How Model Paloma Elsesser Uses Instagram to Talk About Everything From Fashion and Cars to Body Image and Mental Health

When Paloma Elsesser moved to New York eight years ago, it was to study writing at the New School, but it wasn’t long before she—through her Instagram—caught the eye of makeup guru Pat McGrath, and was catapulted into a modeling career that has only gained momentum since. After McGrath selected Elsesser as one of the first faces of her new, namesake beauty line, Pat McGrath Labs, Elsesser proceeded to become an ambassador for brands like Fenty Beauty by Rihanna and Glossier, and to walk Eckhaus Latta during the spring and fall 2018 shows.

Through it all, she’s cultivated a sizable following on her Instagram, where she posts under the handle @palomija, broadcasting tiny snapshots of her day, things she loves, and candid posts about mental health and body image to nearly 150,000 followers. For Elsesser, it’s all about keeping it real and, as she describes it, keeping it “crispy,” cutting through the immaculately curated gloss of social media. Her feed is populated with images of architecture and colorful sights from trips abroad, askew angles of everyday objects, and the occasional outfit post. Here, she weighs in on what she wouldn’t post, and how, when the moment calls for it, she manages to step away from it all.

What is your Instagram handle, and how did you pick it?

My Instagram handle is @palomija. I picked it because my grandmother is Chilean, and “mija” is a term of endearment in Hispanic and Latin communities, and then, also, my grandpa used to call me Palomita, which means “little dove.” My name means “dove” in Spanish, so I just merged them.

Do you remember your first Instagram?

It’s a badly filtered, with a border, photo of my friend, drunk on red wine.

How often do you post?

I try and post every day. I think it’s important for people to stay connected. I mean, I have a 74 percent female-identifying versus male-identifying following, and the general commentary and discourse is about how the work that I do aids them, whether it be getting dressed or feeling better in their body and who they are, whether it be skin color, race, size, so I just want them to feel a part of my day in some way—of the way I see the world. I don’t think that I’m this huge celebrity, but I think for a small percentage of girls and women and people who message me, I’m like, sure, if you want to see how my day is going or what work I’m up to.

And it’s not an insubstantial platform, either.

Because of its size, actually, where it’s not 10 million, but it’s not 10,000, I still feel it’s that kind of intimate, and it’s a nice cushion of people who are following because I know they want to be there, in a way. If girls DM me, I’ll respond. I’m not completely out of the loop.

Do you get a lot of DMs?

I get a lot of DMs. I can’t respond to them all. In response to some of the DMs, I don’t know if a verbal accolade can serve as much as letting my imagery also be a response. If a girl’s messaging me, “Where do you find clothes?” It’s like, okay, I’m going to post pictures of my clothes more, giving a response where I can be more blanketed.

If that person is asking that question, chances are, somebody else has that question.

Exactly.

What’s the most common thing that people reach out to you with?

I think that the most common thing is not even questions, it’s just like, “You have helped me so much in feeling better in my body.” I get largely young women, or female-identifying girls, who really feel connected to being a young woman of color feeling like she’s quote-unquote “plus-size,” and feeling like, even within the plus-size community, she doesn’t feel completely understood, so to see a girl who’s not subscribing to a very set narrative of what plus-size or even a plus-size woman of color is, quote-unquote, “supposed to look like,” I think it offers some solace. So it’s normally just, like, “Thank you for showing me, or validating that my experiences are real or that who I am is okay.” I’m going to get emotional. It’s just so incredible to maybe make an effect on this one human being in the world.

That must help you on an off day, knowing that.

Oh, my god, for sure. I mean, I love modeling, but some days I don’t. It’s not a super-easy job all the time. But if I can put that, like, what I’m doing is a service to someone at the forefront of my day and my job, it really helps when it is hard, when it’s a f---ing 16-hour day or none of the clothes fit or whatever it may be. At the end of the day, this 16-hour day can help somebody’s 16 days or 16 years in some capacity.

What do you think is the secret to taking a winning selfie?

Good light. I normally just try to find a window situation. I like natural light.

Filter or no filter?

No filter. Maybe I’ll turn the brightness up, I’ll fuck with the edit. Just chic—keep it minimal. Too filtered for me is not the look.

What’s your favorite thing to post?

I really don’t like my Instagram to look like a model’s Instagram, like, “HMU on set today!,” which I don’t think is wack, I just think it’s not honest to me, so I just kind of like to post things the way I see them. I like to post cars I love and sneakers I love and weird chairs that I like, or colors. I’ve posted a lot of cars. I’m really into G-Wagens right now. Then, interspersed with selfies and work stuff, too. I just make it crispy.

Describe yourself using three emojis.

Oh, s--t. The little chicken popping out of the egg, I use that a lot. The wilted rose. And the contemplative, like, "what you doing" face.

What pisses you off on social media?

A lot of things. Aesthetics aside, I think what’s problematic about social media sometimes—I’m totally complicit in that, too—is that it’s still a very curated version of how people are looking and living and doing. I don’t think you have to bombard people with, “I’m sad today,” but I think that it’s nice to keep grounded. If you have any kind of platform, small or large, there’s somebody who’s relying on you to humanize yourself. Instagram is really dehumanizing; you become just this marketed version of yourself sometimes. It’s hard because, especially in fashion, you’re dealing with an industry of aesthetic and visuals, but I think it would be a disservice to what I’m ultimately trying to do if I didn’t intersperse some realness. For instance, a couple of days ago, I posted a really short, very simple message—it was the anniversary of when I stopped taking psych medicine, so I just wanted to acknowledge mental health in a way that is personal and honest. I just wanted a few people to know that I’ve been off meds for X amount of years; it saves some people’s lives, and even if my life seems glossy in some way, I still struggle, and it’s just all a conversation.

What was the response like?

It was so sweet. I got a little nervous, like, Should I not even be talking about this stuff on Instagram? Will this hinder my work? And I found so many members of the fashion community DM’d me privately and commented. It’s beautiful, and I don’t even know some of these people.

On the converse side of that, how do you block out the haters and the negatives online?

I feel so proud of the community I’ve found and I’ve fostered. When I’ve posted on a different situation, all of the sudden, people become doctors, saying what I should and shouldn’t be eating. It’s hilarious. It’s insane. But I block it out because my body isn’t anyone else’s business, and it’s completely overwritten by the service and the response that I get for being in my body and being who I am. One time, I got dragged on the internet for not wearing Spanx. But then, I posted the same look on my Instagram and it got such an overwhelming response of people being like, “Oh, my god, it’s so incredible to see a size 12, 14 girl wear an off-the-runway outfit, and to see who she is.” So I’m like, f--k them, I don’t care.

Paloma Elsesser at the Eckhaus Latta spring 2018 show on Saturday, September 9, at 99 Scott during New York Fashion Week. Photographed by Serichai Traipoom for W Magazine.

SERICHAI TRAIPOOM

That’s maybe the upside of having this curated space.

It’s a really safe community.

What is the best way to slide into someone’s DMs, especially if you’re into them?

I haven’t done that, so it’s hard. Honestly, I’m such a dork. When my boyfriend and I started dating—we’ve been together for almost four years—I just went and liked a bunch of his photos and then a bunch of weeks deep, I just commented, “hi.” It did work. I don’t bestow, my game is so strange. I’m just like, if a boy doesn’t answer, I’m like, “hi.” Then, if he doesn’t answer for like two hours, “hi.”

Do you follow exes or block them?

I don’t block them, and I don’t follow them. Sometimes, it can be self-preservation. Most of my exes have unfollowed me, so I’ve just followed suit. I get it, it can be triggering. That’s also the problem with Instagram; there aren't enough psychological studies on how it affects us. You don’t even notice it: You can have a fabulous day, and then, my competitive side is like, Hm, why didn’t I get that job? Then, I’m put in an anxious mood, and I have to re-navigate why I’m feeling this way. So if you want to get through your day without being reminded that we’re no longer together, respect, and I feel you. I think blocking is a bit much, but I think the unfollow isn’t off base.

How do you detox from social media?

I just delete the app when I go on vacation, because it’s, like, muscle memory. Even when you’re like, I’m not going to go on Instagram, you know exactly where it is. You’re just sitting there in the cab, doing anything, it’s just like, this, this, this. Or, you know what’s really dark, but it’s a good thing to put things in check? There’s a new thing on your phone where you can see how long you’ve been on Instagram for the week. It puts things in perspective.