Just as Jessica Birak was gaining confidence in her body, she got pregnant with her first child—and her insecurities flooded back. After having a second child, she took a leap of faith and signed on to participate in the 4th Trimester Bodies Project, a photo documentary developed by Ashlee Wells Jackson that celebrates the post-baby body. We chatted with the mom from Surrey, BC, about how her body has changed after two pregnancies and how she feels about her body today.
CS: Why did you decide to participate in the 4th Trimester Bodies Project?
JB: To love my body was something that I never thought I’d be able to do. When I was six months postpartum with my youngest, somebody came up to me and they asked me if I was expecting. It sunk me. I thought that must mean I’m ugly because my stomach has a little paunch.
But I realized that it was ruining my day because my idea of beauty—as a mom and as a woman—was defined by something unrealistic, something superficial. I realized that there’s no real place for mothers to feel beautiful in the media. Participating in the project was really scary.
My mother-in-law saw the picture, and she said, “You’re brave. You’re really brave.” I want everything about motherhood—the changes that your body goes through and breastfeeding—I would love for that to be normal one day.
CS: How did your body change physically after your pregnancies?
JB: Before, I had no stretch marks. I had rock-hard abs and I had no cellulite, and I seriously thought I was going to go through pregnancy completely untouched. I was naïve, right? At 37-and-a-half weeks, I got these big, red stretch marks all over my belly—like a cat had clawed at me. I cried for like a week.
My boobs are quite a bit more saggy—they’re not as perky. I can’t not wear a bra anymore. Even things like my hairline changed or one foot got bigger than the other. I have wrinkles. I guess I don’t look as youthful.
CS: How did you feel about your body image before and after your pregnancy?
JB: I had an eating disorder when I was 15, but I didn’t truly recover until I was probably 19. I was gaining confidence in the way my body looked when I got pregnant at 22. After I had my oldest, I sometimes felt very insecure—I lost the confidence I’d gained.
Eventually, as I learned how to become a mother and formed my identity as a mother—and I really have my kids to thank for this—I started to learn that my beauty and my sense of worth is not defined by what I look like; it’s defined by how I love, it’s defined by my role as a mother, my identity as a mother.
CS: How do you feel about your body today?
JB: I do have days where I feel really insecure. I grew up in a really broken home, and there are some days where I feel like I’m not worthy. I’m working on that and going to counselling to work through the childhood trauma. But I feel confident and thankful for my body—that I could nurse and be pregnant. I can’t bring myself to shame my body when I look at my kids.
In order for beauty to be redefined, I think mothers need to claim it and redefine it for themselves. And that’s what’s so beautiful about this project—as women, we’re making this change for ourselves.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2015 print issue with the headline “Body beautiful,” p. 71-76.