Are women's bodies still beautiful after pregnancy?

A photo taken by Jade Beall of a mother with her two children cuddling her stomach as part of her A Beautiful Body project

Many women are left with scars, stretch marks, and loose skin after giving birth. It's a reality that women themselves often try to hide and the media never wants to show. But one photographer is on a mission to redefine the idea of the beautiful woman's body.

One day early last year, Jade Beall - a new mother based in Tucson, Arizona - went into her studio with her five-week-old baby, stripped off, and took a series of photos.

It was a body she wasn't really familiar with. There were bumps and lumps that she had never had before her pregnancy. And she didn't much like what she saw.

But she decided to post the pictures on her photography blog - keen to share with others a side of motherhood that tends to be kept out of view.

The media is full of images of women's bodies. But not these kinds of bodies.

Jade Beall photograph of herself and her young son five weeks after giving birth

"So many people tell me, 'Oh, I've never seen a body like that,'" says Beall.

Start Quote

I like the idea that my children will have a real sense of what their wives might look like ”

End Quote Nicole Meade

"I want people not to have to react as 'You're gross,' but instead 'Oh, that's a woman who is incredibly human, or that's a woman who has scars and lines with stories to tell.'

"My goal is to help these mothers feel worthy of being called beautiful."

Soon after, Beall posted a photo on Facebook of the softly dimpled stomach of a friend of hers, with her two young children nestling up to her lovingly.

It went viral. Emails started flooding in, and hundreds of women wrote in to say they too wanted pictures taken of their post-pregnancy bodies.

Beall has now photographed more than 70 mothers who will appear in an forthcoming book, A Beautiful Body, due out in January. She uses no make-up artists, and there's no touching up or airbrushing.

A photo taken by Jade Beall of the stomach of a mother

"When she sent me the first pictures via email after the shoot, I remember getting this cold, sweaty feeling," says Nicole Meade, one of the women who volunteered to be photographed.

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I think these women are powerful - I think my wife is incredible”

End Quote Chris Berry

Most women who have taken part are deeply self-conscious about their bodies, and Meade is no exception.

Ever since having her first child, she has tried to hide her stomach. A bikini on the beach would be out of the question.

Terrified, but determined to take up the challenge, Meade took her three sons to the photo shoot, and wanted them to be part of it too.

"I asked the boys, and they were like, 'Um, well what's the point of it?' And I told them you would be doing this for all your female cousins, and the girls you might one day date or marry, and your own daughters - because there is nothing like this out there for us," she says.

"I like the idea that my children will have a real sense of what their wives might look like when they are done having children.

"There should be nothing shocking or disturbing about a picture like that," she says.

Nicole Meade and her three sons in a photo taken as part of Jade Beall's A Beautiful Body project

When Demi Moore posed with her large, bare pregnant bump on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine in 1991, it was seen as a watershed moment.

Since then baby bump photo shoots have become quite popular among women generally. But it's a very different story for post-natal women, says sociologist Meredith Nash.

The sociologist

Meredith Nash

"Creating a book of pictures doesn't create social change. I think it actually creates more pressure for women to feel good about themselves. I don't think there is anything wrong with women feeling upset about the fact that they have stretch marks, because culture tells them they are ugly. There is a reason women feel upset about the way they look.

"There is a lot happening in the postpartum period full stop. Body image is just one small slice of a lot of big life changes that are happening all at once. Motherhood brings a huge shift in identity for women, especially first-time mothers. When they talk about their bodies, it's something manageable. It's much easier to talk about your jeans not fitting properly than it is to talk about being scared to death about being a stay-at-home mum."

Meredith Nash, author of Making 'Postmodern' Mothers

In popular culture, women's post-pregnancy bodies tend to feature only in stories about celebrities who have "bounced back" rapidly, she says.

This presents an unrealistic and distorted view of the reality for many women - who may never get their pre-pregnancy bodies back.

Beall believes if a celebrity were to do a kind of Demi Moore for postnatal women, maybe attitudes would start to shift.

"If any superstars would like to contact me, I would be overjoyed to respond!" she laughs, adding that she is still recruiting volunteers.

But Max Vadukul, a New-York based photographer who has worked for Vogue, doesn't expect to see such a picture in a "high-end glossy" magazine any time soon.

The urge to touch up an image is one most photographers and magazine editors just can't resist, he says.

And getting the models or celebrities to pose in the first place with their stretch marks on display would be tough, as their jobs, and the whole industry, rest on the prevailing ideal of perfection.

For some, the idea that stretch marks are beautiful may be just a stretch too far.

Beall says many of her clients don't like the images at first, and focus on what they see as blemishes or problem areas - a roll of fat, a wrinkle, a stretch mark.

But she says the more they look, the more they start to see the beauty in the images.

A photo taken by Jade Beall of a woman with her arms in the air

Christina Berry, who took part in the book, says she has always struggled to embrace her body, but the shoot left her filled with a new confidence.

"It's still a work in progress. I'm not going to say that every day I 100% feel the sexiest and the most confident," she says.

"But I remember what I did and I go and look at my pictures and I say 'Wow, I am beautiful!'"

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Her husband Chris says men tend to have only the most superficial conversations among themselves about the way their partners' bodies have, or might, change after pregnancy - and are largely unprepared for the reality.

"Seeing the pictures and then also seeing other women's pictures, it led me to think, 'Man, I'm kind of an ass for not recognising what the real, important things are when it comes to her physical appearance.'

"It's what she's done, and why she has those scars. I don't have to bear any of that - and she does.

"I think these women are powerful. I think my wife is incredible, and I think that was something that I needed to see and needed to understand. And I hope the pictures continue to do that for other men."

The blogger

Bonnie Ratliff Crowder - with her hands over her belly button in a heart shape (l) and a portrait shot (r)

"I had my daughter and my body physically changed very drastically, and I was surprised by that. I hadn't expected it because there are not a lot of these images in our culture.

"I was torn between being really in awe of my body and wanting to honour it for what it had done in growing and birthing this little person, and also still struggling to want to look conventionally beautiful, and trying to figure out where I fit on that spectrum. It was a struggle. It was really confusing to feel all of these - totally opposite things - at once.

"I really believe that the more that we see a wide range of things, the more we are going to feel normal and the more we are going to realise that it is normal, and the less it is going to be an issue. It's just that there's so little access to these images in our culture."

Beall's project got a big vote of support on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter - more than 1,000 people backed it and Beall raised almost three times the amount she was looking for.

And she's notched up one other victory. When she googled "beautiful body" the other day, she was delighted by what popped up.

"My black and white images are sprawled through all these airbrushed photographs.

"And I took such delight. It was like, 'Oh gosh, it's happening!'"

A selection of your comments on this article is published here.

Jade Beall was interviewed on the BBC World Service programme Weekend

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