If we’ve seen one “inspiring” postpartum body, we’ve seen them all. Honestly, I feel like I’ve seen so many stories about moms “bravely” sharing their stretch marks that I just kind of roll my eyes over them.
But when I saw 32-year-old professional runner Stephanie Bruce’s recent pictures, I sat up straight and paid attention. Because this is a mom who really is inspiring the heck out of women like me who know that no amount of exercise or diet is ever really going to change the way the skin on our stomach sags and hangs like wrinkled elephant skin.
Because despite being a professional athlete her entire life, Stephanie’s stomach looks, well, like mine. And more importantly, Stephanie is sharing real and raw pictures of her stomach without a lot of trumpets or fan fare because she’s too busy actually training and moving her body.
In other words, Stephanie is focusing her message on what our bodies as women and mothers are capable of doing, instead of just how they look.
Stephanie is a mom of two sons, who are 6 months and 21 months old. And as if that’s not awesome enough on its own, she’s actually training for the Olympics. She placed 8th in the women’s 10,000 meter run in the 2012 Olympic trails before taking time off to have her kids. Stephanie also manages training camps and coaching sessions with her husband Ben, who’s also her running coach.
There’s a lot of emphasis on women “having it all,” like admitting that our bodies needing physical time to grow, deliver, and recover from childbirth is some kind of weakness. Fitness inspiration shows women seemingly maintaining super-fit bodies and six-packs all throughout their pregnancies, and while I don’t doubt that’s possible for some women, that level of fitness doesn’t come without some sacrifice and effort. And in Stephanie’s case, she feels it’s more empowering to show the other side of the journey — that sometimes, taking a break to have kids is its own form of strength.
“Not many elite pro runners stop their careers to have babies, and I decided to take a break to have a child in between Olympic cycles,” Bruce told SELF in a recent interview. “It’s a journey not talked about very publicly as many women see elite runners as these superhuman women with super fit bodies and sometimes can’t relate.”
Stephanie, who went through years of sickness before being diagnosed with Celiac disease and starting her professional running career, views running as a form of empowerment. She’s been completely honest about the physical toll of pregnancy on her body and the hard work, sweat, and tears that go into training after having a baby — sharing her journey with the hashtag #journeywithsteph on Instagram.
Honestly, I feel like so many moms downplay how hard it really is, with cutesy fitness posts and inspiring messages, but you won’t find any of that posturing with Stephanie. Every step of the way, from her journey with diastasis recti to her first painful postpartum runs, is all out there for the world to see.
What I love most about Stephanie’s message is her focus on what her body can accomplish, instead of merely sharing how her body looks post-baby. I am so inspired by her positivity, strength and honesty. Stretch marks and saggy skin have no bearing on what your body is capable of and she’s proof of that and so much more.
Speaking to Stephanie over the phone, she explained in more detail the realities of being both a mother and a professional athlete.
“I felt like it wasn’t talked about that much,” she says. “After I gave birth, those days were so hard, and I felt so alone. Just trying to get back with running as my job, I made it like 5 minutes and couldn’t control going to the bathroom. I just thought, ‘OK, so does happen to other women?’ It just got me thinking that it was an issue that wasn’t talked about enough.”
Stephanie maintains that her goal is to empower women to know that they aren’t crazy; having babies is really, really hard — mentally, emotionally, and physically.
After a difficult first pregnancy herself (she delivered a 9 lbs. baby naturally with fourth-degree tears, and dealt with mastitis, thrush, and breastfeeding complications) she knows first-hand how lonely that difficult journey can be and wants women to realize their true strength in coming through those postpartum days.
“Bouncing back” isn’t easy for anyone, not even a professional runner bound for the Olympics. As Stephanie describes, her first run at about 10 weeks postpartum did not go as smoothly as she anticipated. “I went on a 3-minute run and it was the most demoralizing and humiliating moment of my life!” she says with a laugh.
But that moment made her realize that motherhood had changed her forever — and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just meant a new starting point.
Instead of beating herself down for what her body had gone through or lamenting the fact that her diastasis recti will mean she might be forever rocking a “baby bump,” Stephanie is proud of what her body has gone through and how she continues to grow stronger every day.
“You didn’t do anything wrong by giving birth!” says Stephanie. “You created life and that’s physically the hardest thing you will ever do. And I should know — I run marathons for a living.”