivity, it’s not professional to be upset. Your face or your picture isn’t good enough to meet whoever’s standard, and in a normal space that would hurt anyone's feelings so we have to operate like yeah it’s cool I’m brave and I’m strong and that’s my professionalism. But that’s also bullshit and that also doesn't mean that while you’re on said job or in these conversations that you have to be the martyr to be like “This is not right!” and stomp off set for example. But you can use instagram as a tool. You can write an entire op ed and pitch it to the Times and talk about it. You can in your daily affairs talk about it and you don’t know who it circles back to. We need to shape how we speak to women in this context.
June: Yeah I think in the context of instagram, something that’s really tangible, a way that I like to show up for people in this case, somebody who has experienced something that is unfair, or violent, and then they take that risk to come out and talk about it online, it may not seem impactful, but I think we can all agree that if one of your girls shows up and reposts it and says “fuck this!” that makes you feel like it was all worth it. And even though you may not get a job or something because of it you’ll at least have that support. And I’m trying to figure out more tangible ways to, just day to day whether it’s small or large scale just show up for people when they do take these risks to exist in these spaces like we do. How do we do that? I guess to bring it down to earth, how have you done that recently?
Paloma: I was on set two days ago and I saw the stylist had all white assistants and I was like “You should work with my friend. She’s an Indian girl who lives in Bedstuy. She’s looking for a job” Like whatever it may be, the power I have in those moments. Maybe I wasn’t thinking about consciously “Oh this needs to happen.” I was like just like “Oh my friend is looking for a job, if you need an assistant you should call my friend.” Thats important, thats how we radicalize the system at such a small scale because I feel at times I’m overwhelmed with what is lacking but I’m trying to also feel dignified in what js fruitful, which is a lot. Look at where we’re sitting right now, this is important and I was taking away so much from the previous conversation and how do we bring that back home to participate in conversations with people who may not understand what it is that we’re trying to do here.
June: I think just a general theme that I’ve noticed, maybe to begin to wrap things up, bringing it back home, how has your experience being in front of so many different lenses, how have you brought those learnings back to your family, to your mother and your sisters?
Paloma: Well, to my mother, to my sisters, to my brother as well, for example my brother is 20 and he is in his Malcom X plight. He is in it, he’s angry. We as people of color were given such few tools to navigate our emotions, especially brown and black men they’re left optionless. And it’s like I’m seeing him animorph, his mind and his body and spirit are being met at such a high discourse that he just wants to explode. And being able to armor him with language with books with experiences with how to deal with it, I’m really trying to show him, and my younger sister. My mom is radical so she don’t need no help with that. But my younger siblings we have to armor them. We have to be systematic about this. And I’m like “Sage, you’re upset in a situation where you’re not feeling heard or you’re pitted to be the angry black guy, and then you’re being the angry black guy. How do we change that? Because you are allowed to be angry, you’re supposed to be angry. And you don’t have to change anything but you can be empowered in that to transmit and transform so at the end of the day you can still be angry but you don’t have to be the angry black guy. You can just be the angry person.” So how do we do that? And it’s like I said about being systematic, knowing when it can be the most impactful to engage and be at a small scale or a large scale or a cosmic scale, or whatever works for him. And at home with my younger sister really it’s astonishing. She’s about to be seventeen and it’s like she has language that I felt so confused about even at that age which I think is an example and evidence of all the work that we’re doing here that 17 year old girls can have a full understanding about queerness, about blackness, about brownness, about what it means to be a woman. And it's exciting actually.
June: Somebody was telling me the other day, they’re teaching 7th graders and he was walking down the hall and one of the 7th graders turns to another 7th grader and says “did you just assume something?” Just like looking at them and knowing that there is power in reimagining a future and that we’re playing into it right now because it is affecting people in the 7th grade, these conversations.
Paloma: Yeah, and it’s even interesting just having a conversation with my 91 year old grandmother from Tennessee and even in her colorism, reteaching he information.
June: I think that takes repetition, that’s the only thing that’s worked. Just repeating it over the years until you hear that confirmation sentence.
Paloma: Yeah seriously! My grandma feeling like the work that I do has made her feel better about herself which is so fab. It’s important. Through that vulnerability, even with the people closest to me, my grandma is able to talk to me about her struggles. I don’t know what it’s like to be 91 years old, from Tennessee. It’s interesting to now have a dialogue where we can exchange information.
June: I guess maybe to close things off, I know we’re talking about representation and you always get asked to talk about representation, and in talking about your future, what conversations do you hope to be more included in in the future? What do you see for yourself?
Paloma: It’s not hard, I know what my goals are on a large level which is just to continue doing this just larger and larger and larger so that this isn’t a niche conversation. But that also means that, it doesn’t mean sacrificing it, it means sacrificing the intimacy which I hold so dear to this conversation. It’s hard, it’s such a weird industry that I exist in because I don’t actually feel like that attached to it but I do know because of the implications, the beauty of it. But I never thought I was gonna be a model my whole life, if you had told me that I would have laughed in your face. So I think, writing books and designing and stuff like that which for me, I used style as an armor for my body on so many different levels and that’s a way for me, a form of activism for me too which sounds superficial, but I’m in a superficial industry like that’s important for me too.
June: I was gonna ask about self love and it sounds like that is something you use to practice self love.
Paloma: Yeah, I definitely do. It’s still really hard. I have really really hard days and I’m not unique in that feeling and I don't think it sets me apart but specifically for my industry I feel like the conversation earlier, like post- I used to hate my body and now I’m sexy and fuck your beauty standards and bombarded with I’m fucking confident all the time. And I don’t feel like that is very accurate to my existence. I don’t feel like every day I am fraught with consistent self hatred but we are taught to hate our bodies and it is like a floating cloud that flips through the front of our brain every single day. And I’ve gotten better and better at deflecting it. At being like that’s a floating thought whatever, let me get back to what does make me feel good, which is writing which is reading which is talking which is making money which is doing things I’m proud of which is talking to my grandma which is talking to my mom which is laying which is eating an oreo, whatever. That's what learning is and that's what growth it. It's not about setting it to the side and silencing it it’s about how to stand up to those hardships with dignity or just have one of those days, or not.
June: And just one last thing to touch on, I currently am practicing how to deflect the way that people do that on my body, the way that they’re projecting all of that onto my self consciousness, self hate onto my body. I don’t know how to do it at the moment but I’m trying to find ways to deflect that away and like being in the moment and knowing when that person is doing that and choosing how to react based on that.
Paloma: Well, this is I guess kind of against the rules but I’ve been sober for six years. You’re not really supposed to talk about it but I think it’s important because there may be somebody in here who’s going through it and it does work. I’ve learned a lot of things in that, how to be of service, how to keep your side of the street clean, essentially what somebody thinks about me is not my business. And believe that. Learn how to actually believe that and live that. And the sobriety aspect is I’ve just had to sit in me because I spent so long hating sitting in me. And it was just like a means of survival which a lot of existence is. So yeah really simple phrases like “That is not my business, that has nothing to do with me.” How do I comeat, even if I fucking hate you, come at this with compassion. How do I listen?
June: And know the difference.
June: To know the difference you have to listen.
Paloma: Exactly. So yeah it’s one of those things. That is self care though. When you’re bombarded with contention and resentment you are not at peace in that.
June: And that affects everything that you do. It becomes your business. And future Paloma, what does that look like?
Paloma: I don’t know, I’m figuring that out. I’m learning how to be proud of myself. Which is cool and fun.
June: Do you have little things that you do in order to practice that?
Paloma: Loke to write down things that I’ve done to be proud of. Even on a small scale like oh I had an argument with my sister and the way I dealt with that was really great. Gratitude, lists, gratitude gratitude gratitude. Which is important because I'm ungrateful fuck. I’m so capable of existing in gratitude and we live in a city and work in a community of discontent and dissatisfaction. So we have to be reminded of our beauty and the things that we do everyday that are powerful and important. So yeah I just try and remind myself on small level, and I have the power to live out the things that I want. This is starting to be Oprah [laughing]. So yeah..
June: Future Paloma is Oprah