We spend an awful lot of time thinking about our bodies. We fret if our boobs are too small or our thighs are too large. We notice whether our eyes are evenly spaced apart or whether our second toe is longer than the first. We've assigned fruits to describe our curves (or lack thereof).
So is it any wonder many of us are taken aback at how our bodies look after giving birth? Sure, we hear about stretch marks and sagging skin, and yes, some mothers have posted shots of their honest-to-goodness, #nofilter postpartum bods. But the reality we're sold tells a different story. Every day, we're inundated with photos of yet another famous mama flashing toned abs six weeks after giving birth. We can't even shop for milk or razors without headlines gushing about stars who have "bounced back after baby" thanks to a few Pilates classes and some kale salads.
The subtext here is that a postpartum body is best kept hidden under cleverly placed wraps and smart blazers until we mamas can emerge as the same person we were before baby made three. That's not only unattainable, it's also dead wrong.
Motherhood—however you fall into the job—changes every last part of you, and nowhere is that more apparent than in our bodies. Rather than zeroing in on a few sags and stripes, we should be celebrating the amazing things our bodies are capable of. And perhaps no one is a bigger believer of that than Ashlee Wells Jackson.
After a difficult second pregnancy, which resulted in an emergency C-section and the loss of one of her twins, the Chicago-based photographer decided to turn the lens on herself and, eventually, other moms. "I needed to learn to look at myself, my story, my scars in a different light," she explains on her site, "and I needed to offer the same lens to women everywhere."
It wasn't long before those very first portraits, including Jackson's own, went viral and helped launch a movement, The 4th Trimester Body Project, which encourages mothers to embrace and celebrate themselves. "Rather than erasing scars, stretch marks, and skin that sits differently, we chose to show how beautiful those markers of experience are," she told Parents.com.
Support has snowballed into a cross-country tour, where Jackson recently photographed her 1,000th mom (see above), and a brand-new book, The 4th Trimester Bodies Project: Celebrating the Uncensored Beauty of Motherhood. It reads like a love letter to all mothers. We see moms of all ages snuggling with their kids. We read about their experiences with pregnancy and parenting. We see and identify with their beautiful post-baby bodies.
Which is the very point, Jackson says. "We seek to provide a safe and supportive space for women to share their stories in a vulnerable way that builds community and normalizes our experiences," she says of her work. "Visually, society needs to see beautiful depictions of bodies of all shapes, sizes, and experiences without them being Photoshopped into an unrealistic version of who we are and what we're 'supposed to be.' If we've helped one woman to love herself, then we've succeeded."
But Jackson is hardly content to publish a book and call it a day. A couple of years ago, she began the "Stop Censoring Motherhood" petition, aimed squarely at the heads of Facebook and Instagram, which consistently yanked down Jackson's images as well as photos showing women breastfeeding. Facebook has since clarified its policy to allow nursing selfies. It's a good start, but Jackson says more needs to be done. "We will occasionally have an image pulled, but it happens much less now," she says. "I think this all speaks to the need to educate and normalize these very normal chapters of our lives. We can only spread support and awareness by seeing these things, and this strongly applies to the acceptance of breastfeeding and body image."
Jackson is also committed to continuing work with The 4th Trimester Bodies Project. She and her team will tour through the end of 2016 and book more speaking engagements and conferences. She also plans to publish at least two more books. Ultimately, Jackson says she hopes her work becomes "a requisite reference guide of sorts for new moms navigating motherhood, to know that they are not alone and that humans in general can truly begin to embrace the beauty that is acceptance and self love."
Here, some of my favorite photos from the book:
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