The final trimester of pregnancy supposedly ends at birth, but to photographer Ashlee Dean Wells, “trimesters” don’t stop there. She sees the “fourth trimester” as the rest of a woman’s life as a mother—and it’s important to her that mothers love the skin they’re in. Three years ago, she began a photo project titled “4th Trimester Bodies” to ensure just that.
Wells first noticed that women often felt bad about their bodies while she was running a pin-up photo business with friend Laura Weetzie Wilson in Chicago. “Women would come in on a daily basis with self-image issues and body hangups that we just didn’t see,” Wells. “And they felt very flawed…feeling like they need to measure up to this photoshop standard that’s portrayed as reality.”
Wells says she’s always felt pretty comfortable in her skin, but in 2012, a traumatic pregnancy changed that. She was pregnant with twin girls and learned in her second trimester that her babies had twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome—a rare condition where one twin’s blood moves to the other through the placenta. She had an emergency surgery to try and save both twins, but to no avail. At just 24 weeks, she had an emergency c-section, and one of her daughters, Aurora, was stillborn while the other, Nova, lived but was rushed to the NICU. The pregnancy left her with a giant scar across her stomach, and a heavy heart. But it inspired her, too.
“I just felt really devastated and broken,” Wells says. “But there came a day when that just transferred and I figured out the dialogue I had was not unique and I was not alone and it was the same dialogue I’d been hearing from women I worked with. And that’s really when it hit me that I needed to do something about it for other women.”
So Wells decided to photograph herself with baby Nova, who spent 100 days in the NICU before being released to continue healing at home. In the photo, Wells is bravely wearing just her underwear, proudly showing the scars of her experience. She shared the photo (pictured above) on her Facebook page, and it started resonating with women.
“Thinking back to that, I never could imagine how needed it was,” she says. “I couldn’t understand the magnitude of women all around that we needed to reach.”
That photo turned into the 4th Trimester Bodies project, and Wells and her friend-turned-business-partner Wilson now travel the world, taking beautiful, black-and-white photos of mothers of all ages—and surrogate and adoptive moms, too—to help them regain their sense of beauty. The photos are always black and white, with women of all sizes, shapes, and colors wearing simple black underwear, posing alongside their children. The women often share their stories and experiences, from being subjected to domestic violence to suffering from mental health issues to having an ectopic pregnancy. They’re incredibly moving, and the project creates a positive community for mothers to feel empowered, beautiful, and supported.
“We hear about mommy wars and the struggles of people who make different choices so often,” Wells says. “This project really turns that on its head. We work with women all across the globe that only have this thing in common [motherhood], and we create this thriving community where women are friends.”
Wells has photographed more than 1,500 women to date in five countries, and she published a book with the project’s images last fall. Through the 4th Trimester Bodies website, women interested in participating can book a session with Wells. She’s based in Chicago, but she travels to different cities and countries to offer sessions. You can view some of the stunning images below, and check out more on the project’s website:
Read Reba Wong’s story of overcoming an abusive marriage here. Image Credit: Ashlee Dean Wells
Read Nicki Taylor’s story of fighting breast cancer here. Image Credit: Ashlee Dean Wells
Read Abby Theuring’s story of empowering the breastfeeding community here. Image Credit: Ashlee Dean Wells
Read Florence Aferi-Gordon’s story of learning to love her body here. Image Credit: Ashlee Dean Wells
Read Lauren Griffin’s story of overcoming postpartum depression here. Image Credit: Ashlee Dean Wells
Read Xochil Springer’s story of her struggle to breastfeed here. Image Credit: Ashlee Dean Wells
Read Amanda Katzer’s story on what made her decide to have children here. Image Credit: Ashlee Dean Wells
Read Corrie Metz’s story on fighting her anxiety here. Image Credit: Ashlee Dean Wells