Despite what many celeb moms would have you believe, pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding can change the way your body looks. That's why Chicago-based photographer Ashlee Wells Jackson launched the 4th Trimester Bodies Project, in which she photographs new moms in order to help them accept and celebrate those changes.
What started as a small idea has taken off—by 2016, she will have photographed thousands of women worldwide. We caught up with Jackson to learn more about the project and what she hopes women will gain from it.
AWJ: I work as a professional photographer at Windy City Pin Up. I realized that every woman who came to shoot for us, no matter how stunningly gorgeous, fit, and healthy she was, no matter whether she was a mom or not, would pick herself apart. For a long time, I couldn't understand it...
AWJ: I had my kids. Eight years ago, I became pregnant with my first child. I had planned a home birth, but I went into labor unexpectedly at 28 weeks. I had an unmedicated vaginal birth at the hospital. He spent 46 days in the NICU. After his birth, I felt awesome physically, but experienced a lot of trauma and grief. Fast-forward six years, and I was pregnant again—this time with identical twin girls. However, they had a condition called Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome, and we lost one of the girls. I went into labor at 24 weeks and had an emergency C-section. One daughter was stillborn, and the other daughter spent 100 days in the NICU and had to have brain surgery for hydrocephalus.
I had stretch marks, and my C-section had to be revised due to an infection. All of a sudden, I wasn't that confident, strong woman anymore. I felt critical of myself in the shower, and I realized that I identified with all of those women.
The 4th Trimester Bodies Project was born out of that—the realization that I'd never seen another woman's cesarean scar even though I knew others had them. So few friends talked about pregnancy losses even though they had had them. I made it my new mission in life to tackle these things.
AWJ: My biggest fear is that women see what's on a magazine and feel like they don't measure up, or think they're less worthy, less valuable, or that something's wrong with them. Everyone's journey through pregnancy and birth is different. We all have a different set of genetics. It's time we start celebrating every set of circumstances, instead of a preconceived notion that we're shamed for not achieving a certain image.
AWJ: Every woman is nervous. No one wants to jump in front of the camera and take it all off! We start with a short interview, which allows women to tell their stories. Oftentimes, it's the first time a woman has shared her birth story. They feel heard. Then, we take the photos. They get undressed and it's a very quick process—only about five minutes. We sit down at a computer and go through the images. The women are able to decide on the final image. Seeing themselves through my lens and my eye often leads to tears or giggles. Women often say that the woman they're looking at in the photos is very different from the woman they have in their head. The word 'transformative' runs through and through.
AWJ: Take a step back, and look at what your body has been through. You made a new human! Be patient with yourself and most importantly celebrate what you've been through. You're not the person you were before, you're someone totally new.