The Postpartum Body Image Project: Part 1

I’ll be honest – it’s taken me quite a while to figure out exactly how to share/write about this project. The topic of body image (especially in how it interplays with the whole process of making and having babies) resonates deeply with me, while also bringing up all sorts of parts of myself and our culture that I feel I’m only just beginning to understand, let alone be able to explain. But I have learned SO much this year – especially from this project! – and I think, finally, I’m ready to share some of that with all of you.

My Why

Maybe it was the way I heard the women in my life talk about their bodies, or just media, or the subtle social messages floating around middle & high school, but I distinctly remember discovering one day in high school that one of my greatest fears was getting fat. That people wouldn’t like me, that I’d be insecure, incapable, and sick. To be completely honest, that fear still lingers, even as I’ve slowly started to become aware of our culture’s fat-phobia and kicked a lot of my false assumptions to the curb.

My first pregnancy, birth, and postpartum experience with Eleanor, I worked really hard to dig deep and nurture a more positive body image. As my belly (and breasts and thighs) grew, I took time to point out and tell myself how much good my body was doing. As I prepared for birth, I made an effort to shift my inner dialogue from “man, how annoying is it that my body makes me so uncomfortable” to “MAN, how amazing is it that my body knows how to make and birth a baby! What is it telling me I need to do to work with it better?”

Finding out we were having a girl motivated me all the more to do the work now to give her a mother who loved and appreciated her body. I noticed (and got annoyed by) the subtle messages in everything from things people would tell me (“you must be soo uncomfortable being so big – I bet you’re just so ready to have that baby”) to targeted ads (belly binders to “get back to your old self quicker,” special butters and creams to prevent and get rid of stretch marks, diets designed specifically so you could still breastfeed while losing baby weight, etc etc etc). So I pointed out all of those things to myself as positively as I possibly could – “my baby can grow safely inside of me as long as she needs,” “haha, my belly feels like Jello!” “Thanks, leaky breasts for making milk for my girlie.” “Eleanor, look, you used to be inside this belly of mine. See how much I stretched to keep you safe and growing?” I put my camera on a tripod and documented my many, many stretch marks and extra flab. Reminded myself every time I worked out that I was doing this to get stronger, not to “get rid” of anything.

All that played a significant part in the direction I’ve taken this business – my focus on lifestyle and documentary (rather than posed) photography grew out of that yearning to help every mama see that her REAL self is beautiful, that REAL life is beautiful, that stretch marks and extra fat and leaky breasts are important, beautiful details of motherhood that you don’t need to hide.

This project also came from that yearning, along with the hope that as we document, share, and love on the little details of postpartum, mamas down the road will be more empowered and prepared to make the best of that unique time of transition. I believe our postpartum bodies are beautiful and worth celebrating, not shameful.

AND THESE 6 LADIES ARE GEMS. I’m SO grateful that each of them applied for the project, and feel a better person for having known them and been welcomed into their vulnerability. I hope as you read their stories and see their beautiful postpartum selves, that you will see bits of yourself, be able to mentally embrace your future postpartum self or someone dear to you, and/or just feel LOVED.

Note: I do want to acknowledge that as awesome as these mamas are, they don’t represent nearly as much of our world’s amazing diversity as it should; I want EVERY fellow postpartum soul out there to see a part of themselves in this project, and especially feel that we all need to see our sisters of color better. Which means this project is FAR from done! (*ahem* sooo if you feel called to help with this project and are in the Denver or Salt Lake areas, please reach out!)

Jenica | 4 months postpartum

Jenica is the mama of three sweet little ones, fellow doula and birth empower-er, and painter. I treasure our discussions on how much easier it’s been to love stretch marks than extra fat and flab – we really worked to create something that embraced both.

Jenica got pregnant with this sweet girl shortly after her second was born; that pregnancy (and its affect on her milk supply) required her to shift her initial breastfeeding goals and expectations to just getting her older daughter fed. But losing (and grieving) that experience breastfeeding her second has made breastfeeding (especially her younger sister) JUST that much more precious.

Diana | 1 month postpartum

Diana is the mama of two precious babes – babes who have taught her (after years of disordered eating) that her body is worth feeding and fueling, and that she does NOT need to be thin to be healthy. Literally watching her body feed and fuel her children’s growth through her breastmilk nurtures her as much as them, and seeing her wonder at what her body can do just FILLED me.

Diana wishes that we could all be more patient with ourselves postpartum – we carry our babes for 9 months, and can certainly give ourselves at least that long to recover! (She shares my dislike of all the ads that get targeted our way to just “bounce back” and look perfect and happy immediately after birth. Taking time to recover, feel sad, and even grieve all that’s changed is healthy and normal!)

Jacquie | 18 months postpartum

Jacquie is a boy-mom (with three cute crazies), fellow photographer, and advocate for helping her fellow women to find their identity outside of motherhood. Her postpartum journeys taught her how to find JOY while also experiencing postpartum depression (PPD). Both medication and a fantastic therapist really made a difference for her in that journey to joy; JOY, she told me, came to her postpartum because she got HELP.

There are so many pieces of wisdom from our conversation that struck me deeply: her favorite affirmation during her dark days being “actually, I can,” how she learned to put any negative thought on trial (is that really true?), talking about the value of having close friends that you can ask to be available for a random call if or when you get in a dark space, that postpartum and PPD looked and felt different after each child, how she wished both she and her husband could’ve been better prepared and educated beforehand to recognize all those varied symptoms.

Elizabeth | 11 months postpartum

Elizabeth is my dear friend, very first birth client, and the whole reason why I looove ASL (she signs BEAUTIFULLY). Her pregnancy, birth, and postpartum with their little boy was pretty textbook – she had the typical amount of pregnancy nausea and discomfort (and the cuuteest babe bump), a beautiful, uncomplicated and unmedicated birth like she wanted, a normal recovery, and successful breastfeeding journey. Perhaps due to her beautiful height, the extra weight Liz has gained from her pregnancy is now spread out in little pieces of “extra” all over her postpartum body (so she doesn’t look any heavier than her pre-pregnancy self to most everyone except her).

Liz & I had a really beautiful conversation about how tempting it can be sometimes to discount the value of that “normal” journey, to hide what may seem easy compared to others’ struggles, or to feel shame for struggling with even those “easy” versions of postpartum. To the fellow mamas with that more typical, textbook, “easy” experience, we want to say that you and your story are STILL valuable, valid, helpful, and OH so deserving of support.

Janelle | 4 months postpartum

This is Janelle. She is a strong, persevering treasure of a soul who works pouring an abundance of love into a lot of struggling lives, while also loving on her family. I learned SO much from talking with her about her experiences carrying and birthing and loving on her two little ones. She taught me about the value of simple validation and support from our partner, family, and community; just having someone to talk to and hear you can make a huge difference (for her, it’s helped her through PPD and a re-triggered eating disorder).

I LOVE the affirmations Janelle shared with me: “I am not the exception,” and “I made it through already.” She perseveres in acknowledging her discomfort, and in her slow journey to fully believing that all the changes her body and mind’s been through for her children (like her new hip shape – a link to the strong women before her) can be worth honoring instead of avoiding.

Katie | 3 months postpartum

And this is Katie – fellow doula and birth geek, service-loving soul and mama of three sweet souls (she also works with Rhea, a postpartum mental health company based in Utah!). Her three postpartum experiences are all unique, and she (like all of us) is working on loving the postpartum body she’s got now – extras and all.

What’s interesting to us both is how – of all her postpartums – this is the best she’s ever felt at this stage emotionally and mentally, but it’s also been the longest her extra belly fat has ever stuck around. (If you just looked at it from the perspective that “bouncing back” means getting back to pre-pregnancy weight and erasing all signs you were pregnant, I suppose you might say this has turned out to be the slowest and hardest “recovery” for her yet. Except that everything that really matters – mental health, physical health, emotional health, etc etc etc – actually HAS bounced back decently quickly!)

Last Thoughts

I truly love how uniquely beautiful each of these mama’s postpartum experiences are; postpartum looks different on each of them (and has looked different for each pregnancy for each of them!) and has affected each of them differently. I am honored that each of them chose to be so vulnerable and share these important and precious parts of themselves with me and with you, and truly hope that as we continue to share our postpartum experiences, we’ll slowly learn to love ourselves – together.

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