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The Alternative Limb Project: The Importance Of Agency In Aesthetic Designs For Amputees

Often, when one mentions the word “prosthetics” in reference to mainstream media, what might come to mind are crude, antiquated designs, akin to Captain Hook’s hook or the pirate “peg-leg.”

However, Sophie Oliveira Barata is a specialist consultant and founder of the Alternative Limb Project, which is an enterprise focused on designing and producing artificial limbs for amputees by utilizing cutting-edge technology such as 3-D printing/modeling and electronics. The Alternative Limb Project creates prosthetics ranging from a variety of styles, from humanoid to sci-fi.

Within mainstream media, there are often limited and inauthentic portrayals of the disabled community. Those with disabilities are portrayed as the substance of tragedy.

Oftentimes, media tends to showcase disabled individuals as the subject of pity and suffering, such as the film “Me Before You.”

Regarding this film, many disabled critics pointed out the damaging tropes and messages in the film that suggest life as a disabled person is not worth living. This equates a disabled person’s life as less valuable, less vibrant than a non-disabled person’s life. However, nowadays, more disabled celebrities are challenging these stereotypes, defining their own image within the public realm.

For instance, Viktoria Modesta, singer, song-writer, alternative beauty model, and one of the Alternative Limb Project’s most famous clients, in her famous music video, “Prototype”, opens with the line, “Forget what you knew about disability,” finishing with her iconic black spike leg in a dark aerial-like ballet.

Originally, Modesta’s life had been defined by a lack of choice, undergoing at least fifteen surgeries for her leg, which had been affected by an accident caused by a doctor’s negligence at birth, before having to fight physicians for five years to agree to her decision for a voluntary below-the-knee amputation.

For Modesta, the limbs she uses, designed in collaboration with Barata, serve as extensions of her unique artistic image. This includes a prosthetic leg, made with Swarovski crystals, she performed with at the 2012 London Paralympic Games.

In regards to her unusual aesthetic, Modesta saw her prosthetics as an artistic opportunity, quoting on the Alternative Limb Project site,

“My natural curiosity and strong belief is that it’s important to take control of your own body and most importantly improve it or reflect your personality through altered body image.”

For the innovative designer herself, Barata saw the importance of allowing her clients to choose their aesthetics in order to provide them with a sense of self-determination and agency. In a 2015 TEDMED talk, Barata discussed how patients for whom she created realistic-looking limbs were given a sense of “self-confidence, body balance, and most importantly, control.”

Barata also mentioned how not every patient desired that same realistic design. Some preferred designs that were more personalized to their specific tastes and interests.

As quoted on her website,

“Working with amputees, I realized how important it was to produce a bespoke limb; creating a hyper-realistic limb wasn’t just about looking real but also being unique, just as bodies are unique.

With the Alternative Limb Project, I wanted to take this idea to the next level and look at how we could design limbs as an expression and as an exploration into the re-imagining of the body.”

For each client, Barata’s process involves individual consultations, including colors and style, measuring, check-fitting, and sculpting desired ideas into reality.

Within our society, there are often stigmatized notions surrounding disability. There are limited perceptions of what members of the disabled community can and cannot do, how they should act, and what they look like.

For individuals like Viktoria Modesta, a powerful performer who has refused to cater to society’s expectations for people with disabilities, her incredibly designed prosthetic only serves to create part of her unique artistic image.

Platforms like the Alternative Limb Project help provide freedom of self-determination to amputees. This helps to affirm the autonomy and agency of those whom society often fails to recognize or respect. It also acts as a brilliant fusion between art and scientific innovation, as well as part of an empowering movement for body diversity and expression.

By: Michele Kirichanskaya

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