What is a Miami Girl?

When artist and photographer Ekaterina Juskowski chose Miami for a sociology project in 2013, she was struck by a recurring theme in her conversations with women here:

None of them wanted to identify as “Miami girls.”

“Ten of 10 women said, ‘I’m not a Miami girl and a Miami girl is something negative,” she recalled.

“Many industries use a hypersexualized image to advertise certain services and lifestyles. This image promoted in the media becomes the image of the city. Women who live here refuse to identify with the city.”

It’s no surprise why. A quick Google image search of “Miami Girl” sends a parade of women clad in bikinis (or less) across the screen. Then there are the gifs:

But that didn’t at all fit the image Juskowski was forming in her head based on the women she met. So a couple months ago she decided to help Miami women reclaim the title with the Miami Girls Foundation.

And in March, in honor of women’s history month, she gathered 30 female leaders in politics, art, civil rights, tech, business, and everything in between and profiled them.

“My job is to bring all those women to light, to let them meet each other and let them decide who a Miami girl is,” Juskowski said.

“Every time you say, ‘I’m not a Miami girl’ or ‘I’m just here temporarily… it really backfires on you. You’re trying to exclude yourself from the community where you live.”

What does she want instead? She wants girls to get off the plane and declare “I’m a Miami girl” the same way they do on Day One of their New York City lives. She wants them to say, “This is my city and I define this city, not vice versa.”

To help get a conversation going, we spoke to a few of the women from Juskowski’s campaign about what they think a Miami girl is — and what it’s becoming.

Editor’s note: Some of these interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.

Ruth Shack

Shack was a three-term Miami-Dade County commissioner as well as a leader of the Miami Foundation. She championed the county’s first ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation in the 1970s.

On why Miami has the reputation it has: 

Miami has always been identified by external forces. When my husband and I came to Miami for our honeymoon, we honeymooned the first week and found jobs the second. Everyone up north wanted to know what hotel we lived in.

Any time a publicist wanted to advertise Miami to the business world they would put a girl in a  bathing suit and stand her out on the beach.

When I was on the Commission the county wanted to mount a campaign to the business community inviting them into Miami and South Florida to do business and what did they do? They came up with a concept of “Miami, see it like a native.” The poster and the advertising had the back of a girl in a bikini bottom. How bizarre was that?”

There’s always been a conflict about what a Miami girl was.

On how things have changed in Miami for women:

I started my career as the only woman in the room, most every room that I walked into. That thank heavens no longer exists. Women are dominant, women are participating, women are clever and they are changing the way we do business in Miami.

On Miami’s future:

I am in love with Miami and I’m excited. People ask me, “What is your favorite time?” and I say, “The next 10 years.” We are different every 10 years. I’ve been there for six of them.”

Mikhaile Solomon

Solomon is the director of Prizm Art Fair, which promotes the work of artists of color with an exhibit during Art Basel and smaller programs year-round.

On what comes to mind when you say “Miami girl”:

When I say I’m from Miami, the response is really that they don’t quite understand, because I don’t seem to purport myself in a way that people typically understand of the people who are from Miami, which is unfortunate. I don’t quite understand where the discord is coming from.

On where the stereotypes come from:

I do understand where the stereotypes come from. And I don’t think this is something specific to Miami, but I think in general people’s priorities are usually more entertainment focused, they’re more interested in pop culture.

What people like myself, what we’re interested in, those things aren’t applauded in the same way… as people in the entertainment industry are applauded.

Unfortunately, culturally, societally, that is not as venerated as say the things that kind of make Miami: [sexiness], the beach and the bathing suit culture, the club culture.

On the change that’s happening:

It’s unfortunate that the stigma does exist, but I think locally we’re doing a good job changing what that narrative is. Miami is very quickly becoming a place where interesting conversations are being generated.

Women are really stepping into their power and taking the bull by the horn and deciding they don’t want their success to be defined by working for someone else anymore.

On why she left and why she came back:

I went [away] to school because I felt that Miami was a culturally vapid place.  When I went to school and I got a lot more insight and really studied what the culture was, it made me see Miami differently.

I love the potential that it has and what keeps me here is that I can actually be a part of what it becomes and help to change things such that it’s a reflection of what I want to see in a community.

Jonel Edwards

Edwards is a lead organizer with Dream Defenders, a Miami-based community organizing movement led by young activists.

On what people think of when they hear “Miami”:

For a lot of folks, it’s fun, diverse, South Beach. Miami is South Beach.

On why things like this Miami Girls campaign are needed:

I work for a movement organization and throughout history, women are never highlighted for the work they do. It’s usually the men you know and you hear about.

For some reason women are often erased from the picture, so I think it’s important to show them as often as possible.

On what a Miami girl is:

A Miami girl isn’t just one cookie cutter image. A Miami Girl is diverse, powerful, and committed to being a part of the community, shifting their community, and growing their community.

Christina Mas

Mas is a commercial associate at Colliers International and the founding chair of the Underline Young Professionals Group.

On the Miami girl stereotype:

I understand why women don’t want to be associated with Miami because a lot of time there’s the stereotype that they’re materialistic and into themselves, there’s that plastic kind of fake. But we give stereotypes power. I think a lot of what Katya [Juskowski’s] talking about is to stop giving those stereotypes power.

On one of her first times feeling like a Miami girl:

I remember going to a bar one night at college in New Orleans with my roommate, who was also from Miami. We’re in skirts and heels and she and I walk into this bar and all these girls were in flip flops and jean shorts and everyone was like “That’s so Miami” to us.  I didn’t understand how that is “so Miami.” We were just dressed up! That’s the equivalent of going out in rollers in my country. Go put some heels on! What are you doing?

On taking up the challenge to redefine the Miami girl:

Living somewhere is a choice. If you’re going to choose to live here, embrace it. We’re in the middle of the renaissance and you get to be a part of it.

I’m probably the proudest Miamian ever. I drink the Kool-Aid, I serve the Kool-Aid, I make gummy bears from the Kool-Aid. I get it, there’s stereotypes everywhere, but we perpetuate the stereotype. We need to say to people, “I’m a girl from Miami, but I don’t go to the club and try to pop bottles every night.”

We need to see our differences as strengths, you know? Play up the things other places don’t have. I’m literally driving on the Venetian Causeway right now with water on the left and water on the right.