After giving birth to three children in one year, a Canadian mom decided to embrace her postpartum body with a sensual and empowering photo shoot.
Melanie Varney and her husband, Gabby, welcomed their first child, a son, on March 11, 2013. Just 364 days later, the mom delivered twin daughters on March 10, 2014. Having children altered her body in ways she struggled to accept.
"Once the twins were born my confidence in my image was gone," Varney told The Huffington Post. "I was on top of the world with what my body had just produced, but the reflection of myself in the mirror was that of a stranger. "
When she saw that photographer Trina Cary posted a model callout for an "intimate" couples session in a lake, Varney decided take a leap and volunteered to participate with her husband.
Cary already knew Varney, as she had photographed products for her decorative arts company, West Coast Karma. The photographer said she was pleased the mom volunteered for the session, as her story and struggle aligned with the project's mission to promote body acceptance after change.
For Varney, the goal was to learn to love her body again after losing her confidence. "Becoming a mother was the best thing I have ever done. It's all I ever wanted to do," Varney told HuffPost, explaining that she and her husband struggled to conceive for a year and suffered two heartbreaking losses in the process.
But after welcoming a healthy baby boy and then unexpectedly becoming pregnant with twins just three months later, the mom said her postpartum body image was far from her mind. "It was all about survival and preparing for a very busy time," she recalled.
Still, when she did look at her body, she did not feel comfortable. "I remember googling 'twin moms postpartum' just trying to find similarities in my body to theirs," Varney said. "Of course, as mothers, we all agree that our babies are completely worth the skin, the stretches, and the lumps and bumps, but just as we are mothers, we are still ourselves," she added. "I was still Mel. I still needed to feel happy with 'Mel,' not just 'mom.'"
For the photo shoot with Cary, Varney and her husband agreed to "bare all" and pose with each other in various states of undress. "Lately I have been inspired by nudity because its raw, vulnerable and empowering," Cary told HuffPost. "I want to teach women and men how to be confident again. You don't have to be perfect in every way to be beautiful, you just have to own your flaws and embrace your differences."
Varney described the process as taking off her "mask" and confronting what was really there. "I wasn't able to choose the angles, suck in my tummy or filter over my bits. I felt vulnerable, but at the same time empowered," she said.
Reaching this state of acceptance was still a bit of a struggle for the new mom. "I didn't have much time to think about the way I looked (most days didn't have time to shower before my husband arrived home from work), but it was during intimate moments with Gabby that I began feeling insecure or comparing myself to mental images I thought I should look like," she said, emphasizing that it was her insecurities, not her husband, that made her feel this way.
"Feeling sexy means different things to different people. I wanted to see myself the way my husband saw me," Varney added.
This feeling was precisely what Cary wanted to capture in her photos -- the mom's changing body and her changing relationship with her husband, but also the enduring love the pair have for each other.
"I wanted to highlight the way he sees her and thinks she is still as beautiful as she was when he first met her," the photographer said. "Also the acceptance she has now for her body with all of its new stretch marks, extra skin and wrinkles. She is beautiful and finally feels that way again, and [she] is proud to share that feeling with everyone else."
Varney's children also inspire her to adopt a healthier view on body image.
"I really want to raise my kids with a different view on beauty, self esteem and self portrayal," she told HuffPost. "Self worth has nothing to do with the way you look. I want both my daughters and my son to focus on what really matters -- humanity, kindness, acceptance, etc. I have made a conscious effort in my parenting to not comment on looks, rather compliment other aspects of their amazing little selves."
As for Gabby, he was excited to participate in the photo shoot because he's a fan of Cary's art. But he was surprised to find how much it empowered him as well.
"I think initially he did it thinking it would be something that would help me, but he told me the day after the photos were released that he thinks he may have gotten just as much out of the shoot as I did," Varney said, adding that men feel pressure to meet certain aesthetic ideals as well.
The photographer echoed this sentiment. "Dudeoirs seem to be a bit of a joke in the media, but the truth is that men have confidence issues as well," she said. "They also worry about how other people, and especially their partners, view them."
Varney said the response to the photos on social media has been "humbling," adding that many women messaged her to say the images moved them to tears.
Still, others "missed the whole point of the pictures," she noted. "Our society seems to have hyper-sexualized naked bodies and associate an unclothed body with porn or something distasteful. It's a body -- we all have them, let's celebrate differences in ourselves and each other!"
The mom hopes the photos will inspire others, even if just one person or couple. "Having multiple children can take a huge toll on a relationship," she said. "Gabby and I drifted, but we never lost sight of our love."
"I hope that this can serve as a reminder for someone out there to take a little bit of time on their relationship," she added. "Sure they might not choose to get naked in a lake for a photoshoot, but maybe enjoy an ice cream on the back deck together and give each other some thoughtful compliments." Varney also said that she and her husband imagine themselves "giggling" together over the intimate photos when they're in their 70s.
Ultimately, the photographer wants viewers to embrace their own imperfections. "I hope people will see a strong, beautiful mother, who has chosen to love and cherish her body's flaws, and a husband, who is still in awe of her," said Cary.
She added that these sessions are meant for any and all women, no matter their size or appearance. She issued the following call: "Love yourself, stop beating yourself up in the mirror, accept the new you and walk with confidence."