Last Thursday, Edmonton-resident Tanis Jex-Blake took her five kids, ages five to 13, to the beach at Alberta Lake to enjoy some sunshine.
Jex-Blake would normally have worn a tankini or a t-shirt over her bikini. But she didn't that day because she wanted to get a base tan ahead of a tropical vacation.
After 13 years of not wearing a bikini in public, she says, "I tried to stay as invisible as possible because I'm not comfortable with my body."
Jex-Blake, 33, explained she only turned onto her back, exposing her midriff, when nobody was around.
"At one point, I'm on my back with my eyes closed and I hear rude comments like, 'Oh my God, that's so … nasty! That's so gross!'"
She opened her eyes and saw two men and a woman standing about a foot away from her. They were surrounding her, pointing and pretending to kick her as she laid there tanning. She waited until they went back into the water to grab her kids and leave. Jex-Blake cried all the way home.
After the hour drive, she wondered, "Why am I crying?" Then the anger kicked in.
Jex-Blake posted a letter and photo of herself in her bikini, exposing her stretch-marked abdomen, on an Edmonton radio station's Facebook page. "I'm sorry that my belly is covered in stretch marks," she wrote. "I'm NOT sorry that my body has housed, grown, protected, birthed and nurtured FIVE fabulous, healthy, intelligent and wonderful human beings. I'm sorry if my 33 year old, 125 lb body offended you so much that you felt that pointing, laughing, and pretending to kick me."
Her letter wasn't meant to be "a pro-'bare your body' post," she says. "It has encouraged women to do that, which is great but that wasn't my intent."
What she hoped to do was expose the individuals who ridiculed her at the beach. They haven't come forward but she thinks they've likely heard about it.
A lot of other people certainly have. Her post has received 1.3 million likes and almost 300,000 shares.
Response to her letter has been overwhelmingly supportive, with many women posting shots of their own stretch-marked tummies.. "Between people's reactions to stretch marks and breast feeding I wonder when society decided it was shameful to be a mother," wrote Becki Oberg. "Allow me to apologize in the behalf of REAL men everywhere," chimed in Darryn Sinkler.
On Wednesday, two dozen women in Edmonton held a "bikini protest" in support of Jex-Blake. Bikini-clad women, including Jex-Blake, carried signs declaring, "Wear your skin proud" and "Girls aren't born hating their bodies. We teach them to."
"When I think about it, my body isn't that horrible. It's not perfect and fabulous, but I don't think that it's grotesque. I'm average," says Jex-Blake.
"You see Victoria's Secret models and it implies that you can't be sexy unless you're like a Victoria's Secret model. So because you're a mom, you have no right to want to look sexy and feel sexy," she says. "I could look just as good if I Photoshop my photo before putting it online. But there's no Photoshop in real life."
What happened to Jex-Blake demonstrates that our society embraces an unrealistic ideal of a flawless body, said Dr. Jessica Zucker, a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles, in an e-mail.
"Women are expected to look like girls, not women, whether they become mothers or not," she said.
The pressure to achieve perfection, she added, can lead to depressive and anxious thoughts, especially post-partum, when women should "feel sturdy, poised and confident from the inside out."
Zucker encourages women to be gentle with themselves. "Beating yourself up about feeling 'fat' surely isn't a healthy or helpful ingredient." Acknowledging the change and accepting your body can help ease the transformation, she advises.
"Our bodies, as well as our psyches, will forever be changed as a result of becoming mothers, "says Zucker. "Too few really consider what it takes to nurture life and create a human being - and how profound this experience is, both physically and psychologically."