If photos of a woman's post-pregnancy body make it into magazines or newspapers, it's often to marvel at how quickly she's shed the baby weight. But is this a realistic portrayal of women after giving birth? A recent Magazine article about the work of photographer Jade Beall on the issue prompted a huge response from readers.
Beall believes that celebrity stories about "bouncing back" from pregnancy present a distorted view of the reality for many women. In the article, she discussed her attempt to redefine the idea of a beautiful woman's body by using natural, non-airbrushed photos of mothers.
"I want people not to have to react as 'You're gross,'" Beall said, "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.'"
Here is a selection of your thoughts and experiences:
This article took me by surprise - I actually cried reading it. I don't think I even realised how strongly I was affected by the changes in my body after giving birth. I am normally quite a skinny person and put on a lot of weight in pregnancy, and it took me a long time to lose it. I felt like a whale for ages afterwards and my breasts were like zeppelins, I hated them. I suffered from an awful, disfiguring itchy rash all over my neck and chest about six months after the birth, which the doctor never properly diagnosed but vaguely said was to do with hormonal changes. For about three years I felt utterly undesirable, and as a single mother I felt for a while (maybe about three years) that I would never be sexually attractive enough to find another partner. I felt like a fish out of water in a body that didn't feel like my own. It looked different, felt different, and was doing a whole lot of things that I didn't understand. I started suffering from anxiety around eight months after the birth, which caused a lot of fairly severe physical symptoms for about a year and came back in episodes for the next two years. The anxiety reinforced my sense of not being in my own body. Sometimes I felt like... my body would feel alien to me, forever. It wasn't forever, though. My son is now four and a half, about to start school, and I only have felt truly back in my own body again for about six months. I started dating again, and have now been in a stable relationship since March. I have taken up rock climbing and am now doing things with my body that I didn't think I would ever do again, and loving it. I'm sure that some women feel more comfortable with their bodies after pregnancy than I did, but this was my experience, and your article suddenly brought this home to me. Sam Watkins, Worthing, UK
After I gave birth I was shocked. And horrified. I had never seen an after-pregnancy belly with stretch marks and sags exposed. At all. I hadn't heard about it. I didn't even know that it existed. The worst part is that I get disapproval from women the most. My mom says I can always get a tummy tuck. My friend said I looked that way because I gained too much weight when I was pregnant and that the fat, not the baby stretched me out. Another told me I hadn't used enough cocoa butter on my belly. My teenage daughter laughs at it. Most of these reactions suggest that either I am at fault, ugly or very unfortunate. That it is something that needs to be fixed. It would be nice, after all these years, to be able to accept my own different, scarred body. It would be nicer if others were able to accept too. Yvanna Sherman, Philadelphia, US
I have stretch marks, my figure is not what it was when I was in my 20s or even my 30s. But my body brought into this world two beautiful, brilliant children. Unfortunately we lost my son nearly 11 years ago. The scars and stretch marks that I see in the mirror tell me that history. My wonderful pregnancies. They remind me of my birthing stories - the joy of holding my son and then my daughter, looking into their faces for the first time, greeting them into the world and letting them know how totally in love with them I was and still am. My scars and stretch marks are glorious. Abby Richon, Hagerstown, Maryland, US
My body changed drastically from pregnancy. My once-taut stomach now sags a little with stretched skin and that skin that was once soft and youthful is now permanently scarred. The young woman looking at herself in the mirror then (almost seven years ago) struggled to find beauty in those changes. Somehow over time, that has changed. Now, when I look in the mirror, I see a woman. A woman who has been lucky enough to be fruitful... to carry the life of a child. I see a woman with breasts and scars and hips and she's perfectly beautiful in the most imperfect way. Now, facing infertility due to a disease, I'm grateful for the scars and stretched skin... I'm grateful for that reminder every time I look in the mirror. I once had the honour of bearing a child in my womb... of growing that beautiful baby and keeping her healthy and giving birth to her. What blessing could top that? What scar could steal that joy? Kait, Green Bay, US
I'm slim, but my tummy, at 54, and after two children, looks a bit like the top picture. No it's not beautiful! But am I having sleepless nights about it, or insisting it's photographed, or that someone tells me it's "beautiful"? No. Some women's tummies are still beautiful after childbirth. Actresses, models... those who have the motivation to work sufficiently hard afterwards to restore their figures are the proof that it can be done. Most women's tummies after childbirth aren't, and that is due to lack of exercise or a lack of hard physical work, and diet - simple as that. The majority of us live unnatural lives - if we were all labouring on the land for our food and sustenance, there'd be no more squidgy tummies. I do think people are missing the point here - surely the point is not to worry whether we look "beautiful" or not - there are other things by which we can be valued! And to try to insist that we all say wrinkly loose skin is "beautiful" when it's really not is patronising! Debbie Took
My body was destroyed after a C-Section. That one event has devastated not only my body - which 13 years later I still see as "butchered" - but also my self-esteem, my mental health and my relationship with my husband. There is too much pressure on ordinary women to look like all these stick-thin celebs, who "pop out" the baby and slip gracefully into their size eight jeans again. The grim reality for the majority of us is far different. Julia, Newport
After my first child at age 34, I managed - albeit briefly - to regain my pre-pregnancy weight. But after my second child at age 37, I've never been able to regain it and my tummy is a big flabby bump still, now nearly two years later. Altogether, over the past five years and two pregnancies, I've gained a total of about 12kg. It pained me when my husband asked regarding my abdomen, sometime after the birth of my second child: "When does it go away?" He seems to have made his peace with my apparently permanent bump, but I don't think he realizes how much I still think about that very revealing comment, and struggle to regain a feeling of being "sexy" and beautiful. Rebecca Mildren, Helena, Montana US
The father of my sons thought that suggesting that I should have surgery to remove the flap of fatty belly skin was an act of kindness. He had discussed the "problem" with a female friend who suggested surgery as a solution, and he thought it was worth the considerable financial cost. It was undoubtedly one of the markers of my emotional, sad withdrawal from our relationship. It is important that men enter fatherhood with an opportunity to "man up" to the reality of motherhood. Tricia Crossley, Kingston upon Thames
After three children I realised the elasticity in my stomach skin just wasn't coming back. The thing is that I'm a karate instructor and people are astonished that when I tense my stomach my abs are rock hard. They're just under my skin! What saddens me are friends of mine who are mothers and are trying to diet away their baby sag. It's not fat, it's a natural sign of what your body has done. Alison Thompson, Rossett, Wales
Before my first pregnancy I was very athletic but all of it changed when my son was born. I had a huge belly and excess skin and terribly red marks. I thought it would get better but after 12 years there is still all the excess skin and stretch marks. With my second pregnancy I experienced an even greater loss, as at seven months of the pregnancy the baby was diagnosed with severe problems and I was asked to terminate the pregnancy. My body was totally destroyed - I was fat and flabby for nothing at all. I understood that above all, our body is a home for a healthy baby and even the scars we have are something to remind us that we give life to other people and the price we pay is very little compared to the gift of life and the lovely children we have. My third pregnancy left me with a lot of excess fat but my kids make me proud - I love them to bits and would not change them for a straight model type body. Alexandra, Athens, Greece
When I had my first daughter I was horrified by the state my body had been left in, so much so that i used to fantasise about getting hold of the "spare flesh" and cutting it off. No amount of exercise or magic creams could get rid of the hanging flesh. I enquired about surgery but the cost was phenomenal and completely out of my reach. My body image totally destroyed any confidence I had, I had become a single parent-to-be when I was five months pregnant and as far as I was concerned I was now repulsive, and could never inflict my disgusting body on anyone else. Things have changed a lot, I am with a lovely partner, I have had another daughter, I have put on weight, so have filled out the flesh a bit, and both of my daughters love my "soft tummy". I'm now glad I could not afford the surgery. I've given birth, the stretch marks are my pregnancy badges. Jo, Cuckfield, West Sussex
I remember when I was pregnant with my first, all talk from my family was of stretch marks and how if I was "lucky" I'd not get any. When I started to balloon I kept thinking, "no, I'll be fine, it's not so bad," but quickly the red angry lines started to appear. I consoled myself saying, "they're below my hip line, nobody will ever see them" but when I fell pregnant with my second, they spread well beyond. Afterwards I was left with a saggy crepe-like stomach and my mother and sister lamented "Oh poor you." I'd try to console myself "Well, I never liked my tummy anyway. Never wanted to wear a crop top/bikini in any event". But after my third I've got to admit, I'd sooner not have this spare tyre of loose flab that looks huge in the mirror when I'm wearing fitting clothing. I don't feel I can wear tight clothes because my belly doesn't sit flat any longer, and thin skin feels unpleasant to the touch, fragile, delicate even. I've always tried not to care about how I look, but I care what other people think about how I look. I don't want to be regarded with pity, I don't want to look down and see my scars as a negative thing because society tells me I should. I have three beautiful boys, three children I was told at 19 I would never have. Each one a miracle, each one a blessing, but each has taken their toll on my body. I can't see myself flaunting it in a bikini any time soon and that self-consciousness frustrates me. I'm a person who leaves the house wearing goggles and a top hat, I'm not supposed to be self-conscious. But I can't stand those looks and perceived whispers, real or imagined. It means I look in the mirror and tug my shirt down to hide what - to my eye and to the eye of the general public - is an unsightly blemish, not the blessed battle scars of motherhood. Jen, London