While women readily prepare for growing bellies and swollen feet during their pregnancy, they are often unprepared for the new body that remains after child birth.
After facing a difficult pregnancy, Ashlee Wells Jackson, a Chicago-based photographer, used her talents to showcase her own scars and stretchmarks as well as those of other women across the country in her ongoing 4th Trimester Bodies Project.
What inspired you initially to go into photography, and into boudoir photography?
My primary focus currently, outside of this photo documentary is Pin Up. I’ve been working in the photo realm since I was about 15 years old and began taking assignments with a friend of my father’s, and then did a lot of lifestyle and commercial work. I opened Windy City Pin Up about 4 years ago because I needed a change of pace. I absolutely love the 1940s and 50s, the focus on a more natural form of beauty, the shift of empowered women entering the work force, the camp, all of that.
Where did you get the idea for the 4th Trimester Bodies Project?
The reason this project exists is two fold. Working with women in my daily life (many who are mothers) I started to notice a pervasive trend of discomfort in their bodies. From the fit single ladies to gorgeous mamas, who had every right to be proud of every stripe, would point out their flaws. I started to become increasingly uncomfortable with how prevalent this was, how our media reinforced this image of unattainable perfection and how it affected women so strongly. It was maddening.
That said, I personally was always one who even as a mother felt comfortable in my skin. I was fit and healthy and confident. Until I wasn’t. In just a few months I went from feeling like I was living a fairy tale to being entrenched in a nightmare. On my wedding day, I found out I was pregnant with identical twin girls. My newly blended family of 3 became 5, and we were thrilled. I spent two weeks traveling the county in absolute bliss and returned to find out that my girls were terribly sick. We were diagnosed with Twin To Twin Transfusion Syndrome and immediately had to travel from Chicago to St. Louis to have an experimental surgery which was our only shot at saving my babies.
Surgery was successful, but within 18 hours one of baby girls had died. I was told the rest of my pregnancy should be uneventful, my survivor was doing well and we appeared to be out of the woods. Until we weren’t. I went into labor and delivered my girls via emergency c-section at 24 weeks. My survivor weighed 1lb 13 oz and was extremely sick. We almost lost her multiple times on top of what we had already been through. She developed profound Hydrocephalus requiring two brain surgeries and a 100 day NICU stay. And personally, while all of that was happening, my c-section incision became infected and burst, requiring a repeat surgery, my incision healing open for 10 weeks, then staples for 2 more. I felt like a monster, I felt like my body had failed me. I felt like less of a women. I identified with these other women all of the sudden and I wasn’t okay with it. I wanted so badly to change it and set out to do my best with this project.
How have you found women to participate in the project?
The project started very organically. I posted my own photo online and simply asked my friends who amongst them wanted to participate. The project has grown tremendously from there. We have received over 15,000 emails from women worldwide who want to participate and in the next two years will travel to 24+ US Cities and 11 International locations as well as our open ended shooting in Chicago.
Were you ever nervous that women wouldn’t do it?
I knew that it would take a lot of bravery for women to step up in front of the camera and tell their stories, but this project – this movement – is SO necessary and I knew that women would be impacted by hearing and seeing other women that shared their stories.
How do moms react when they are with you, standing in their underwear, with just their baby waiting to be photographed?
Well, women are never really just standing around in their underwear waiting to be photographed. Everyone is a little nervous when they arrive for their shoot but we spend a considerable amount of time talking to them when they arrive, they are treated to professional hair and make up and then we do a short (clothed) interview and headshot session before they undress to pose for their official photograph. Within that time most women have shed their reservations and are more than ready to be photographed.
How do you make moms feel more comfortable in their new skin? What helped you? What tips can you share for embracing your post-baby body?
I can’t speak for other women but things that helped me were seeing my body out of context, out of the mirror and in print helped me to focus on the positive. Reminding myself that despite feeling my body has failed me, I did all that I could and can do to make things right. That said it is a process, sharing my story, seeing other women identify with our history, with my physicality and knowing I am not alone in this struggle is hugely empowering.
I saw a beautiful photo of you with your baby. Was it scary to be so exposed on the other side of the camera?
Absolutely! I live behind the camera for a reason, but I knew that in order for this project to have any validity I had to participate.
What is the #1 piece of advice you would give to new moms struggling with their body image?
I don’t feel entirely comfortable being the giver of advice, but my first thought is to focus on the miracles your body has just given you. Creating and sustaining life, making a new person, is a phenomenal feat. Give yourself a break and revel in that if but for a moment.
How can women get involved in the 4th Trimester Bodies Project?
They can check out our website and see when we’ll be traveling to a city near them, read our FAQ and send us an email to participate. We’re also working on funding the project via Kickstarter.