You can't look anywhere these days without spotting photos of a celebrity mom's "flawless post-baby body."
"Back in a bikini after only 6 weeks!" the headlines shout.
But Ashlee Dean Wells, photographer and founder of the 4th Trimester Bodiesproject, thinks these kinds of stories are doing more harm than good.
"Women and society are shown these images, hundreds a day, that look a certain way," she says. "And we get it in our heads that we should all strive to that standard."
"It's important to me to represent women as they are. Having stretch marks and skin folds doesn't make us any less beautiful."
4th Trimester Bodies is "a movement dedicated to education, embracing and empowering women through photographs and storytelling."
It starts with what's on the outside, to show what a post-pregnancy body looks like outside the cover of a gossip magazine. Wells and her partner on the project, Laura Wilson, photograph everyday moms (and dads) — some rookies, some battle-tested parenting veterans, some adoptive, some who've suffered heartbreaking miscarriages — all without fancy filters or Photoshop.
Then they give them a chance to tell the world their stories.
Here are just a few of the amazing moms they've worked with:
1. Amber H.
Amber is the mother of two beautiful children, Audrey and William, but has also lost three pregnancies to miscarriage.
"Amber wanted to tell her story to help break some of the silence around infertility," Wells and Wilson wrote.
2. Lou C.
Lou is a proud mother of four, including her stillborn daughter Jade, and is currently pregnant with her fifth child.
"A woman's body shows a history of what she has been through and mine shows it all. ... I love my body," she says.
3. Heather R.
Meet Heather and her 2-year-old daughter, Ramona. After a rough pregnancy and delivery, Heather continues to battle postpartum depression and anxiety.
"This celebration of every type of mother, experience and body is so important," she says. "The ability to embrace everyone is something that is often lacking in the sphere of motherhood."
4. Morgan R.
Morgan became pregnant with her daughter, Lola, at 17, and often felt steamrolled by doctors who wouldn't respect her wishes. She fought perinatal depression — that's depression during pregnancy — and wishes moms knew more about it.
As for why Morgan was drawn to the project, Wells and Wilson write, "When Morgan was pregnant, she and her husband made an agreement that their daughter would never hear them speak negatively about their weight or appearance. Morgan herself feels wonderfully confident with her body as a mother but she sees so many women her age obsess about their post-baby body."
5. Coral C.
Coral gave birth to her daughter, Raleigh Rose, at home, even though her doctor advised against it. With the help of her husband and a doula, she made it happen.
"Coral ... wanted to join in the movement of women coming together to support and celebrate one another," Wells and Wilson write.
6. Nathan D.
Nathan is a transgender man, only he'd never had his uterus removed. That meant his dream of having kids of his own was alive and well. When he got pregnant with his daughter, Anaya, he and his partner were elated.
Wells and Wilson write, "When Nathan got pregnant, he thought he was the only one but thanks to the internet and other people speaking out was able to find community. If sharing his story can allow one person to relate to him or feel beautiful in their own skin, it's worth it."
7. Lauren G.
This is Lauren and her children, Trey, Logan, and Lillee. After fighting through an emergency cesarean with one birth, postpartum depression, and oversupply issues while breastfeeding, Lauren was inspired to become a doula and help other women through their own struggles with new motherhood.
"Seeing women, baring it all has been so important for Lauren," Wells and Wilson write. "Seeing herself in other women's stories and having her eyes opened to new realities has been so empowering."
8. Ashley U.
Ashley suffered severe tearing while giving birth to her oldest child, Dylan, followed by a long and arduous recovery. The experience made her afraid going into the delivery of Ellie, though ultimately the experience was much less traumatic.
"She was afraid to talk about [the realities of vaginal tearing] for quite some time after Dylan was born, and couldn't do so without crying, but over time she has found an amazing community of women online willing to share their experiences," Wilson and Wells write.
9. Diana R.
Diana's pregnancy with her son, Gilberto, was healthy and uneventful. That deserves to be celebrated, too!
10. Vanessa M.
The story of Vanessa and her two daughters, Elliana Grace and Lillian Faith, is long, filled with frightening pre-birth discoveries and long nights spent in the NICU. Doctors initially thought the twins might not make it. But here they are today.
As for Vanessa herself, she was recently forced to undergo a double mastectomy due to a risky gene mutation.
Still, "she wants her girls to look back on this moment in time, with their mother, and see that they are all strong survivors," Wells and Wilson write.
12. Jessica Z.
Jessica is a proud mother to both a son and a daughter, but it's the baby she lost to miscarriage that brought her to 4th Trimester Bodies. She needed her story to be heard.
"We need to change this conversation, or lack of it in our society," Jessica says, "because without it women who are already traumatized end up feeling isolated. It doesn't make any sense."
13. Cara G.
Before giving birth to her daughter, Charlotte Ann, Cara struggled with mental health issues, addiction, and self-harm. At one point, Charlotte was taken from Cara and placed in foster care, but today they are together again and working to build a good relationship.
"She was hesitant to participate and share her story publicly out of fear that her past would resurface to haunt her but wanted to have the opportunity to share her story and help break that stigma and shame that surrounds mothers and mental health," Wells and Wilson write.
14. Ariel J.
Ariel, mom to two daughters, was in awe at how much things changed when she became a parent. The second guessing. The uncertainty. Wondering if you're doing the right things. It never ends.
Wells and Wilson write, "Not only as a mother but as an African American, as a black woman, Ariel feels it's important to show our daughters that these are our bodies. ... She just wants her girls to know that they can love their bodies no matter what they look like or how they change."
15. Phoebe A.
Phoebe's pregnancy with her daughter, Fynley, caught her totally off guard. Then, the delivery was exhausting and complex, leaving Phoebe to recover in the hospital while her own mom cared for Fynley. Today, both are doing well.
"Phoebe says motherhood has changed so much about her. ... She's always been body conscious but after seeing so many other women bravely sharing themselves and their stories wanted to join the chorus," Wells and Wilson write.
"Showing people themselves through our lens is amazing," Wells says.
But even more important than celebrating post-pregnancy bodies in all their various forms is giving parents a place to share their fears, their scars, and their greatest joys.
"Especially in America, the focus shifts from the mom to the baby after birth and women often feel alone, like they have to shrink back to their former selves," she says. "I think that process (of sharing) is really cathartic. So many of them say, 'I've never told this story before,' or 'I've never had the opportunity to talk to anyone about this.'"
"We need to be a little softer on ourselves," Wells said finally. "Whatever you're going through, wherever you are, you're not alone. There are other people there, saying it out loud."