Rachelle Friedman Chapman remembers being bullied throughout much of high school.
“I was not part of the in crowd,” she tells PEOPLE.
Chapman got over her insecurities by the time she went to college, but she admits all the old feelings resurfaced a few years later when she became known across the nation as “the paralyzed bride.”
The 29-year-old was paralyzed from the chest down after a friend playfully pushed her in the pool at her bachelorette party in May 2010.
The story garnered widespread attention and a slew of hurtful comments, Friedman Chapman says.
“All of a sudden I realized there were people who viewed me as un-dateable,” she says, “and you start to look at yourself and say, ‘I don’t like this about me, I don’t like that about me.’ ”
So earlier this month, the new mom of 2-month-old Kaylee – who married the man she was engaged to at the time of her accident – stripped down for a photo shoot. The pictures are for a social media campaign launching Monday to prove to herself – and every one else – that paralyzed people can be sexy too.
“The big thing that I am self-conscious about is the catheter I have to wear all the time,” she says. “I have to accept it, and I wanted to show people that just because you have this, just own it. It doesn’t have to be the focus of what you are, what you look like.
“This was the first summer I put on a bikini since the accident,” she says, “and I want people to know you don’t have to hide; you can still be sexy.”
The catheter is visible in all the photos, and her husband Chris, 32, and daughter (born via surrogate) were with her as she shopped at Victoria’s Secret for the lingerie she wears in the provocative pictures.
Her figure is enviable, and Friedman Chapman admits she’s lucky.
She doesn’t stick to a strict diet and rarely hits the gym. But she points out that tasks that most people take for granted, like getting dressed or moving in and out of bed, really get her heart rate up.
She also plays wheelchair rugby.
She is using the photos in a social media campaign on her Facebook page and elsewhere to get people thinking and talking.
“I’m hoping it will inspire others to just focus on the things they love about themselves and not be so critical,” she says. “I’m encouraging everyone to get on social media and mention something they love about themselves with the hashtag #WhatMakesMeSexy.
“It doesn’t necessarily even have to be physical,” she says. “A sense of humor, courage, confidence, determination are all things I’d consider sexy as well.”
Photographed at Revolution Studios in Cary, North Carolina, last week, she does not have her wheelchair in the pictures – and that’s intentional.
“I think sometimes people see a wheelchair and there’s a perception that someone is not attractive,” she says. “I really think if people would look past the wheels, they would see someone who is attractive.”
“I don’t want to hide anymore,” she adds. “I want to put a different face to disability.”
She’s hoping the message will resonate with all women.
“We all have flaws,” she says. “We all have things going for us, and for the first time I’m not hiding my catheter. I’m not hiding anymore.”