Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty: Models from My Community

Two weeks ago, I was standing in a hot warehouse watching some of my favorite people leap in the air, strikes poses, and play in front of a camera. I was loving everything I saw because – unlike in most traditional fashion spreads – everyone was smiling.

Welcome to the Model Community project. Those smiles are the crux of why I started this initiative. Being a person should be enjoyable. Having a body should be empowering. Wearing clothes you like should be uplifting. Right now, the impact the media has on body image makes all these things harder than they should be, because we see a narrow range of what’s considered beautiful and we question the validity of our own bodies. We can’t find fashionable clothing to fit us and we drift between “regular” and “plus size” stores, wondering where we belong. We hope our sense of self and our knowledge that we are more than our appearance will protect us from insecurity, but we all feel doubt.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Here is my cry to the fashion and advertising worlds to help people be more happy and confident simply by representing greater diversity in their campaigns. Together with my community, I’ve created a look book to serve as a tangible example of the form this might take. If you want to see more information about the background of the project and where I hope it will go, please look below the photos. But for now, I’m going to let the models do the talking:

Click a photo to enter the slide show and read the models’ thoughts on beauty and the meaning of this project.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos were taken by Allison Cook.

The Model Community Project Background

Seeing different body sizes makes us more comfortable with different body sizes.

That was the major finding of a recent study in which women who viewed pictures of a variety of body types quickly started to feel more positive about all the varying sizes. This was true for both very thin bodies and fat bodies because – as the lead researcher put it – your mind becomes accustomed to a new “visual diet” as you change what your eyes consume.

It follows that if we saw a more diverse expression of bodies in the media, we’d all unconsciously adjust our perceptions and get more comfortable with (and less judgmental of) our own bodies and those of others. So… why don’t we see that kind of representation?

That disconnect is the reason I started the Model Community Project. I wanted to show an example of what it might look like if the fashion industry (and, really, all advertisers) used models who represent the true diversity of the human “look.” This concept was first inspired by the amazing Spring 2013 Look Book from Debenham’s, which features models from petite to plus sizes, some with amputations, and others in their seventies. As I first flipped through that catalog, my mouth was almost watering. It was so refreshing, so enjoyable, to see beautiful fashions on people who I don’t normally get to see in the media.

That was the key. I was having such a strong response to seeing people of multiple sizes, shapes, races, ages, and “looks” because I rarely see them portrayed in a desirable way in the media. But I see this diversity of people every day in my normal life.

That’s when the Model Community was born. I asked my entire circle of friends and family to participate. Luckily – thanks, universe! – my husband works at a creative think tank where they have both a giant workshop space and an incredibly talented and enthusiastic photographer on staff. In the end, we decided to hold two photo shoots. I told the community models to show up in whatever made them feel most wonderful – from a power suit to some David Bowie face paint. When the shoots came, there were leotards and sparkly dresses and pocket squares and fun hats and, most of all, there was joy.

Everyone was full of it. There was self-love as people got comfortable in front of the camera and started playing, letting their personalities shine through their bodies. There was group love as people encouraged each other’s bravery and seconded each other’s thoughts about how negative body image can be overcome. There were conversations that split long-held insecurities wide open, and we all came out a little stronger on the other side.

So Where Do We Go from Here?

This project was small by design. I wanted to celebrate my local community. I did ask for some submissions from long-distance friends, but the real revelations of the project came from being in the studio setting and joining the powerful discussions sparked in the waiting room.

What I hope now is that this project can be one spark that joins with others to make a raging fire. In my research since starting the Model Community, I’ve been thrilled to come across several other projects with a similar focus. The body image movement is a surge that’s gathering strength. My very simple desire is that this project will inspire more like it, that they all will lead to productive conversations, and that eventually social media will be flooded with enough voices talking loudly about the topic that the mainstream media will take note and evolve.

In the meantime, wonderful things have already started to happen. My friends and family feel empowered and vibrant. They have photos that they treasure, and many tell me their confidence has skyrocketed just from realizing they aren’t alone with their insecurities. These folks are talking about their experiences on Facebook. On WordPress, a fellow blogger read about this project and wrote his own inspired piece about male body image.

And there’s more! This post was made required reading for two first-year courses at Duke University, and students blogged their responses to it. A shelter for survivors of sex trafficking re-created the project to benefit the young women they serve. There’s also a high school teacher who’s planning to share the project with her classes, who are right at that age when they most need this message.

Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” These images represent what’s true in my community, and they’re absolutely beautiful. Is it a community of models? No. But it’s definitely a Model Community.


My thanks +1,000 awesome points go to Allison Cook, a photographer with extraordinary skill at making people feel comfortable in front of her camera, and to my partner Jarrett. He gave this project a home, fed it pizza, and edited it with love.



Read more of my (productive) rants on body image here:


76 responses to “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty: Models from My Community

  1. I am charmed with it quite and I am sorry to have got lost it very much but I am very satisfied to see it.

    • That’s the best result this project could ever achieve. Thank YOU for trusting me with your photos. They are lovely and show such a kind soul.

  2. I think this is a wonderful project. At 80 years of age, I have learned to accept my body. I have always wanted to be 6 feet tall and thin. However, I have had to settle for 5’1″ and a little too much around the middle. Life is good, because all of my friends feel the very same way. We do the best with what we have and thank God every day that we are still alive.

  3. Great project. Pictures turned out superb. I hope you continue to inspire people on the love and acceptance of who they are!

  4. This was such an inspiring project to be a part of. I took from it more than I ever thought I would going into it — To know that I put myself out there in a way that I have never been comfortable with before, AND to push that further by actually coming away with a stronger sense of self and confidence was not something I expected to gain. That, combined with getting to help people see themselves in a whole new way, and really connect with them on the same, personal, beautiful levels, was truly (again) inspiring. Thank you so much for thinking of me for this project; YOU have helped me more than words (or photos) can express.

    • Well, Lady A, you made me tear up with this one. I’m so, so glad you could be our photographer, because your genuine personality and sheer sparkle made all the difference in how people felt during their photos shoots. So much of why we all opened up and got so much out of the experience was due to your amazing ability to make everyone feel safe and celebrated. I’m thrilled this meant so much to you professionally and personally, and I’m SO glad I got the chance to become your friend. Love you, *insert ridiculous nickname here*.

    • Both these articles are very good reading – thank you for sharing! And I did see your original comment – it was nestled inside the photo gallery, but I loved it so I’ll re-post it here:

      “This says it all: ‘Being a person should be enjoyable. Having a body should be empowering. Wearing clothes you like should be uplifting.’ What an inspirational project! Everyone is beautiful. The captions that accompany each photo read like poetry.”

      Thanks for your words and for re-blogging this. I truly believe that seeing these images and words can have a positive impact on anyone who comes across them. The collected impact of the quotes from the models are more inspirational than anything I could have written.

  5. Reblogged this on Building A Life Of Hope and commented:
    Does beauty lie only in the images found in the media? Do you feel beautiful or do you compete with a false image of what you “should” look like?
    Please read Jennie Saia’s latest post on the subject! Together with the people in her community, she created an awe inspiring project on the subject which I hope will at least give us pause for thought!

  6. Such a beautiful project – truly. I love how your community rallied behind you, and brought this idea to life. You go lady!

    • Stef, Stef, Stef – I owe the entire idea to you! I’m so glad for that quirky little twist of fate/misunderstanding that led to this result! And THANK YOU for your thoughtful, supportive comments on each and EVERY photo in the gallery. Your engagement with my community brought tears to my eyes.

      • Jennie, it’s absolutely my pleasure. If each of those individuals could make the time to attend the photo shoot, and demonstrate the courage to post their intimate thoughts and image for the world to see, certainly the least I could do is share a supportive or encouraging comment with each of them. 🙂 Keep making positive change in the world; I’m so encouraged by you!

  7. Ah! How great is this! My next Taboo Tab is going up tomorrow, it’s about body image…you should definitely check it out…I might link to this on my blog page. So inspiring and awesome.

    • I look forward to reading it! And thanks for the feedback – this is one of those projects where I didn’t so much create anything as simply coordinate all the participants’ awesomeness into one concentrated POW! I am a lucky girl to have this many inspiring, smart people around me. 🙂

  8. Since reading “In Which I Find Out I Am Considered Plus Size,” I’ve been trying to read through your posts. I was very excited to come to this one. We are attempting (very early stages) a similar project. In our groups each week, the girls will see photos of the women in my life and how they view beauty, what they find beautiful about themselves and others, etc. It is exciting to see what you are doing and being able to share it with my clients.

    • Hi again – this project was one of the most uplifting things I’ve ever done. If you have any questions about how to pull it off (background/lighting/questions I ask the participants, etc) please let me know! I’m thrilled to hear that you’re doing something similar, and it might be even more powerful to offer this experience to your girls directly, once they’re seen examples of other diverse women who embrace themselves. Again, I am so inspired by the work that you do.

  9. I would love an feedback from your experience, especially the questions you asked. This idea was actually what inspired the True Beauty post on my page. I’m constantly amazed at how challenging and empowering my job is. I think I’m learning more from the girls than they learn from me. It’s encouraging to see their (as well as my own) distorted view of beauty, worth, and authenticity change. Again, thank you for your post and all you are doing.

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  11. Reblogged this on Tip of My Tongue and commented:

    Day 4 of Body Image Week:

    If you read one post of mine this week, please make it this one. This project is the accomplishment I’m most proud of in the last year. It’s simple: my community came together to make photos of a real, diverse group of people. Why? To prove that using models outside the current beauty ideal can actually be a very beautiful thing.

  12. What a fantastic project, what a fantastic achievement,..go you!!! The pictures emulate happiness and confidence and fulfillment, they show what it is like to love yourself and live. Love it. Gobsmacked!

    • You’re so fantastically supportive. Thank you! It was amazing to watch people open up in front of the camera. Many of them came in so nervous. One woman told me she had to stay on the phone with her best friend the entire time she was driving in, just to have a cheerleader to stop her from turning around – but once she got there, she went from arms crossed and fake smile to natural poses and a confident stare into the camera. There was so much power in giving people permission to play in front of the camera, with the benefits of perfect lighting and a talented photographer… I’d promised them in advance that I’d delete every photo they didn’t love, and let them pick the final image for the blog post… and it gave them such a sense of safety that all these gorgeous things started flowing through.

      • I bet their empowerment has continued past the photo shoot and wonder how many will see it as a life changing experience, doing things they may not have had the confidence to do before the shoot. I hope you gave yourself a big applause afterwards and maybe even a shot of wine!!!

        • Ha! I give myself wine even when I haven’t “earned” it!

          I, too, would be curious to know if this stayed with people – a lot of them did share the photos on Facebook and got even more great feedback from their extended communities, so that was a whole other level of validation. Maybe I should do some sort of follow-up next year, to see whether there were any lasting effects? Hmmm, my gears are turning… MAN my blog friends are full of good ideas!

  13. “We aren’t brains in jars” – this was my favorite line out of the entire post. I love this entire concept. I am considered by some a “skinny” girl, but I work very hard for it. Not to impress anyone or fit some stereotype, but because I have learned that I feel healthier, and have the most energy, when I am on a regular workout routine and eating healthy. A big pet peeve of mine is when I hear “real women have curves” or things like that that seem almost disrespectful towards us “thinner” girls. I’m a real woman, too! I guess my point is, we are ALL beautiful, no matter the size, even us “skinny” girls. Again, love this concept!

    • Yeah! I’m glad that struck a chord with you; it’s one of my favorite quotes as well. It’s important how we feel about our external selves, because no matter how often I tell myself I’m smart, I’m still gonna worry whether I’m pretty. I just am. Glad to hear you’re healthy and happy with yourself, and don’t let anybody get you down with that whack talk!

    I’m ordering you and your peeps to develop another installment of this project. When you are finished, I will give all production crew/models free floss, toothbrushes, and oral hygiene home care instructions.

    • HAHAHA I just went DIRECTLY to the dentist’s chair, do not pass Go. I almost checked if I had the paper bib on. Meanwhile, I would *love* to do this again, but I may have tapped out my local community. What I want is for other bloggers to do it! Or maybe I’ll organize an online version where people submit photos to me and I’ll create a Tumblr… although, honestly, I don’t see taking and sending in a selfie having anywhere near the transformative power of modelling in a real studio setting. Because – while I didn’t expect it to – this project ended up being half about the final product, and half about how much confidence the participants gained from being part of it. Ahh, so cool – anyway, thanks for the feedback – it’s definitely not the end!

  15. What a wonderful intitiative, and I love the pictures! It is indeed nonsense that only one body type (long and pin thin) is the only “acceptable” standard of beauty within advertising. I hope this catches on, and good luck with your project!

    • Thanks so much! One of my very smart friends addressed that issue when we talked. She said that at some point in time, every “look” – petite, zaftig, pale, tan, exotic, traditional – they’ve all been popular and idolized. So with that big picture in mind, maybe we can all stop worrying about what mainstream media chooses to obsess about at the current moment?

    • Thank you, Tim. Later today, I’m hoping to post the draft of a shorter write-up on this which I want to submit to the Huffington Post. I think the work deserves a much larger audience, but I’ve held off on writing the draft for a long time because I love this project so much that I’m actually scared of submitting and then hearing nothing… sort of paralyzed by a need for perfection. But, that’s why I’ll be posting the draft here – to hopefully get feedback from all you writers about possible tweaks! So, please, come back and chime in once it’s up. I am completely open to constructive criticism if it gets this piece where it needs to be to go (more) public!

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  17. Mind. Blown.
    I lOVE THIS. I have so many *feels* about this subject, it’s actually hard for me to write or talk about it in an intelligent manner. I get flustered and angry, and end up ranty. I don’t want to rant about something that’s already obvious. I just want to say you are AMAZING for doing this project. I believe in it so much it’s actually giving me major heart squeezes.

    I am so proud to be your sisterwife right now I could scream! 🙂

    have you submitted this anywhere else? Like huffpo? has it gained any momentum beyond the original photo shoot? Just curious.


    • Beth. I initially VERY MUCH wanted to get this seen more broadly, and HuffPo was my first choice, but then honestly, life happened, and someone told me I’d have to remove the post from my own blog if HuffPo carried it, and I got a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing. It’s not like it’s gotten less relevant since last June, though, and it would mean THE WORLD to me if it had a second life… do you have any tips for how to move forward with HuffPo, or know anyone who’s worked with them? If I had some sort of “in” beyond that intimidating “blind submissions” page, it would be magic.

    • Update: when you come, I want to take your photo and add you in.


      Also, if you know anyone who’s successfully submitted to HuffPo or another major online publisher before, let me know! I’ve just gotten re-energized to make some updates happen.

  18. Reblogged this on Writer B is Me and commented:
    The intensely talented Jennie Saia started this imperative movement with a simple project last year. Both the concept and its outcome are inspiring and beautiful in ways that are difficult for me to convey, so I’ll let her post speak for itself. *fist bump* to my Jennie for her incredible vision and heart. #SW

  19. Well I loved seeing this. I love seeing people loving them self… Why is it so easy to find beauty in those around us and so difficult to find within ourselves?

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  21. Absolutely fantastic! I spend more time than I’d like to admit thinking about this stuff, as is evidenced in my own post today. Really love this project, Jenny. Wicked awesome.

    • Nancy, I think about it every single day. But I am learning (most of the time) to find at least something in the mirror to love. Sometimes one little happy thought is all you need. I’m heading over to read your post right now!

  22. If there were 222 photos and stories, I would have sat here for hours reading / viewing. Powerful, beautiful stuff. I don’t have the words to describe this (and I am rarely short of words). This is something everyone should be so proud of – a lot of work went into it, clearly, and also a lot of love. Self-love is the hardest to dish out, and these wonderful folks ooze it. And so do you.

    ‘Nuff said. Let the pics tell the story.


    • Paul, this is the most wonderful thing you could have said to me. I was SO proud of my friends and family for what they brought to this project. I am not being humble when I say they made it, they gave me the words, they brought the energy… I just channeled all they offered into something that fit on a webpage.

  23. This is such an amazing and beautiful project 🙂 I hope to start seeing more of this kind of initiative in advertising to show real beauty. To show someone comfortable in their body and happy 🙂

    • Thank you! And yeah – you know how you can telling when someone’s smiling versus smiling? When I look through these photos it just makes me giddy, because all my loved ones are legitimately radiant, with happy eyes. 🙂

  24. What a project! This is the kind of thing I would rather see and more importantly, for my daughter….well, all of my children to see. It is real, it is astounding! Thank you so much for sharing this experience! I hope to see it blossom and make a profound change in the way all people view themselves.

    • Sandy, thank you. 🙂 I am so invigorated every time I see someone who is “other” in some way looking out from an ad or a TV screen. I truly believe that (while there will always be a cultural standard for beauty), in the near future, that standard will be reserved for a minority of people. Most of us will be used to seeing people like ourselves – not “other” at all – everywhere in the media. It’s one of my biggest hopes.

  25. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this! Such a beautiful idea, a beautiful project! I feel so strongly about this issue- about body image issues. The pressure we put on ourselves, and that society (pop culture) puts on us is enormous and so unnecessary. Same is boring. Different and interesting is the most beautiful part of every person.

    I recently realized that there are almost no pictures of me with my kids or my husband. And it’s all my doing. Because I don’t want to be in the pictures, I don’t want to see an unflattering angle and beat myself up over it. And I actually think I’m a fairly confident person! Especially as I creep into my early 40’s, I have begun picking myself apart, much like I did in my awkward teenage years. It’s embarrassing to admit that, but it’s the truth! The time and energy wasted on trying to be something we’ll never be, or to look a certain way… it’s just crazy! I’m rambling now, but I wanted to let you know that I would love to see more of this kind of thing. I found this via Beth’s blog and I’m so glad she re-blogged it!

    • I cannot tell you how incandescently happy it makes me every time someone stumbles across this post. It’s one of those conversations that’s been had over and over, but talking about it is still so important! One of my models said almost exactly what you did – she didn’t want to have bad photos, so she always snuck out of them, and now she has no record of what she’s been doing the last few years. Don’t hide… I bet we agree that we’d rather be present and imperfect than a ghost.

      • Absolutely. I embrace other people’s imperfections and usually find those features and characteristics their most attractive and interesting. Not sure why we’re always hardest on ourselves. Recently I started taking selfies (usually with my kids) or handing the camera to my husband and forcing myself to be in the pictures. I definitely don’t want to be a ghost and I want to show my kids that Mom was there and having fun without a care in the world. I’ll fake it ’til I make it! I wonder if we could build on your campaign? Try to do this in different towns and cities and get it out there more? Not that I want to “steal” your idea, just want to help it grow and expand…

        • Yes, yes, yes! I begged people to re-create it when it went live, and would be so willing to share the few tips I picked up doing our shoot! I am building up courage to submit it to a much bigger website… if that pans out, who knows what could come of it? But say… do you want to try something along these lines? Either where you are or virtually?

          • I would be totally open to trying it here. (I’m in Charlotte) I know a few photographers I may be able to convince to donate time… I’m sure I can figure out a space, etc. And you can fill me in on the particulars of how you did it. I think if we got some other bloggers to sponsor it in their towns and you could post it here? As well as our own blogs? Just thinking out loud…

    • Thank you! That’s exactly what I love about it, too. And many of the models started off very tentative and nervous… but they got more and more comfortable and by the end of the shoot, they were really inhabiting their bodies, if that makes any sense. 🙂

  26. This is Brilliance, Jennie! How can we spread the word? Body image is such a struggle for so many people. I love what you’ve done here. I knew you were cool. How did I get so lucky to be in your circle?

    • I feel exactly the same way about being in your circle. GOD I love the SWs!

      So yes – I’m recommitted to submitting this to bigger websites, and hopefully if that happens, others will repeat the project. If you have any desire to do something like this, let me know! And otherwise, IN TERMS OF SPREADING THE MESSAGE GENERALLY, I just share every body-positive article/image/Tweet I come across, because one thing this project reinforced for me was how we can never hear this message enough, and we can do so much more with our time and energy when we don’t spend it mooning over idealized images of beauty. You, with your yoga pants and ponytail, have it GOING ON!

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