Website celebrates real moms’ beauty, stretch marks and all

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.

  • Slideshow Photos

    No air-brushing here! Moms share their photos and write about how they feel about their bodies after having a baby -- whether sad or proud.

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    "I am actually kind of nervous about putting this up for people to see, but at the same time, I felt really drawn to it when looking back through old folders - I hope others will see in it what I do, but if not, it still touches me and reminds me of the vulnerability and fierce proudness felt in those first early days of motherhood."

    Courtesy of Cassie Fox / Courtesy of Cassie Fox
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    Bellies of every size and shape: A "Shape of a Mother" get-together in the park, shot by site founder Bonnie Crowder.

    Courtesy of SOAM / Courtesy of SOAM
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    "I find it ironic that I appreciate my body now more than I did when it was a relatively tight little thing in high school. I used to curse what I called a 'pot belly' and would wear oversized sweatshirts to hide it. Over two decades later my tight little pot belly is softened, scarred and sagging in places, yet I can now look in the mirror and rejoice in the beauty of my body."

    Courtesy of Angela / Courtesy of Angela
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    "These images are so many things to me... I feel awfully proud when I look at them, because I see the same woman who said and wrote such heart wrenchingly sad things about that body... I see the woman who started learning to accept her flaws. I see a young woman who is happy, confident, and strong... who carried, gave birth, and nourishes this delicious little babe. I see someone beautiful. At moments, I feel incredibly vulnerable about these images. But I feel like they hold power- and I hope mostly- that they will help someone else to feel a little bit more compassionate towards their perfectly imperfect body."

    Courtesy of Erin Darcy / Courtesy of Erin Darcy
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    "My partner clearly completely fancies and adores me. He is loving and supportive and we share the same ideals, hopes and dreams from life. He sees my belly, both when pregnant and after as a beautiful miracle thing which has produced beautiful children. This attitude couldn’t help but rub off on me. I am finally feeling proud of my body and the wonderful work it’s done and is continuing to do. ... I am so proud of these photos it seemed fortuitous to then discover this website, so I’ve decided to share them with you. This is my biggest step yet in accepting my body, especially as I’ve decided to show you my face too."

    Courtesy of Corinne Hills / Courtesy of Corinne Hills
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    "Mommy tummies are beautiful. Period."

    Courtesy of Christina Adcock-Azb / Courtesy of Christina Adcock-Azb

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 “Every scar you get on your body is a scar on your heart and soul as well.”

TODAY Moms: Why one mother bared her post-baby body on the Internet

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.”

Related story: Negative body talk dominates many women's thoughts

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.”