Bonnie Crowder’s moment of truth came as she sat in a café in Anaheim, Calif. Like many moms, she didn’t like her body: Despite efforts to lose the baby weight, her stomach still looked fat and unattractive to her eyes.
Then a fit-looking mom walked by, and as she hoisted up the infant carrier in her arms, her shirt hiked up to reveal a glimpse of flabby tummy – the same post-baby belly that Crowder had thought was her secret shame.
“I thought, maybe this isn’t my fault,” Crowder says. “Maybe this is normal.”
Then Crowder had a third thought, one that would change her life and change the attitudes of thousands of women: “I thought, more people need to see this.”
At that moment, “Shape of a Mother” was born. Certain that more people needed to see what real women’s bodies look like after pregnancy and birth — not just the air-brushed and creatively lit six-pack abs in glossy magazines – the San Diego mother of two started a website where mothers send in photos of their bodies. Don’t expect artfully shot portraits with strategically placed shadows: These women get real. Stretch marks, C-section scars, dimply thighs and wonky breasts are on display here.
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Crowder wasn’t sure whether anyone else would care, but submissions started rolling in almost immediately. She has posted 1,700 entries over the past five years, some anonymous and some with names and faces. The site has been so successful, she recently started a new site called “This is a Woman” to share images of all kinds of real women’s bodies – not just moms. Along with the photos on Shape of a Mother, she gets heartfelt, sometimes achingly confessional posts from women explaining their complicated relationships with their post-baby bodies.
“I feel as if I am disgusting, I look in the mirror and don’t even see myself anymore. Every part of me has changed, everything. I want to love who I am, but I can’t,” one mom of an 8-month-old wrote.
The community of women who comment on the site jump in quickly with encouraging words for new mothers struggling with depression. Other women post photos of their imperfect bodies with notes of defiance, even glee.
“I am 8 months postpartum. I weigh roughly 155 lbs. I get asked if I am pregnant at least once a month. But I wouldn’t trade that for anything, because I got two of the most amazing little girls out of it. My jello-like tummy, silver stripes and C-section scar are my battle wounds. I am an Amazonian warrior. I am a mother,” one mother of twins wrote.
It’s impossible to separate the emotional outpouring from the photos, Crowder explains. “We are told we are only as valuable as what we look like,” she tells TODAY.com. “Every scar you get on your body is a scar on your heart and soul as well.”
Crowder is providing a valuable public service for women by creating a safe place to share the reality of post-partum bodies, says Dr. Gail Saltz, psychiatrist and TODAY contributor.
“It gives you a more realistic expectation that counters all the celebrity moms that look fantabulous two weeks later,” Saltz says. Moms may know intellectually that everyone’s body changes with pregnancy, but a picture is worth a thousand words, she says: “It’s one thing to know, another thing to see. Otherwise, you look down and you feel bad.”
For Crowder, her days of looking down at her own body and feeling bad are over. She says working on the website completely changed her own body image.
“The very first thing that happened was I stopped insulting myself. I didn’t start complimenting myself, but after a few months it made an incredible difference in how I felt about myself,” she says. “The very act of seeing so many shapes and sizes and degrees of changes in women’s bodies, it widens my view of what’s normal. It widens my view of what’s beautiful.”
She says she'll always remember one particular submission that arrived soon after she started Shape of a Mother. It was from a blogger named Heather whose first son died soon after birth. Her body bounced right back to normal, and no one could even tell she’d been pregnant. She ached for some sort of physical proof that her child had existed.
“Sometimes those stretch marks that everyone hates can be something another yearns for,” Heather wrote. “Mamas: cherish your battle wounds, your stretch marks and bellies. They are beautiful.”