I’m Shelly Baer and I work as a clinical social worker in Miami at University of Miami School of Medicine. I wear many hats at my day job, but the main thing I do is manage leadership programs/curriculums for professionals who want to make a difference in the disability community. I have a coaching and counseling business helping individuals find love and have healthy relationships. And you can check out my happenings and musings on my website, www.love-ABLE.com. I am a sought after speaker to colleges and medical schools where I open up dialogues and shed light on the ins and outs of dating, relationships and having sex with a disability. There are still many myths and stereotypes regarding people with disabilities and sexuality; I’m on a mission to break that up! To that end, I co-created a photography exhibit called Uncensored Life: Raw Beauty showcasing disabled women’s beauty and sensuality and gave a TEDxMIA talk called “The Beauty of Disability.” Recently married, I sleep little, read voraciously, love our black girl cat Harry and still use a Filofax (I like pen on page.) I’m working on a memoir about my dating dramas with a disability and another writing project with my new husband.
What first inspired you to start Raw Beauty Project?
It all began with two women. One was employed at this small non-for-profit agency that serves people with disabilities and I was on the board of this agency. I along with Vanessa Silberman were dedicated, creative, motivated, in the Miami scene in our own way and were looking for a way to put this small agency called the Center for Independent Living on the map. A nude calendar for women with disabilities was mentioned to Vanessa, she mentioned it to me and I have a visible disability; we loved the idea and were off and running! The idea was mentioned to the board of CIL and they were supportive but a little skeptical of the nudity angle. The idea evolved into a photography exhibit and we met with prospective models and photographers. Photography seemed a perfect artistic medium as the portrayal of women with physical disabilities has been minimally celebrated in the visual arts and media, and certainly never in Miami.
Ginny Dixon, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer brought the idea to the Miami Ad School where she teaches and Photography Director Darryl Strawser loved the idea. A few fashion photography students agreed to work on the project changing it again into a learning experience for them as well as the models volunteering.
Our mission statement emerged- Uncensored Life: Raw Beauty is an innovative visual arts project designed to inspire the public to create new perceptions, transform stereotypes and breakthrough personal obstacles by expanding awareness of women with physical challenges. The audience will glimpse into the lives of twenty women with varying physical disabilities through photography and biography. These women put into motion the essence of life and do not let challenges deter them, as they are sensual, ambitious, creative and confident. They define the meaning of raw beauty.
You work with women with disabilities to help them discover and create unique pictures of their beauty. How much can this changed perception of self-alter someone’s self-confidence or lifestyle?
I think it can have a huge effect. It did for me; I was 42 when I was photographed. I decided to pose semi-nude and was one of three out of the twenty women that chose to bare all (read more about this experience below). My disability is visible; I was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when I was 3. I often struggled with body image issues, low self-esteem and just wanted to disappear. I never looked in a full-length mirror until my thirties; I didn’t view myself as beautiful or desirable. Being a real model for a day with a professional make-up artist and hair stylist, getting to design my photo shoot and decide how I saw myself as beautiful was life altering. I thought people stare at me anyway, why not have them stare at a beautiful photograph. Thinking about how you see yourself as beautiful, then designing your shoot with the photographer and then viewing the huge photograph of yourself displayed in a gallery, all these elements can alter your self-perception, confidence and self-esteem. It did for so many of the models in the Miami and NYC exhibitions.
The photographs are wonderful, what sort of attention did they garner from the public and media?
In Miami, we had a lot of positive press before the show to raise awareness of the exhibit. Articles were written about it in The Miami Herald, The New Times, we even had a slot on NBC Channel 6.
The New York show also garnered an incredible amount of positive press through the web across the globe.
What is next for the Raw Beauty Project?
We have created something unique, special and are excited about it growing and expanding. It impacts the disabled woman who participates as a model, the photographers who shoot the women and the audience that views the powerful display. We plan to partner with other US cities that want to replicate the concept in their city with disabled women there. And we would love this go global as well!
Photo credit: Here