Body ImageHealth and BodyOn The PulseWomen of Color

What is Real Beauty? Photographer Jodi Bieber shares her vision.

By November 23, 2009 7 Comments
"Michele" by Jodi Bieber

"Michele" by Jodi Bieber

What words have we been programmed to use when defining beauty? How about flawless, skinny, model, glamorous, celebrity, or perfection? How about painful? Well, I’m rebelling.

I have a word I would like to include my in my definition of beauty; that word is “real”. “Real” as in something we all possess. “Real” as in every woman in her own uniqueness. “Real” as in the stunning photographs by acclaimed South African photographer Jodi Bieber.


Real Beauty depicts women who live in and near Bieber’s South African community. According to Bieber’s website, she encouraged all of the women she photographed to explore their own personalities and fantasies for their shots.

"Caroline" by Jodi Bieber

"Caroline" by Jodi Bieber

The photos are intimate. In some instances, they are so unflinching and personal that they are hard to look at. I felt like a voyeur, yet I wanted to keep looking.

The women in the photographs are proud and dignified. They are black and white and fat and thin. Some of the women are clothed, some are not. Some of them are sensual and some are very matter of fact. Each of them is very real and beautiful.

I dare you not to find at least one that doesn’t make you think “that reminds me of me.”

Bieber’s award-winning Real Beauty collection is an extension of the Dove advertising campaign depicting ordinary women in their underwear advocating real beauty. Bieber’s photos also came out of the reality of an increase in the number of black anorexic women in South Africa. This new trend has western body shapes being more desirable even in cultures that have historically celebrated a more full-figured shape.

"Brenda" by Jodi Bieber

"Brenda" by Jodi Bieber

On her web site, Bieber says that while thin women can often be seen as more desirable, in some communities thin and tall women are perceived as being sick (HIV) while full figured women are seen as more healthy. I imagine that in an impoverished nation, being fuller-figured is also a sign of prosperity, as you are obviously eating. It shows that you have a better chance at survival.

Ironically, in the United States we have an over-abundance of everything, yet we are expected to deprive and starve ourselves in order to fit unrealistic body and beauty expectations.

"Tami" by Jodi Bieber

"Tami" by Jodi Bieber

In western culture, beauty is generally held up as an unachievable gold standard—and darn it if we don’t enjoy a good challenge! We pluck, shave, laser, dye, cut, diet, paint, exercise, liposuction, nip and tuck our bodies to fit someone else’s ideal of what we are supposed to look like. And yet, only a select few are ultimately celebrated for having what is deemed perfect skin, perfect hair, and the perfect body.

Look at the photographs Jodi Bieber has gifted to the world and ask yourself “what words would I use to describe beauty?” I like these: dignified, stylish, confident, serene, inclusive, unique, healthy, me, you. Real.

–Jodie

Jodie Maruska is a freelance writer, public speaker and stand-up comic based in Minneapolis. Her popular talk “Belly Laughs” effectively combines humor with the powerful message of body acceptance as Jodie shares her experience and observations of the complicated relationship we have with our bodies. She is a regular contributor to the Minnesota Women’s Press and was a recent finalist in the Flash Fiction competition for MNArtists.org.