How do you define beauty? Is it a definition you formed on your own, or is it the culmination of what a particular industry has force-fed you to believe is “beautiful”? Unfortunately for most of us, the answer would be the latter, because the advertising, fashion and beauty industries are so powerful, fueled by media coverage, that it becomes nearly impossible to find out what true beauty is.
Thanks to the very powerful world of social media and the internet, we as everyday people have been given a voice like never before, and a vehicle to share messages and stories that can effectively counteract what we’ve become accustomed to as “normal”.
A new project called ‘Raw Beauty NYC‘ has emerged as a way to challenge the traditional notions and present different ways that beauty exists in society. It was started by two women, Vanessa Silberman and Shelly Baer who wanted to create a photo exhibit showing disabled women as sexy and beautiful as a fundraising event to benefit The Center of Independent Living. Then they enlisted the help of a group of other women, including model Wendy Crawford from Ontario, Canada, who at the age of 19 was hit by a drunk driver and became paralyzed as a result.
The now-49 year old began speaking out about the perils of drinking and driving, but as she grew into adulthood, she realized another crucial area that needed addressing: self image as a now-disabled woman. In 2002 she founded MobileWomen.org, which is an online community and blog that helps other disabled women find their strength and purpose in life, despite the setbacks they have experienced, by sharing stories.
The project began to evolve, and they teamed up with the Christopher and Dana Reeve foundation, and displayed the exhibit in an art gallery in New York in September. 20 different disabled women were shot by 16 different photographers who between them have credits like Allure, Essence, British Glamour, French Elle, German Vogue, American Airlines, the NY Times, the LA Times, NBC and Target.
Next to each photo was a short bio of each woman, details about their disability, and a story they wanted to share. The mission of the project is “to inspire the public to create new perceptions, transform stereotypes and breakthrough personal obstacles by expanding awareness of women with physical challenges.”
The project is intended to ignite a global conversation, while at the same time redefine beauty. These women don’t want disabled people to be looked at as victims or even beings defined by their disability. Instead they want to use their powerful images as a way to help society expand their definitions and view of something that has for so long been very narrowly defined.
One of the women who was photographed was Danielle Sheypuk, who made history by becoming the first person in a wheelchair to sashay down the run way at New York Fashion Week in February. Another woman, Kitty Lunn, is a 62 year old dancer who broke her back when she fell on ice while preparing for her first Broadway show, but never gave up, founding NYC’s Infinity Dance Theater.
Photographer Carey Wagner, who has covered gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea, sex trafficking in Seattle, and street harassment in NY, said she “is committed to telling the stories of women who would not otherwise be heard,” and that “there is so much we don’t know about what people in wheelchairs deal with, especially in a city like New York.”
Miami-based photographer Ginny Dixon said: “These women are role models, visionaries, and it’s just an honor to be part of shattering the traditional and cultural definition of what beauty looks like.”
Another huge aspect about this project is showing the world that disabled women also have a desire to feel sexy, sensuous and empower other perhaps newly injured women to feel the same.
It is yet another powerful reminder that when society tries to put people into a box, those people will break down that box and construct whole new ways of thinking that should’ve been encouraged in the first place. We live in an institutionalized world where we are so used to being taught how to learn, how to think, how to progress, how to react, how to dress, how to feel how to spend, how to identify and so on and so on.
But what if we were allowed to form these decisions on our own merit and see the world from a more diverse and fragmented (for good reason) point of view? Would we be more willing to see an disabled woman as the embodiment of something sexy? Would women in wheelchairs be common place on fashion runways?
Would Victoria’s Secret catalog feature a woman with spina bifida alongside the others? Here’s to these organizations and women who are going out of their comfort zones just to make the lives of other disabled people brighter and filled with hope.
Check out the full video of the campaign, as well as TEDx Talks from founders Shelly Baer and Wendy Crawford below: