Raw Beauty Project: Creating Visibility for Disability in Fashion and Society

By Margarita Elizondo, Host of Wheel Talk Wheel Issues and Abilities Expo Ambassador

Designers hire models that fit “their look” and that look often looks like something you can hang on a hanger or put on a standing manikin; it does not include wheels. Filmmakers hire actors that fit “their role” and if the role includes disability, it is portrayed by an able-bodied actor. You will never see an actor with disabilities acting “non-disabled” in film.

Models with disabilities are taking the push to be visible in media, on catwalks and in ads into their own hands by becoming entrepreneurs and creating their own opportunities to showcase their abilities. Wendy Crawford, founder of mobileWOMEN.org; Ginny Dixon, an award winning photographer; and Dr. Susan Solman did just that! They collaborated to create the Raw Beauty Project, which was inspired by another exhibit that they worked on together in 2006, in Miami, Florida.

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Raw Beauty Project Challenges Society to Rethink its Notion of Beauty and Ability

The Raw Beauty Project is an innovative arts project that celebrates women with disabilities, educating viewers to redefine perceptions and beauty, unleashing potential for all. This photography exhibit is a collaboration between photographers and women living with various types of disabilities that showcases their beauty, power and passion.

The Raw Beauty Project made its debut on September 20, 2014 at ACA Galleries in New York City. Its second exhibition was organized by ambassador Monique Stamps in Charlotte, North Carolina on June 18, 2016. On September 17, 2016, the Project will exhibit again in Los Angeles, spearheaded by organizing ambassador and Push Girl Angela Rockwood. The Raw Beauty Projects is a non-profit and all the participants, including the models and photographers, are volunteers. Each event takes a year-long preparation and is funded through sponsors and donations.

The day of the event, the photos are hung on the wall by photography director Ginny Dixon. Each portrait is accompanied by the model’s personal story so that guests can better experience what drives each model. Afterwards, the portraits are available to rent for corporations, organizations, community groups, etc. They are an impactful educational tool, breaking down perceptional barriers and creating awareness on how capable and talented woman with disabilities truly are. The goal is to raise enough funds from the Los Angeles exhibit, to be able to employ women with disabilities to grow the Raw Beauty Project and share the portraits with organizations that cannot afford the expensive cost of shipping.

Meet the Woman Behind the Project

Wendy Crawford was a thriving 19-year-old model on her way to the airport, headed to Tokyo for a two-month long modeling contract when a drunk driver rear ended the car in which she was a passenger, just as she and a friend were exiting the freeway. As a result, Wendy broke her neck and severed her spinal cord at the C5-6 level. This ended her career as model. She says, “I became invisible.”

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How did your career as model change post injury?

“I modeled over 30 years ago and once I had my accident, there was absolutely no work for me. There were some magazines that wanted to cover my ‘tragic’ story but at that time, models with disabilities were unheard of and not accepted in the industry. Fortunately, I believe that it's beginning to change!”

What, if anything, is different as a model with a disability compared to an able-bodied model?

“It can sometimes be physically challenging to pose in a certain position but there are always creative ways to get around that. The most important part of being a good model is to convey an emotion and that can be achieved by any model of color, age, size or ability.”

“In the past, modeling has been limited to a very small fraction of the population and not everyday real people, giving woman a false sense of what they should look like. I truly believe that the more models of diversity are used, the more successful companies will become because they're advertising would be more relatable to the public and the more empowered we will all be!”

What has the Raw Beauty Project done to enhance your career and your mission as a model with a disability?

“The Raw Beauty Project has enhanced my life in countless ways! When you volunteer for something that you are passionate about, it is amazing the rewards that come back to you. It has been a wonderful learning experience and I have met so many amazing people. I have not pursued modeling for many years as it has been more important to me to empower other women with disabilities through the Raw Beauty Project and my other project, mobileWOMEN.org.”

Raw Beauty Project Models Reveal Inner Beauty

There will be over twenty new models featured in Raw Beauty Project LA in September. These women, including myself, were selected, not based on modeling experience, nor looks, but based on our inner beauty expressed through an essay submission describing why we feel we are a, “Raw Beauty.”

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The diversity in the model selection is what enhances both the uniqueness of the exhibit as well as the educational opportunity for the guests.

Leveraging Power of Social Media to Ensure Project Success

We are all marketers now! The truth is, social media when used strategically over time, is the most powerful form of marketing. Each of the 20 models being featured in Los Angeles have their own social following, as do the models that exhibited in New York and in Charlotte. Through social media Raw Beauty Project is achieving its marketing goals as well taking its exhibit online, creating awareness globally. Raw Beauty Project NY was such a hit it was featured in major magazines such Oprah and on websites such as Today.com and ELLE.com.

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Thanks to entrepreneurs like Wendy, Ginny, and Susan, pioneering projects like Raw Beauty and all of the beautiful up-and-coming models with a disability, disability will no longer be ignored. Designers will soon be forced to make a change not just in their model selection for catwalks and ads, but in design as well. Filmmakers will be forced to follow suit. Even more powerful is the fact that the disability community is the fastest growing minority worldwide, thus the fastest growing market as well. It only makes sense for a change to finally be seen.

If you would like to be a part of this important movement and back the Raw Beauty Project, please visit the Indiegogo crowdfunding page and donate today!

To purchase tickets Raw Beauty Project LA on September 17 at the Paul Mitchell School in Pasadena, click here. Gallery reception tickets include cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, swag bags and much more.

About the Author:

Margarita Elizondo is a motivational speaker, entrepreneur, producer/host of Wheel Talk Wheel Issues, model, author and an ambassador for the Los Angeles Abilities Expo. She was paralyzed in 2006 after an intruder broke into her home. Now, a single mother of three and grandmother, she pursues a degree in Communication at Grossmont Community College, and works for Axia Management where she designed a wireless phone service for seniors and individuals with disabilities. As Ms. Wheelchair California 2013, she is a strong advocate in the disability community and volunteers for numerous nonprofits. You can follow her @Ms_Hotwheels on Twitter and Instagram, or reach her on Facebook or through www.margaritaelizondo.com.


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