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Why Didn't We Celebrate Paloma Elsesser's Fashion Awards Success?

by Oana-Maria Moldovan 

In the late afternoon of December 3, 2023, a scene unfolded at the Sunset Tower Hotel that would later echo through the fashion industry. The Fashion Awards is an annual event organized by the British Fashion Council, honoring designers, models, and others, with the repercussions of these award winners being a common topic of discussion recently. 

The Model of the Year category featured Paloma Elsesser as a nominee, and an unusual sentiment lingered throughout the day – a silent plea not to win from the model herself.

In the aftermath of the event, the model penned a heartfelt essay for The Cut to candidly share her experience after, to her dismay, winning the Model of the Year award. 

Despite the celebration of this milestone, Paloma faced a barrage of online criticism and hate.

In her reflection, she delves into the complex dynamics of the fashion industry. She addressed issues of inclusivity, body image, and the struggle for acceptance in a – if I can say – a narrow-minded and too old-fashioned industry (pun intended). 

Through her words, Paloma opens a window into the challenges she has encountered in her career, offering a poignant perspective on the highs and lows of being a model on the curvier side in a world that is still transforming.

Paloma Elsesser’s career in modelling took off at the age of 22 when she was discovered by makeup artist Pat McGrath on Instagram. Over the subsequent nine years, she achieved significant milestones, including gracing the covers of American and British Vogue, walking prestigious runways globally, and even authoring a book.

Despite these accomplishments, Paloma has faced an ongoing battle with fear of exposure and self-doubt in an industry that often struggles with inclusivity, as both a woman of colour and a plus-size model. 

Winning the Model of the Year award at the Fashion Awards marked a pivotal moment in her modeling path, but it also brought about a wave of online hate and criticism.

Paloma’s journey reflects the challenges of navigating the fashion industry as a curve model, advocating for inclusivity, and confronting the harsh realities of societal expectations and body image. Hence why, amid all that has happened and what some people had to say, she was the best choice for the title that she now holds.

Anticipating potential backlash, Paloma foresaw comments criticizing her body size or dismissing inclusivity in fashion. However, winning the award was not within her expectations that night; she genuinely believed her friend Anok Yai would rightfully claim the honor, the model stated in her piece for The Cut.

Elsesser also expressed that the modeling profession brought a unique form of loneliness, involving sacrifices of education, personal milestones, and enduring unfamiliar environments daily. Longevity in the industry proved elusive, especially when diverging from conventional standards of whiteness and thinness. Her fellow nominees shared similar narratives, facing challenges in an industry that often sidelines diversity.

Unprepared for victory, when Damson Idris announced Paloma as the Model of the Year, she found herself holding the prestigious award, acknowledging the honour, and underscoring the significance of being the first curve model to win – but, as she has concluded herself, there is a price to pay when being the first.

The morning after revealed a stark reality, Paloma declared. Hate inundated various social media platforms, dissecting the woman’s body, face, and career, alongside her racial ambiguity. 

Elsesser is African American on her mother’s side and Chilean and Swiss on her father’s. This criticism extended beyond faceless trolls, perpetuating harmful narratives related to body image.

Paloma confided her despair to her agent while navigating Heathrow Airport, as doubts and intrusive thoughts resurfaced, transforming her self-esteem and self-worth into a subject of public discourse.

Modeling had initially provided Paloma with a sense of purpose, she stated, challenging societal norms around body image. 

However, her advocacy for human rights, exemplified by her support for Palestine, came at a cost – lost opportunities and hateful comments. The subsequent two months saw her disconnect from social media, questioning the value of acknowledging almost a decade of hard work.

There is a point to make here. We – as society – wish for both diversity and inclusivity as long as it does not appear front center. We like to play this game of performative activism; God forbid we talk about either anorexia or obesity, but at the same time God forbid a woman who is not a size zero can be the star of the show.

The conflicting dynamics of an industry celebrating firsts while struggling to sustain inclusivity became apparent. Despite criticism and doubt, Paloma persists because it matters not just to her but to those impacted by the representation she represents.

Young girls deserve role models like Paloma. Young girls are worth more than just what society thinks of their bodies.

This industry’s focus on a select few names, while shutting the door on countless others, prompts contemplation about the true meaning of being a first, in Elsesser’s view – and I have to agree.

Even today, after all that happened in December, after Paloma’s piece in The Cut, there are still commentators on social media that waste too much of their time in hating the fact that a minority has won any award. 

Some along the lines of “Yawn. Enough of the victim mentality please”, “Boo-hoo, there are women going through much worse,” and “We just wanted someone else”.

Beyond the wins, Paloma thought about the importance of recognizing the journey, the effort, the struggle, and the hope that it makes a difference to someone else. This painful path and the persistent pursuit of impact are reasons enough for her to believe in deserving acknowledgment.

Edited by Emily Duff

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