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Tammy Swift, Published November 14 2009

Book dedicated to North Dakota women who exemplify true beauty

When Sandra Leyland received the letter in the mail¸ she nearly threw it away.

The correspondence said she had been chosen as one of the beautiful women of North Dakota. Leyland, director of Fraser Ltd. in Fargo, is an attractive, fit 54-year-old, but she didn’t believe she exemplified the West’s idealized image of a teenage supermodel. She thought someone was pulling her leg.

But upon closer examination Leyland realized she’d been nominated by a respected attorney/friend. Maybe, she thought, this is legitimate. So Leyland contacted Billy Black, who was listed as spearheading the project. And she learned it was no hoax. She was indeed one of 22 exceptional women chosen by Black and his wife, Chris Linnares, to be featured in an upcoming book project.

That book, “Beautiful Women of North Dakota,” will be showcased in a book release/art exhibition Nov. 21 at the Rourke Art Museum in Moorhead. The free event is already booked to capacity.

For Linnares and Black, the occasion will mark a yearlong effort to find women throughout North Dakota who characterize “true beauty,” whether that was by advocating for people with special needs (like Leyland does), serving one’s country in wartime, creating a strong voice for a minority population, or building a loving home for one’s family.

Black, who is a development director for The Forum and Forum Communications, says he first considered the project while raising two young daughters.

“I saw the influences the media has on girls specifically, and I kept thinking what are all these messages saying to our kids? There are wonderful people out there who aren’t being recognized, who aren’t in Vogue magazine and in the newspaper every day but just doing those everyday things that are truly changing the world and making the world a better place.”

Linnares, an author and psychotherapist, says the book is a first step toward a nationwide effort to redefine our narrow perception of beauty. She hopes “Beautiful Women” books and media will someday be part of classroom curriculums, to show girls the importance of inner beauty. And she envisions the day when every state has its own “Beautiful Women” book.

“We don’t want to criticize what is beautiful physically,” Linnares says. “Giselle, she is beautiful, but your grandma, she is beautiful, too. Your neighbor who is raising money to build an orphanage, she is beautiful, too.”

The coffee-table book includes black-and-white portraits of the women by Black, a photographer and filmmaker, as well as lyrical biographical essays by Linnares. Footage from the project will also be captured in a documentary, slated for release next year.

A statewide journey

The journey by Black and Linnares started about a year ago. The couple placed ads in newspapers across the state asking people to nominate women who helped make the world a more beautiful place.

They were surprised by the response of more than 150 nominations. So they recruited a panel of women to help them choose 28 women from the stack of submissions.

Last spring the couple hit the road with their three daughters, Isabelle, 14, Zoe, 12, and Luiza, 3½, and Black’s parents, Forum Communications CEO Bill and Jane Marcil. The family drove a motorhome across the state to interview and photograph the chosen few.

The process, they say, was as fulfilling to them as it was to the women they honored. Linnares says she cried during nearly every interview as she heard stories of courage and hope.

For instance, the Brazilian-born Linnares had always wondered why North Dakotans were so helpful and friendly. Then she met Tama Smith, a potter from Beach, N.D., who explained the state’s humanity with an eloquence that no university researcher could match.

The potter told them: “Here we don’t have a lot of human beings together. You know the value of a human being when your car is stuck in the snow and someone is walking by and reaches out their hand to help you. Then you truly know the value of having another human being.”

It was just one of many anecdotes and inspiring stories they gathered. They met women like Christine Finneman, an 83-year-old mother, wife and grandmother from Golva, N.D. (population 85), who has made quilts for almost every person born in her hometown since she was a teenager.

And then there was Rachel Bremer, a 25-year-old from Finley, N.D., who must use crutches or a wheelchair because she was born with Osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disease characterized by extremely fragile bones. Undaunted, Bremer volunteers with the Mujeres Unidas organization Women United in Fargo, and spent a year in Spain as a North American language and cultural assistant.

When asked what inspired Bremer to help others, the young woman answered that she believed in herself so strongly that nothing could stop her. Her response touched the couple profoundly.

“I think she taught me in this interview that the worst disability we can have in life is not believing in ourselves,” Linnares says. “The rest we can overcome.”

Lessons learned

Other women taught them the importance of giving and devotion.

When one of their subjects encouraged Linnares to make her husband happy by baking for him, the true message of the older woman’s words – that it’s important to make your loved ones feel appreciated – hit home.

“Here I am studying about happiness and positive psychology and this woman in the middle of nowhere on a little farm is so much more complete and happy and connected with family than me,” Linnares says, shaking her head. “I was like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ ”

Susie Ekberg Risher, a Fargo writer and reiki expert, was another woman featured in the book.

“It’s such a worthy project,” says Ekberg Risher. “Especially in this culture, where there’s so much focus on beauty, yet we make it fake and unobtainable. From a very young age, girls are hit with this ideal that they can’t live up to that. But we can change that. Not by railing against it, but by exemplifying what true beauty is.”

To ensure the book’s featured women can feel as special as others see them, the couple has arranged a special event for next Saturday’s book premiere. All the women featured will be treated like stars, complete with complimentary hair and makeup sessions, limo rides, media coverage and even a walk along a red carpet.

“I want my three daughters to watch and the news and see why those women are there,” Linnares says. “The answer is going to be because she makes the world a beautiful place.”