Bold Beauty Project: An Invitation To Really See Women With Disabilities

Feb 12, 2018

Shelly Baer was working with an organization that supports people with disabilities when somebody suggested making a fundraising calendar: nudes of women with disabilities.

“It got me thinking: you never see beauty and disability and sexuality together,” says Baer.

The calendar never happened, but the idea lingered with Baer, who had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. As a child, the arthritis hindered her growth and left her with visible disability.

Baer is a social worker now and leader of several training programs at the University of Miami’s medical school. And for the past decade, she’s run The Bold Beauty Project—an all-volunteer photography series focused on women with disabilities. The project is designed to be replicated. The Bold Beauty Project has had shows all over South Florida, in Washington, D.C., and is currently supporting a show in Philadelphia.

Read more: From Admiring Eyes,’ Photographer Captures Warmth Of Florida’s Black Communities

At the end of this month, the photography series goes on display at the Jackson Memorial Hospital rehabilitation center. There will be a public open house from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on the second floor of the center on February 28th. 

Baer spoke with WLRN’s Sammy Mack about the project:

WLRN: Why specifically focus on women with disabilities?

Baer: We were looking at beauty, and stereotypes, and sexuality. And women have it a little harder than men in that sphere. And you add a disability into the mix so there's a little more stereotypes, I would say.

We live in a place whose image is, at least in part, built on these very stereotypical ideas of the perfect beach body. How does this work address that?

I think it really addresses it, because you're trying to look at women who have differing body types. And they're strong and they're OK in their own skin. And they have great jobs, they're leaders. So you're kind of setting a new standard.

One of the images is a portrait of a woman who appears to be under water, kind of swimming out of her wheelchair. And the way it's lit, rays of light are coming down on her. But there's also the hard architecture of the wheelchair there. What do you see when you look at this picture?

I see freedom. And I see beauty. She seems very strong and powerful.

Tell me about the model.

Leticia Fisher works for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. And I discovered that she was a swimmer and our curator had a photographer that does underwater photography.

What is a photo shoot like?

[A] photo shoot is crazy and scary and you feel like a model for a day.

In the beginning, when I did it my first time, I was very nervous. I was very fearful of being seen nude, being photographed nude. It took me a while to get to the nudity part because we did a lot of different angles and shoots—and I was drinking a little [laughs]. But then I started to realize: he's not looking at me like from a sexual place, but from an artistic place.

And one thing that's really interesting for the photographers is how to work with somebody with a physical challenge; somebody that can't walk, that's paralyzed, that can't see. One of our images was photographed, she was photographed on a beach and she has cerebral palsy. She's in a wheelchair. And when they got to get onto the beach, there was a flight of stairs. So everybody on the team—the photographer and her assistants—had to carry her up the stairs.

You start to notice the barriers, and the architectural barriers that are societal.

Shelly Baer started the Bold Beauty Project more than a decade ago.
Credit Jeffrey Salter / BoldBeautyProject.org

How have the photo shoots changed the way that you look at yourself, or that you hear other women who do this look at themselves?

It's really changed the way I look looked at myself. When I did it originally the first time, I had poor body image and I never really looked in a full-length mirror. It really changed how I see myself. And it was kind of like a, "aha!" moment that I am beautiful. Owning it.

And people tell me I'm beautiful, of course my family and friends, but until you really believe it and own it, that doesn't mean anything. "Oh yeah, you're saying that because you're related to me.”

But then, just seeing how I was portrayed and how the image came out, that is me.

If I had something like this experience when I was a teenager—of course not the nudity part, but the body image part and the self-esteem—that would have saved me a lot of years of therapy. I never saw women in the media or the fashion magazines that I devoured that looked like me. And that's part of one of the missions and visions of our project is to improve that.

I've heard so many stories of women that have done it and were just transformed as well.

I think a lot of us are taught from a very early age that it's not polite to stare, particularly at somebody who may have a disability. But this photo project really invites just that. It asks you to look at women in a way that you don't normally see them. What kinds of reactions do you see from people who are really looking at these images and these women?

It's a transformational experience for the woman and the photographer.

For the audience that comes to see the images, their reaction is overwhelming and so positive. And they're really taken aback. They begin to see disability in a different light.

What is the change that you hope to inspire with this project?

Looking at disability in a new way. Creating new standards of beauty. That you can be beautiful, sensual, sexual and have a disability. I think this does achieve that.

In a lot of the images there is an overt sexuality. Not all of the images—though they are all intimate. There's a connection that you see in the image that's instantaneous. What does that come from?

That's really cool that you pick up on that because that's from the photographer. That's part of why we select more professional photographers. When they get to meet their model, who they're assigned to, we hope that they have one or two meetings to discuss their photo shoot ideas so they brainstorm together.

We really hope that there is an intimacy, a connection, to the model and who they are and what they're trying to portray through their image and their words.

When you display these images, there are words next to them from the models themselves. How does getting that explanation from them contextualize the images themselves?

I remember when we first started doing this, I didn't want their narrative expression and I just wanted the image. I just wanted the powerful image and not necessarily have words next to it.

But I think having the words helps get to know them and hear who they are in their voice. All their amazing accomplishments and how they've coped with their disability. How it has propelled them in their life.

Carolina Gradvohl De Asses is a nurse.
Credit Juan Manuel Garcia / BoldBeautyProject.org

One of the images, we see a woman who's in, it looks like, a black slip, laying on a couch, staring at the camera. And it's almost a boudoir shot, and her walker is just in front of her, out of focus in the field in front of her. Tell us what you see when you look at this picture.

I just love her expression. This to me is one of the sensuality ones. It’s her really comfortable in her own skin. It's very beautiful and sexy and sensual. And I love the way the light is shining just on her face, like capturing that.

And then the walker is just off to the side. But it's not overtaking her. Like that's just one part of her. And it's close to her legs. She has multiple sclerosis, so it's covering up her legs a little bit.

Who is this model?

Her name is Carolina [Gradvohl De Asses]. And she's she's a nurse.

She also had a lot of struggles and getting through nursing school is very brutal and very demanding. And she persevered and against all odds—she fought to get into the nursing school, and to to stay in it, and do it and complete it. So when you see her image and then you've read her story it's pretty powerful.

Shelly Baer was nervous at first about her photo shoot.
Credit Darryl Strawser / BoldBeautyProject.org

Tell me about this photo.

This is me lying on like a day bed. And I was very nervous about it. But then everybody was talking to me about it and convincing me: You have to have it in. And I said OK.

And it was interesting you know how I shifted when they told me, "this one has to be in." When I started taking in what they said and being able to ingest it and accept it, and then I said, "OK, Why not?"

How much of coming around to that photo, that sort of boudoir photo of you, had to do with the external affirmations that you were getting from the photographer and from other people involved in the project?

I think a lot of it came from the external validation that helped me internalize. You know, having both.

And the same thing happened when I did it again 10 years later. Originally I didn't really want to do it again because I'm like, "I've been through this. I've done it."  But my team said, "you have to do it."

And then I started thinking, you know, the whole thing of the mirror was really powerful for me—not being able to look into a mirror. And now 11 years later, 10 years later, I'm comfortable with looking into a full-length mirror. So I wanted some of me looking into a mirror.

What was it about a full-length mirror?

I think looking at the scars, and the deformities of my hands—my hands are small—and you know seeing more of the whole of you. Whereas a smaller mirror you only have to see a part of you.

All women have parts of their body they don't like—it's not just people with disabilities or not just women, guys, too, have parts of their body they're not happy with.

So it's not just for people with disabilities.