As a professional runner, Stephanie Bruce often pushed her body to the limits. But when she had two babies in the space of 15 months her shape changed beyond recognition. It was only then that her doctors diagnosed her with a rare condition that affected her whole stomach.
Bruce comes from Flagstaff, Arizona. She lives with her husband Ben, who is also a full-time athlete. Together they document their training and coaching exploits on their website and on social media.
In 2014, though, Bruce took a break from racing when she was pregnant with her first child. But after giving birth to a son, the runner quickly became pregnant once again. In fact, she ended up becoming a mom twice in the space of just 15 months.
For Bruce, taking time off to start a family had been a big step. “As a professional runner, not a lot of women take time off in their careers to have a baby because there’s a lot of fear about getting back to your pre-baby self,” she explained to Today. “We don’t have maternity leave. We won’t necessarily be getting paid while we’re pregnant.”
But although Bruce was off the track for a while, she didn’t quit her blog or social media accounts. Instead, she turned her attention to her changing body. Like many women, the way pregnancy and birth had transformed her shape fascinated her.
Moreover, her posts were brutally honest. Bruce didn’t think any subject was taboo. So she spoke openly about incontinence and her struggle to get back into shape. “I was just being real and sharing the truth,” she later told Today.
“I got back to training and still had a lot of incontinence and problems and, I was like, does this happen to other women? So I just put it out there — and it does,” she said. “People always joke that elite runners are superhuman, but I still pee my pants once a month.”
As a result of her candid approach to motherhood, Bruce attracted scores of fans. On her Instagram page, in fact, she soon clocked up more than 63,000 followers. And it was her frank discussions about her figure that they empathized with.
Posting about her health and body wasn’t new for Bruce; she had first started blogging after doctors had diagnosed her with celiac disease back in 2010. Her diagnosis marked the end of years of illness and enabled her to strive to be a professional runner.
Moreover, one of Bruce’s favorite subjects to post about was her stomach. While it was once tight and sculpted, two pregnancies had left her tummy soft and saggy. And she wasn’t afraid to put it out there for the whole world to see.
“Eight months post-baby and I can still stick a finger in between my abs in what I affectionately call the ‘donut hole,’” Bruce wrote on Instagram following the birth of her first son. “I know things are getting stronger on the inside despite appearances on the outside.”
Then following the birth of her second son, Bruce added, “I have a very bad case of diastasis recti and stretch marks from two babies born 15 months apart. I am partly self-conscious, but you’ll still see me rocking my stomach in my sports bra and race kit when my body is ready. Lots of work to do to get these abs back together and rebuild my core.”
Diastasis recti is the splitting of the left and right abdominal muscles. The condition is common in pregnancy and affects around two thirds of women. Furthermore, it is more likely to happen to women who have more than one baby in quick succession.
The opening forms during pregnancy when the unborn baby puts pressure on the front of the stomach. The gap usually closes shortly after childbirth. Sometimes, though, the space can still be there up to a year later.
For Bruce, it was important to speak honestly about a condition that affects many new mothers. So she wrote about it at length in a blog post entitled, “My abs are separated, contemplating divorce.” And, as usual, she tackled the subject with her signature sense of humor.
“I can stick three fingers in my belly in the space between the left and right sides of my abdominal muscles,” she wrote. “It’s the most unnatural natural part of pregnancy and the post-partum side effects. They call this diastasis recti, and it is the bane of my existence.”
Stephanie hoped that through her example other women could learn to love their post-partum bodies. According to her, mothers should be proud of their figures no matter what shape they are. And, although she has denied that she is an inspiration, Bruce has certainly inspired many women.
“I could be looking at my own stomach in this pic, even down to the pointy little navel,” one woman wrote beneath one of Bruce’s Instagram posts. “You are a huge inspiration. HUGE! I will be following you avidly from now on. Thanks for keeping it real and wearing your marks and shape so proudly.”
When her children were old enough, Bruce returned to training, feeling more determined than ever. And while she didn’t make Team USA for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, she has more recently turned her attention to running marathons.
Bruce’s journey proves that even professional athletes go through the same body changes in pregnancy as mere mortals. And if she can learn to love her changing shape, then the rest of us should try to as well. After all, the marks that pregnancy leaves are a testament to the amazing achievement of bringing life into the world.