Beauty, we’ve been told again and again, is in the eye of the beholder.
That truism is particularly pertinent when the beholder is the person in front of the mirror. Blame it on media or on impossible societal standards, but too many women see doubt staring back from their reflection.
That’s one reason why Shelly Baer decided to recruit 25 ordinary women living extraordinary lives for her Bold Beauty Project. And not just any women, but women with varying disabilities willing to pose for award-winning photographers.
The outcome of this effort is a photography exhibit showcasing different types of physical and sensory disabilities in an environment of the model’s choosing. The exhibit opens Nov. 12 at the Bakehouse Art Complex in Wynwood and runs for two weeks. A handful of these shots will remain at the Bakehouse as part of Art Basel 2016.
“Our mission is to break the stereotypes of women and beauty and disability and sexuality,” Baer says. “We want to create a whole new image.”
Baer is director for Leadership Training Initiatives at the University of Miami’s Mailman Center for Child Development, but she founded the Bold Beauty Project as a result of her own experience. About 10 years ago, another group had done a similar though smaller project, “Uncensored Life: Raw Beauty”, as a fundraiser. Baer, who has had rheumatoid arthritis since she was a child, was one of the 20 women featured.
She was hesitant to participate at first, but then: “I thought, people stare at me anyway so why shouldn’t they stare at a beautiful photograph,” Baer recalls. “It was a transformative experience, and it stayed with me for a long time.”
Eventually Baer did a TEDx talk on “The Beauty of Disability” and began working to revive the concept of featuring women and their personal stories “to raise awareness and change perceptions.” She wanted others to experience what she had experienced.
The first Bold Beauty Project exhibit was launched last year in Washington as a fundraiser for United Cerebral Palsy. Then Baer and co-director Eva Ritvo, a psychiatrist and co-author of “The Beauty Prescription,” brought the idea back to Miami. (Next stop: Philadelphia in 2017.) They reached out to organizations and recruited photographersincluding a who’s who of the local journalism community. Starr Sariego served as curator.
By the end of the selection process, their models would include women with spinal cord injuries, visual and hearing impairment and cerebral palsy, and an amputee. Most of the women live in Miami-Dade, a few in Broward County. But while their circumstances may vary, all share one thing:
“We looked for leaders, for women who were not allowing their disability to hold them back,” Baer says. “And we certainly got that — 25 absolutely amazing women.”
LaQuantis Morton is one of them. Paralyzed in a car accident, the Army veteran trained so she could participate in a Para-Olympic summer program and assist a spinal cord injury therapist in teaching ballroom dancing. She now works as director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America Florida chapter and is chairwoman of the chapter’s research and education committee.
“Just because you see a chair or a scar or some disability, that doesn’t define a person and it doesn’t define beauty,” Morton says.
She admits she had her doubts about the photo shoot, but after working with photographer Cynthia Fleischmann and seeing some of the shots, “It was Wow! I felt liberated to be me.”
Heidi Johnson-Wright, an attorney and adjunct faculty member at UM’s School of Architecture, had a clear idea of how she wanted to be portrayed when she worked with photographer Gil Bitton. “I knew I didn’t want to be a princess in pink because that’s just not me,” she says. “I wanted something edgier, more like a punk rock aesthetic.”
She got that look exactly — and something more.
After the shoot, she felt stronger and more self-assured than ever. “Ebullient, euphoric, I really enjoyed it,” says Johnson-Wright, who was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 8. “It was a little like taking on a different persona. How many women do you know get an opportunity to do something like this?”
If You Go
What: Bold Beauty Project Visual Arts Exhibit
When: Nov. 12-25. Opening reception 6-9 p.m. Nov. 12.
Where: Bakehouse Arts Complex, 561 NW 32nd St., Miami
Info: $20 advance admission, $25 at door. boldbeautyproject.com