Earlier this month, I found my social media feeds flooded with the same photo of a pretty girl in a bikini.
No, it wasn’t Kim Kardashian (for once). It wasn’t even one of her sisters.
Instead, it was an image from photographer Ian Ross Pettigrew’s “Salty Girls” project. The series features more than 50 women posing proudly, many in bikinis or lingerie. These women are different shapes, sizes, and ages, united by what makes them “salty”: they are all living with cystic fibrosis (or CF).
“I just thought, well, it’s time for a model with CF! I know what these women go through on a daily basis; every day it’s a struggle living with CF,” said Pettigrew of the project on his website.
His photos have made it way further than just my newsfeed, with the series going viral worldwide. It has received such a positive reception that Pettigrew now plans to release a book of the images this summer.
Pettigrew himself is one of the 30,000 people in the United States living with this life-threatening genetic disease. Cystic fibrosis affects how cells produce mucus, sweat, and digestive juices, impacting the function of the lungs and digestive system. Those with CF often have a higher than average level of salt in their sweat, hence the “salty girls” title.
Since more than 75% of those with CF are diagnosed before the age of two, Pettigrew understands that many children with the disease will grow up struggling with their condition and its physical effects. By showing grown, beautiful women flaunting their bodies, many with surgical scars, Pettigrew hopes to empower these children.
“These women are inspirational and fearless, and we want to show hope for those younger CFers,” explained Pettigrew.
Grace Rose Bauer is one of those “young CFers.” Now in sixth grade, she was diagnosed with the disease as an infant. But as she’s grown, she’s taking her life experiences and turning them into something beautiful.
“It takes up a lot of time that you could be playing with your friends or doing other fun stuff. You have to take a lot of pills each day, and do hour-long treatments. It’s also heavy stuff to travel with, and I can’t really talk to my friends about it, because they can’t relate,” says Grace Rose. Still, she is quick to assure you that the disease does not get in her way: “To be honest, I don’t spend much time thinking about what I can’t do!”
And it really doesn’t seem like there is much Grace Rose can’t do. With the help of her parents, she holds yearly fundraising events for CF and has even launched her own children’s fashion line, Rosie G.
“I’m inspired by my disease,” she explains. “The prints I designed help me explain it through my clothes. All the prints have meaning.”
Grace Rose says she wants girls wearing her designs to feel “comfortable, stylish, and helpful.” The “helpful” comes from knowing that their outfit is making a difference: proceeds from all Rosie G. sales go back to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
The young designer has high aspirations for her line and her future, which include seeing strangers on the street wearing her designs and having her looks featured on the runway at New York Fashion Week. Her ultimate goal is the loftiest of all—finding a cure for cystic fibrosis.
While doctors have made major strides in the care of patients with cystic fibrosis and extended the average life span by decades, there is still much work left to be done in terms of finding a cure. And, each year, about 1,000 new cases of CF are diagnosed in the U.S. alone. CF is, as of yet, incurable—and early detection is critical for proper treatment, which is what makes awareness campaigns so useful in this case.
That’s why it’s so important that people like Ian Ross Pettigrew and Grace Rose Bauer are finding innovative ways to raise awareness of CF and gather funds for research. With May being National Cystic Fibrosis Awareness month, there couldn’t be a better time to support their cause!
Colleen Hagerty is a freelance multimedia journalist. She has spanned the globe with her camera in hand to share unknown, interesting, and inspiring stories. Some of her recent segments have taken her from Thailand, where she spent a night on an uninhabited island, to Australia, where she covered a rare disease affecting Tasmanian Devils. She started her career at NY1, reporting on major stories including Hurricane Sandy and local elections. You can follow her on Twitter @colleenhagerty.