In New York. All photos taken by Sara Melotti.

SARA MELOTTI, A NEW YORK-based Italian photographer, had started noticing something disturbing. Her model friends were constantly criticizing their own appearances. And she started to realize that she was complicit. “With the kind of work I was producing, I was contributing to set very unrealistic beauty standards that made my friends, myself and countless other women suffer,” Melotti said. “Emotionally, psychologically and sometime even physically — coming from a background in the dance world I witnessed battles with eating disorders first hand.”

Feeling guilty, Melotti decided that she should start using her talents as a photographer for the greater good. So she began traveling around the world to photograph women and challenge our standards of beauty.

In Agadir, Morocco

“I think the world — especially the western one — forgot what beauty really is,” Melotti said. She’d seen how the sausage gets made for what we in the west see as “beautiful.” “It takes hours of work,” Melotti said, “a model with physical traits that belong to below 2% of the population, a whole team of professionals and tons of photoshop and post-production to achieve the look we see in those images.”

Silvia in Monno, Italy

Her project, which she calls “Quest for Beauty,” will eventually take her to at least 20 countries over every continent. So far, she has been to ten.

Clara and Liliana in Trinidad, Cuba.

She asks everyone she photographs five questions: 1. What is Beauty? 2.What’s the most beautiful thing in the world to you? 3. What makes a woman beautiful? 4. What makes a woman unbeautiful? 5. Do you feel beautiful?

Marine in Paris.

The answers are as diverse as the women. Audrey, in Paris, said, “I don’t think there are women less beautiful than others or that there’s something that makes them unbeautiful; I think that beauty should be subjective and that every woman is beautiful for someone somewhere around the world. It’s all about personal taste.”

Angioletta in Monno, Italy

Emily in New York said that the only thing that makes a woman un-beautiful is “Falsity. Trying to fit in a mold of what others want/tell you to be.”

In Ethiopia

Caitriona, a surfer in Ireland, said a woman is beautiful “When she is happy or confident or doing something they love.”

In Hanoi, Vietnam

Katie in Hong Kong, when asked if she thought she was beautiful, said, “Yes, because it’s easy for me to feel content. I have my beloved people (family including my cat, boyfriend and friends), a healthy body, a job that i love, I think I am a useful person with a beautiful heart, therefore I’m beautiful!”

Jamila in Marrakech, Morocco

To “Do you feel beautiful?” Giulia in Kinslae, Ireland, said, “Let’s say I really like my ugliness.”

Bian in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Ilse in Mexico had maybe the best definition of beauty: “Beauty is something you can see and you don’t want to stop seeing.”

Marika in Monno, Italy

Ashley in New York said what makes a woman un-beautiful is “Being a poser.”

Lourdes in Havana, Cuba.

Leila in Marrakech said, “I think like every girl that there are days better than others. Somedays I feel beautiful and somedays I feel ugly? The clothes give you confidence. You feel good when you look good.”

Bai in Hong Kong

When Nastasia in New York was asked if she felt beautiful, she said, “I do. There are days when I don’t, just like everyone else but I remind myself of all the things that I should be grateful for and that helps me gain perspective. I had major back surgery when I was 12 resulting in a giant scar and protrusion on the left side of my back. I used to hate it and felt hideous. It still bothers me sometimes but I’ve learned to embrace it for the most part. I look at it as a symbol of resilience and strength. I’ve endured pain but I’ve also overcome it.”

Audrey and Cecile in Paris.

When asked what the most beautiful thing in the world to her is, Yoanna in Trinidad, Cuba, said, “My children.”

Katie in Hong Kong

To “What makes a woman unbeautiful?” Elena in Paris said, “Women are constantly bombarded by messages that tell us we are not enough just as we are. That we need to buy a plethora of products – or even resort to surgery – to make ourselves more beautiful. We are often our own toughest critics. In addition to this, especially when it comes to celebrity culture, it’s very common to tear women down publicly, pointing out perceived flaws (“look at the cellulite on X celebrity” or “Y looks so ugly without makeup”). This practice has to stop. Men’s bodies are not the subject of such close scrutiny; they live their lives without carrying this big weight on their shoulders. Because of this, I would never ever dare tell a woman that she is not beautiful. Throughout her life, she has already faced so much scrutiny and criticism. But if we were to go below the surface and judge inner beauty, I think that envy, jealousy and bitterness are incredibly unattractive qualities.”

Catrina in Garrettstown, Ireland.

Ruthie in New York said, “I don’t know that anyone is unbeautiful. I don’t love when girls are mean to each other or put other women down, that makes my heart hurt when I see that.”

Patricia and Evelin in Cobh, Ireland.

Nishan in Ethiopia said what makes a woman unbeautiful is, “Bad health and rage.”

Ily in Izamal, Mexico

Helen in Paris said, “Beauty depends on the soul and exposure to life. I was lucky ’cause I was born in a poor family, my father spent 10 years as a prisoner in Germany, and the women in my family grew strong. My mother was a miracle! That’s beauty.”

Emily in New York

Sara’s project is ongoing, but she has been to Italy, Morocco, the US, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Mexico, Cuba, France, Ethiopia, and Ireland so far.

Celeste in Montmartre, Paris.

She says, “Our uniqueness is, in my opinion, the best asset we have and there’s nothing more beautiful than being our beautifully unique selves!”

Chaima and Khadija in Agadir, Morocco

Sara chafes at questions about the technical side of her work — she believes that the focus should instead be on the subject.

In Ethiopia

She writes on her blog, “When I roam the streets of a new city (or village) i spend time talking to people before I even take out the camera, I try to make a connection first and when it comes time to click I forget any technicality because when I want to create something true and honest I think and shoot with my heart.”

Bego in Oxkutzzab, Mexico

“Looking at a portrait we should ask ourselves so many more questions… “Who’s the person in the picture?” “Where is she from?” “Where is she going?” “Is she happy?” “What’s her story?”.

You can see more of her photos at her page, Quest for Beauty. Her project is totally self-funded, so if you like what she’s doing, you can donate to her there, too.

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