How is it that such teeny-tiny babies can leave so many new moms with enormous insecurities about the way they look?
In the aftermath of childbirth, many exhausted moms feel blindsided by an assault of physical changes: hair loss, puffiness, loose skin, spider veins, scars, stretch marks and so much more. New moms may buy larger clothes, hold their chins only at certain angles when being photographed, and develop a newfound interest in the magical powers of Photoshop. But all that hiding and posing can be exhausting, and all that self-doubt can be debilitating.
Which is why growing numbers of women are trying a new approach on for size. They’re choosing not to hide their new bodies from the rest of the world — and, in the happiest cases, they’re deciding to love their protruding bellies, stretch marks and C-section scars.
“It’s so empowering to see women accepting their bodies,” said Julie Worthy, 27, a Georgia photographer who captures real, raw images of postpartum women. “I think the key to acceptance is to realize what our bodies created. We have those amazing, wonderful, perfect babies in our arms. ... Those scars and stretch marks are proof of the life I created.”
'It feels honest'
Worthy wasn’t always in a content place of self-acceptance. She told TODAY Parents that body positivity has eluded her for much of her lifetime — including the years she spent serving in the U.S. Navy and exercising like an elite athlete.
“Even then, at the smallest I’ve ever been, I still didn’t feel secure in my body,” Worthy recalled. “I have always felt self-conscious in my skin.”
When Worthy got pregnant with her first child, she gained 60 pounds along with a flowering of stretch marks.
“I weighed more than I had ever weighed in my entire life,” Worthy said. “She was born via C-section, so I had a giant incision at the bottom of my abdomen. They cut through my muscles. I have all that flabby skin down there that's never going to be tight again, no matter how many sit-ups I do. ...
“I’ve come to understand that your body never returns to what it was, period. Some women can ‘bounce back’ and return to their goal weight, but that just isn’t the story for all women.”
After Worthy welcomed her daughter Scarlett, who is now 5, she gave birth to a son named Brody, now 3. Worthy remembers how she would criticize herself internally about her weight and dedicate big swaths of closet space to her old “skinny” clothes — moves that created their own kinds of heaviness.
In 2016, the mom of two launched a maternity and newborn photography business in Augusta, Georgia. Almost immediately, she noticed that nearly every new mother she met was struggling with the exact same issues.
“They’d come in to see me under two weeks after giving birth, and some of these mamas would still be so swollen they couldn’t move right,” Worthy said. “But they’d all want these beautiful, smoothed-over, perfect portraits of themselves. That’s when it clicked for me: Even though I’m giving them this perfect picture, it is not reality. This is NOT what postpartum looks like.”
Since then, Worthy has focused on capturing postpartum photographs that are not only genuine, but genuinely beautiful. The women who step into her studio and strip down to their bras and underwear for photo shoots say the experience transforms from terrifying to liberating in a matter of minutes.
“At first it was scary, and then it actually felt good,” said Alexis Hubbard of Augusta, Georgia. “It makes you feel good about yourself that it is OK to have stretch marks and scars and everything that comes along with motherhood.”
Kimberly Cooper, also of Augusta, agreed.
“When you're posing for the photos, it feels empowering. It feels honest,” Cooper said. “I wanted to be photographed because I wanted other moms to know that you're not alone.”
'Let's normalize a normal body'
Worthy’s clients are not the only women to realize that external honesty is the best policy for their internal well-being. Just last month, Bethanie Garcia, Katie Crenshaw, Meg Boggs and Desiree Fortin — moms who have worked together on body acceptance projects online — decided to meet up in person in Texas. While together, they captured a photo of their different postpartum physiques to show that “all body types are beautiful.” Their photo quickly went viral.
“We can use social media to show reality,” said Porter, 37, of St. Petersburg, Florida. “That’s a huge passion of mine. Let’s normalize a normal body.”
Porter said her understanding of what’s “normal” and “healthy” has evolved dramatically since she became a mother of four. Her three sons are 4, 6 and 7; her youngest, a girl, recently turned 1.
“When I worked in TV news, I felt that my self-worth was, if not defined by, then influenced by my appearance,” Porter recalled. “Today, my body doesn’t define my self-worth anymore — and what’s more, my body has a story. I actually think my body is awesome for what it’s done.”
Worthy, the photographer who has been helping women feel comfortable in their own skin, said she’s finally starting to feel comfortable in hers.
“I just booked boudoir photo session for June!” she said. “That is something that I would not have done before. But I am going with all my pudgy fat rolls and my stretch marks, and I am gonna be gorgeous.”
More from our Modern Motherhood series: