When you think of your belly, how do you feel?

For many women – particularly mothers – it’s nothing good.

This is no surprise, considering the barrage of advertisements for skin-smoothers, fitness gear and surgical weight loss options on TV, in magazines and peppering the content we read online. So quick are mums to accept these negative messages, the ad companies behind them don’t even bother with much more than a low-budget campaign any millennial could slap together on his smartphone during a cold-pressed coffee break. Even the mums we’re exposed to on screen and across social media (Lord help me if I have to see another sweaty selfie by a fitness bootcamper in my Facebook feed with an inspiration quote) by and large have figures that fit certain moulds which don’t quite match what most of us see in the mirror. The fact of the matter is that these mums are actresses or “fitness gurus” who know that the flatter their abs are, the more likely they’ll keep their jobs, and those we see in print are thoroughly airbrushed. But for most of us, our job isn’t to have the tightest, smoothest tummies imaginable – yet we still hold ourselves to that standard, and beat ourselves up for not achieving it.

Recently, Maria Kang (she of the “What’s Your Excuse?” infamy) outed herself as having gained ten whole pounds in the past three years when interviewed in People Magazine about publicly sharing an unedited photo of herself in such a state (GASP!!!). Her stretch marks and soft stomach were something she felt the need to explain. Her figure so different than the one of the cover of her fitness book, she felt the need to try to stop the haters before they attacked her, first.

Why is that even a thing? Why must she be so terribly defensive of a shift in priorities that was reflected by her consuming about 32 extra calories a day for a few years?

Sure, she is the one who bared a seriously tight bod and threw down the challenge, “What’s Your Excuse?” while surrounded by her small kids, pissing off exhausted, overwhelmed mums everywhere who were already down on themselves about how their bodies looked. Maybe it was healthy for her to eat a little (32-calorie serving of) humble pie and understand why her old mantra was a bit unforgiving, but does that mean she needs to prepare herself for attack for no longer having a six-pack? For looking a little more like an average woman than a warm-blooded sculpture of unrealistic expectations?

Mums reveal what their bellies look likeIt’s time we get real and understand that our bodies go through all sorts of changes throughout our lives, and be kinder to ourselves — and each other — about it. It’s time we stop assuming that the bodies we see in the ads and on film are the only reasonable options for us. Time to stop assuming that we’re doing something wrong if we don’t look like that.

To get started, I asked mothers to lift their shirts to show what real bellies looked like – no filters, no excuses, no judgement. It was an emotional process for many of them (most had a negative view of their bodies, unless something drastic happened to make them appreciate the simple gift of being alive), but they understood what I wanted to prove. They understood that I needed to show other mothers that instead of assuming that everyone else out there has something better, that they have something they should hide, we are more alike than one would think at first glance. And my guess is that many of us see ourselves in one of these unretouched photos.