By Debra-Lynn B. Hook
McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
The beautifully photographed black-and-white photo making the rounds on Facebook was evocative, five laughing women standing close together, their hands on each other’s shoulders, their faces turned jubilantly toward the camera, wearing only their underwear.
They could have been Victoria Secret models.
Only these were women with pockmarked thighs, pendulous breasts and bellies crisscrossed by stretch marks and C-section scars.
These were unPhotoshopped women with babies they love and bodies they hate.
These were mothers.
And they were on a mission, to debunk the air-brushed standards of feminine beauty.
“Women want change,” said Rachel Barlow, the woman in the photo wearing lacy black underwear and a flower in her hair and the creator of the Beauty Revealed Project.
“They want to finally feel valued in their truest physical form. They want their children to grow up in a different society that is more accepting and loving.”
Barlow, 26, of San Antonio, Texas, commissioned the photo last year when she was 16 months postpartum with her first child and weary of hating her 5-foot-3-inch,145-pound body.
Growing up with an overweight mother, an anorexic sister and her own “tree-trunk thighs,” deluged and deluded by media images of femininity she could never attain, Barlow suffered from body-image issues like a widely reported 80 percent of American females.
After giving birth by C-section, she could barely look at her scar or her formerly perky, now voluminous, breasts.
Like so many women postpartum, she realized she was ecstatic with her new son.
But, ironically, she was disgusted by the body that created him. That’s when she decided enough was enough.
“I had seen some YouTube videos floating around, talking about the belly and the skin and how we should cherish and love it and not be so ashamed,” said Barlow.
“And I thought I’d like to get some photos of my body just as it is now. I thought maybe by learning to accept the ugly scar across my abdomen, I would learn to accept the small things about my body I have always hated.”
Barlow took her thoughts to her local mothers’ group, which has a membership of hundreds, including professional photographer Darien McGuire.
Soon, Barlow not only had beautifully lit, beautifully composed photos of herself and four other moms, but her idea had become a movement.
And it wasn’t just a local movement.
As word began to spread via Facebook, women from as far away as Canada, Brazil and New Zealand were contacting Barlow, wanting their pictures taken, too. Photographers lined up, too, wanting to be involved.
“I was shocked at the numbers pouring in. Amazed,” said Barlow. “Women told us they wanted their children to value true beauty not defined by society.”
The Beauty Revealed Project Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Beautyrevealedproject) today boasts more than 17,000 likes, as well as photos and testimonials from “real women who have real scars and real stories,” said the project’s new head coordinator, Nancy Ang of Daisy Jean Photography in Norfolk, VA.
A stable of up to 40 photographers has, to date, photographed some 200 mothers, from four weeks’ postpartum to 25 years, in their underwear, in swimsuits, in living rooms, on private beaches, with their babies, together in groups and as individuals.
Each woman, who pays a token $30 fee to the photographer, can opt to keep her photos for herself, as a personal reminder of how beautiful she really is.
Or she can release her photos for use on the project’s Facebook page or its web site www.beautyrevealedproject.com.
“Our main focus is to provide images for mothers to feel beautiful and uplifted,” said Barlow. “Our second focus is to use those images to help others and to normalize the postpartum body.”
One of those mothers is Helena Claus of Isle of Wight, Va., who was 28 with a 16-month-old when she signed up for a photo session.
Claus had struggled since middle school with body image issues. When she heard about the Beauty Revealed Project, she knew she had to do it, if not for herself, for her future daughter.
“If I can’t love myself, how can I teach a daughter to love herself?” she said.
Determined as she was, Claus felt timid, like most moms, when she arrived for her shoot on a private beach in Virginia.
“I’m so awkward in front of a camera, and in my underwear! But I see the picture now, and I feel totally proud of myself. I feel empowered and beautiful,” said Claus, whose jubilant photograph of herself on the project’s web site, standing in the surf with her arms outstretched, trumps her initial timidity.
“Not only that, but after seeing all the uplifting comments on the web site, I feel maybe I can be a bridge for other people with eating disorders or body image issues to come out and say ‘I have this issue, too.'”
The Beauty Revealed Project is part of a growing social movement in photography: In Tucson, Ariz., therapeutic photographer Jade Beall has been photographing nude and semi-nude mothers for her “The Bodies of Mothers” pictorial due to be released around Mother’s Day.
Former boudoir photographer and mother of three Ashlee Wells Jackson travels the country taking real pictures of real moms for her “Fourth Trimester Bodies Project.”
“The more projects like this there are out there, the more new moms can stumble upon them,” said McGuire. “Even for high schoolers who see these photos, who see what real moms look like, it could change their body images issues.”
Meanwhile, the project believes if one woman can be empowered right now, that’s something, too.
“My husband tells me every day how gorgeous I am, and that’s great,” said Claus.”But it’s not the same as when you come to that realization yourself. The body I see in that picture is so much more than a girl who struggled with body image. That body gave me my child.”
(Go to www.beautyrevealedproject.com for a shoot near you or for a photographer’s application.)