Meet Cheyenne Varner, Illustrator of Babylist's Pregnancy Week by Week Ultrasounds
Meet the Artist Behind Babylist’s New Pregnancy Ultrasound Illustrations
April 8, 2021

Meet the Artist Behind Babylist’s New Pregnancy Ultrasound Illustrations

Meet the Artist Behind Babylist’s New Pregnancy Ultrasound Illustrations.
Meet the Artist Behind Babylist’s New Pregnancy Ultrasound Illustrations

Babylist updated our pregnancy ultrasound illustrations for our pregnancy week by week pages for a more inclusive, unique representation. We connected with Cheyenne Varner, a professional certified birth and postpartum doula, founder of The Educated Birth and an artist, to create them. Cheyenne and Babylist’s Executive Editor Karen Reardanz sat down to talk about Cheyenne’s work, her creative process and what message she most wants to convey through her what she does.

Q: Hi Cheyenne! We’re so excited to be working with you. Would you tell me about you and what you do?

Hello! I’m Cheyenne (she/her). I am a professional certified birth and postpartum doula, and I’m also an artist! These worlds collided for me when I realized how little representation there was in childbirth education of Black women—especially considering the high rates of maternal mortality that Black women face. My mission became to create teaching tools that make learning about reproductive health a little simpler, more enjoyable and more inclusive.

After first sharing on Facebook, I fielded reactions and messages from people across the US, saying they’d never seen anything like what I was making. I heard from so many people who felt unrepresented—my work expanded to include many more people across the intersections of race, culture, class, body size, disability, gender identity, etc.

Q: Your approach to the in-utero images is so unique. What’s was the creative thought process behind them?

I felt compelled to do something about the lack of inclusivity that I saw when looking at anatomy illustrations. Most showed cis white women with thin bodies and white babies and were done in a very medical style. I wanted to create anatomical art that included more people. We’re here and our bodies need the same level of care and treatment as everyone else’s, so why are we not shown equally? Why are we not included at this foundation of medical knowledge and learning?

It may seem like a small thing, but it points to a much larger issue. The idea that there are biological differences between the races is false but it still plays a role in how doctors diagnose and treat patients. In one study, half of white medical trainees believed the myths that black people have thicker skin or fewer sensitive nerve endings than white people.

Meanwhile, the National Human Genome Research Institute has found that there is more genetic variation among people within the same race than from different ones. Even this only touches the tip of the iceberg—there’s so much variation in human life, well beyond race. It’s important that we see this and that the people whose job it is to care for all of our bodies understand this on a critical level.

Beyond that message, I wanted to make each image feel like a work of art. Each one is beautiful and I wanted to endow each one with respect and love.

Q: They’re also medically accurate! How did you think about the baby’s growth, position in the womb and how the pregnant person’s internal organs shift around during pregnancy?

I surveyed a lot of medical artwork and documentaries as I was creating these, looking at how babies change over time and grow and how the pregnant person’s body makes room and stretches. There’s so much variation here too! Some people “carry high,” some “carry low,” some bellies poke out more or less. There’s really so much more variation that could have been shown, but I also wanted these images to feel like they fit together chronologically—showing a seamless arch of consistent growth.

The pregnant body is really incredible to be able to go through such immense change. But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that these incredible bodies need support along the way! I hope that folks looking at these changes can appreciate the gravity of what the pregnant people in their lives are experiencing and offer them more support.

Q: The baby’s skin tone starts to change at 16 weeks in the illustrations. Would you tell us why that is?

The cells that produce melanin, which determine the darkness of a person’s skin, eyes, etc. start forming at 9 weeks of development but don’t finish developing until well after birth. In the early weeks, the fetus’ skin is so thin that it’s almost translucent, which is why it’s likely to have a pinkish appearance.

Even though babies don’t fully develop their skin color until months after birth, I made the choice to show the growing fetuses of all shades. Again, this decision links back to the goal to provide a greater level of representation. It matters that parents can see themselves and their babies included in these contexts.

Q: Tell me about the Educated Birth.

The Educated Birth’s work is propelled by the conviction that: “representation isn’t just nice, it’s a necessary part of a safe and equitable health system.” We create handouts and slideshows and illustrations that help reproductive health workers teach about various aspects of getting pregnant, being pregnant, birth, postpartum and more. We use high-quality sources to share information that people can count on, in a way that’s easy to read and follow and enjoy too.

We have a Patreon where folks can support our mission of providing intersectional reproductive health ed and get access to a whole bunch of perks! And we have an Instagram account where we share little peeks into our work and create fun, relevant diagrams—the Stages of Labor as emojis is one of our favorites.

We also publish Everyday Birth Magazine, a biannual print and digital magazine. Each issue includes birth stories from home, birth center and hospital, and a variety of educational articles from professionals and reflections from real parents. There are lots of ways to get involved with us!

Q: What message do you most want to convey through your work?

When it comes to pregnancy and birth in the U.S. we are all doing our best to navigate the same system—but we’re not all getting the same care inside it, we’re certainly not getting the same outcomes.

There’s a midwife in Florida named Jennie Joseph. Her clinics are based on three principles:

Access: She accepts anyone as a patient regardless of ability to pay or health insurance status. She also helps women with pregnancies that other clinics deem too high risk to handle. And she won’t turn away anyone on the basis of how far along her pregnancy is.

Connection + Education: She sees her ancillary staff—receptionists, medical assistants and educators—not as her assistants or the people who get the patient ready to see the provider, but as critical parts of the team that help mothers get to term safely. Her staff members are carefully chosen for their empathetic approach.

Empowerment: She goes to great lengths to ensure that she and her staff treat patients with respect and consideration.

This is called “The JJ Way.” An outside evaluation of the 600 or so women she saw annually found preterm birth and low infant birth weight rates among her patients significantly lower than rates in other settings. Her clients of African descent were almost 40 percent less likely than women of a similar race throughout the nation to have a preterm labor or a child with a low birth weight.

We’ve been talking a lot about the problem of maternal mortality. There are solutions. Jenny Joseph isn’t the only provider modeling these kinds of best practices. Many midwives across the US are doing transformational work—based largely on… caring for people. In a way that they can feel cared for.

At the core of it, I deeply believe that people need to feel cared for. We crave it. It drives us. It makes us feel braver and stronger, relaxed and at ease. That’s what my work is about—a bridge between “this is good to know” and “you are loved.”

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