Readers Roundtable: Are Steph Bruce’s Abs Overshadowing Her “A” Standard?

Does the 'gram on the right overshadow the 'gram on the left when Steph crushed the Oly A standard in the 10k at the Stanford Invite?
Does the ‘gram on the right overshadow the ‘gram on the left when Steph crushed the Oly A standard in the 10k at the Stanford Invite?

Stephanie Bruce is a talented and dedicated athlete who has put up some insanely inspiring performances mere months after not only having a baby, but her second baby in 15 months and overcoming a nasty case of diastasis recti. Even for a professional athlete, Steph’s comeback is incredible. When she announced her surprise second pregnancy, the general consensus in the pro-runner world was, if she’s serious about making an Olympic team, what is she thinking?! Even Steph herself seemed to feel that way, but she sought help and support and made a back-up plan. And it’s panning outThat is inspiring and it will be a gazillion times more inspiring if she defies the odds and makes the team. Imagine!

But is all the talk about her imperfect, post-pregnancy belly overshadowing her athletic achievements? Are we really celebrating her achievements when all the talk is about how she looks? When a professional athlete is portrayed as “brave” simply for wearing her running clothes in public, is this ignoring or exacerbating a larger issue? If a man were publicizing his body issues, how would we treat him differently? Even if it’s true, does any of that matter?

We want to hear from you! Tell us what you think!

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I appreciate the message about doing awesome things without having a “model perfect” body and on the other hand, I hate the fixation on a woman’s body. Part of the reason why it’s important to have a conversation about women having normal bodies with all its imperfections is because of the societal/cultural standard of what it means to be beautiful as a woman. We don’t talk about men’s bodies nearly to the same extent because there’s a wider range of “acceptable bodies” for men to have. If their bodies are outside those norms, I think we talk about it. Because the range for women is narrower, we talk about women’s bodies more.

    1. If it was just about demonstrating that non-standard runner bodies can do awesome runner things then why not just do the awesome runner things with that non-standard runner body? And yes, I have a gazillion mixed feelings about it too!

      1. I’ve often thought I’d be even more impressed if she didn’t comment on how her abs look, and just posted the photos because they show her training.

  2. I like that people are more open now about the significant physical changes that happen during/after pregnancy, especially the embarrassing stuff. I also appreciate SB’s standing up to skinny shaming.

    I’m also pleased that her story has generated some general public interest in track — but it is so frustrating (and cliched!) that it is because of appearance!

    This is sort of a disjointed comment, but it was a tiring weekend. 😉

    1. No! I think you touch on something. If we’re going to be really real, there’s a lot of marketing going on with what Steph is doing. Maybe her initial ‘gram was intended to get press, but maybe not. Either way, it has and it’s helped her business, her team, and her sponsors. Has it helped women in general? And as you suggest has it helped the sport?

      1. I agree, of course there was marketing behind her decision to Instagram her abs – but I think her photos also have value to women in general, because we need more images of bodies that haven’t been starved and photoshopped within an inch of their lives.

        I was actually thinking as I ranted below that this has surely been good for her career. good for her,I say!

      2. Pregnant female athletes are in danger of losing sponsorship or being subjected to reduction clauses in contracts. So I think the PR is also valuable in showing that female athletes are worth sponsoring even through pregnancy/postpartum. Seems like SB has actually been a boon to Oiselle during this time.

  3. I think her accomplishments are changing the conversation about pregnancy, and a female athlete’s “worth” as a mom. I’m rooting for her. That being said, the only conversations or discussion about her body that I’ve seen have been started by Stephanie herself. We seem to be talking about her body because she wants to talk about it in an attempt to normalize and advocate. Her social media is the source of the photos and information, and she’s been pretty proactive about pitching her “DA but still a BA” story to sports and mainstream media. I’m not sure we’d really be talking about it much if it weren’t for her efforts to start that conversation. I’m willing to concede that I don’t hang out in the dark holes of the internet, so maybe I’ve been lucky to see only the Stephanie-led side.

    1. I totally agree with you on this! It seems like it keeps being a topic of conversation, because she is setting the agenda.

    2. I absolutely agree, Hillary. I think it’s awesome that Stephanie has been so up front about her DR and what she’s doing to resolve it, but so far the only conversations I’ve seen about her midsection have been started by Steph herself.

    3. Yes, I think so many people counted her out for not following the unwritten rules of elite motherhood – have one baby immediately after last attempt to make Olympic team or the Olympics if you make a team and no more until, maybe, you’re ready to retire. She tried to follow the rules, but oops. And how many of us can relate to that? That’s awesome!

      I’m not sure, though, the motives behind the social media/press about her appearance are all so pure in that it’s not 100% about making the world a better place. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s just to say that the attention is good for business. It’s a brilliant marketing move to appeal to the masses of runners and get herself up there with the likes of Kara Goucher as a fan favorite. As talented as Steph is, she probably is never going to make huge endorsement deals the way Shalane can through sheer amazing performance. But, she can grow a loyal following, which she is doing. Again, brilliant and not bad per se. And deserved, in my opinion.

      But … my concern is that in doing this we’re reinforcing this idea that women’s looks matter above all else. That’s annoying. I want Steph to be a hero for making shit work, not because she has crepey stomach skin. But, maybe I’m in the minority and overly idealistic 🙂

      1. I’m totally in the camp that this is 100% a rally-cry and marketing campaign by Steph, and I agree that it’s really smart for a certain audience. Unfortunately, I think the designated rally cry coming from Oiselle right now is “mother runner” (Kara’s jumped on this HARD lately, too), which is totally admirable to engage a certain community that might feel intimidated by post-partum workouts, but it also just feels really contrived to me in a lot of ways, and is a huge turn-off in that sense. Both women are screaming “I AM MOTHER!” from the rooftops, but then turning around and perhaps seem frustrated that that’s all people see. I think Oiselle knows it can’t compete in the “pro athlete winning big races” camp, so it’s shifted to a different market. It’s a tough balance, I think, but it’s an unfortunate focus on their bottom line versus their athletes reputation, and as a brand I think they’re doing a bit of a disservice to their athletes in this way.

        As far as men vs women, I think if Kobe shattered his femur, and documented the cast and recovery on a daily basis with #kobeleg, and then his healing gave him a crepey bump that people weren’t used to seeing, and he wore short shorts to show it off and talked about how he was overcoming his injury, and managed to up his 3pt percentage in the process, I genuinely think the press would be saying, “He’s back and better than ever… even with that thing on his leg,” and there would be articles about “What is that thing on Kobe’s leg.” The difference is that injured athletes don’t tend to want to put focus on their injuries because it makes them less recruitable or valuable as an athlete. I tend to admire the way that Alysia Montano has handled it — she talks about it from time to time, but she focuses more on what she’s doing, not how she’s healing (and I know her case isn’t quite the same).

        1. #kobeleg FTW!

          Yes, as cynical as I am, I admire Alysia Montano and she reads authentic to me – just doing her thing and not milking it at every turn. She just showed up to the track pregnant and did her thing. She didn’t call a press conference beforehand (although maybe she did and I missed it). Even with the doping stuff, she seems real and trying to show the damage doping does … without making it all about her. I admire that immensely.

        2. I 100% agree about Alysia Montano…she didn’t have to talk about it or show it ALL the time. Sure the media had a big part in blowing it all up more, but you have to expect that. She made a statement without doing so every day or every time she posted a photo or tweet.

    4. But what’s the male athlete’s worth as a father? We don’t care, we assume it has no bearing on his athletic career. Is it right to place worth, whether it’s more or less, on her because she had a kid? I think it’s damaging to all of us to perpetuate this narrative that a woman’s family status is how the public should define her.

      1. I probably phrased that wrong 🙂 I think there’s a difference between being a runner with a kid and being a runner who was pregnant. I don’t think the kid really negatively impacts how we see athletes; a lot of male athletes are now very vocal about being a dad and bringing their kids around (i.e. Mo Farah, Steph Curry). I once worked in an NBA locker room for a Christms Day game and saw pro athletes laugh with each other about how they were really tired because they were up assembling a dollhouse and a bike. Fortunately, I think *parenting* as a pro athlete rarely comes under fire, regardless of gender.

        At the end of the day, we judge all athletes “worth” on their ability to perform. I see pregnancy like an injury in male athletes – they’re both trauma to the body that can impact future performance, and male athletes are definitely thrown into that “can they come back?” conversation on a regular basis. Unfortunately, men can’t get pregnancy trauma, so there’s an inherent need to categorize “pregnancy” and “motherhood” as female athlete-specific issues. I 100% agree that emphasizing “I’m a *woman* who *had a baby* but I can still ____” is dangerous and feels defensive in some ways. I think it’s more valuable to for female runners to say, “I’m a *runner* who has overcome *injury* and am still ____.” Women athletes are new-ish to begin with; women athletes who’ve had to bounce back from pregnancy are ever newer. It’s reasonable that they’re a little defensive about what that means for their future, but I think in some ways the less we force people to see that it’s *different* than men’s injuries, the more it will be treated the same.

        1. I definitely get your point. BUT I have one caveat. I don’t think that injuries and pregnancy fall on the same level. No one chooses to get injured, there is not 100% certain way to prevent injury, and life post-injury is not the same as life post-baby. Pregnancy is controllable (for the most part, granted abstinence is the only 100% foolproof way to make sure it doesn’t). Babies will affect your life for far longer than an injury will. I say this, as I just had this conversation with a friend who has overcome many injuries but is afraid to get pregnant because she is afraid of the “injury comeback”. It’s not the same, there is so many positives that come from the pregnancy, but yes there are side effects and hurdles you will encounter when returning to running. But pregnancy is not an injury, IMHO.

          But again, I do get your point. The more we try and force the differences between men and women to be seen, the harder it will be to be treated the same.

          1. Totally get your point, and definitely didn’t mean to relegate having a baby to a broken leg 😉 My main comparison point was just that with both scenarios, your body is adjusting to trauma and maybe coming back a little differently (good or bad!). Gait changes, muscle redevelopment or rehab, etc. are all inherent in both pregnancy and non-pregnancy body trauma, and can effect you for the time being or forever, depending on the intensity of the trauma. 🙂

  4. My thoughts about this are in two categories: how I feel about what Steph is saying and doing to promote openness about women’s bodies, vs. how her message has been coopted (e.g. By people magazine) into part of the b.s. “real bodies”/fake, marketing driven “body positivity” discourse that only wants to keep us in our little boxes by telling us how to feel about ourselves.

    Wow, that was a long sentence.

    So first of all, Steph has done amazing things with her running. Wow. And I think her openness about the changes pregnancy has wrought on her body is really good. There is so much misinformation out there about women’s bodies and so many bullshit beliefs and expectations about what’s “normal”. And as a result, so many women feeling like there’s something wrong with them, feeling a sense of shame for having, say, stretch marks, or diastasis. Good for her for doing something to change that.

    The fact that she’s now better known for her abs than for her running is frustrating, but not surprising. What I really can’t stand is the way her images have gone viral, appeared in people mag,etc., with this condescending “oh look, she’s not a model but she dares to be seen in skimpy clothes anyway!” accompanying commentary that they want us to think is “body positivity”. It’s not body positivity if you’re more interested in how her body looks than in what it can do. And that’s what body positivity has become, at least as coopted by the media: another way to tell us what to think and keep us focused on how we look to other people. Because a woman who’s figured out her body can do things, and who takes pleasure in those things, is a woman with a great deal of strength.

    I have many, many additional thoughts on the body positivity thing, and on being told I should think I’m beautiful, but they get even more tangential to this particular post, so I’ll save them for another time 😀

    1. I think also, what’s interesting, is that because Steph “broke the rules” and had those two back-to-back pregnancies she experienced far more of those post-pregnancy icky things than probably any national class runner to come before her. So, in a way, it’s really exposing her world to the harsh realities of pregnancy that many other women have to endure. Bouncing back from one pregnancy is NBD (usually) compared to two in a short time span and almost no one in that circle can relate to that, while us out in the rest of the world have had to deal with that forever.

  5. Unfortunately, body image, especially for women, will always be a hot topic for discussion. As a website/blog that supports women’s running, if you don’t like the focus on her body, why not write about her awesome athletic accomplishments instead? Of course a magazine like People will focus on her body because their reader base is all types of women, not just runners. This is a great opportunity for a running-based publication to showcase Steph’s athletic talents.

    1. Fair point. Our team has had mixed feelings about the conversation around Steph for a while. I personally have mixed feelings. I think it’s a good discussion point to air them out and get more perspectives to weigh in on it. I debated whether we should do a roundtable on it or something else. We started here because we figured if we have so many mixed feelings and differing viewpoints others must too. I appreciate your thoughts and thank you for pushing us 🙂

    2. I see your point and appreciate it, but I also think there is still a very important role for SR (and others) to call out a focus on body image instead of performance to emphasize how focused the media is still on the female athlete’s body (and, in relation, how women are still judge based on their appearance). If we just ignore it, we aren’t calling attention to the fact that it is deeply problematic to focus on a woman’s body instead of what she can do. By doing that, we can challenge the assumption that body image will always be a hot topic for discussion. I, for one, hope that is not the case.

  6. My abs have that lovely space down the middle, too– on the one hand it’s nice to see a real picture that isn’t airbrushed/touched up, on the other hand get over it. We’ll know we’ve gotten somewhere when it doesn’t make headlines for months when a “real” picture is published.

  7. Like many others I see 2 sides of the situation. I think it’s great that Steph is starting conversations, breaking the mold a bit so to speak. But I hate that the conversation is centered around how someone looks. Is that any better than the women who are incessantly posting ab selfies? I’d rather hear about her accomplishments without everything being followed with- she’s a mom, she has these post-baby issue she is dealing with, etc. Like come on, she is badass in her own right. But that doesn’t mean I need to see her stomach all over every damn social media outlet. Every single women has a “real body”, trying to state someone like Steph has a real body is almost like saying someone like Shalane doesn’t. It’s stupid, unnecessary classifications. A real body is a living breathing body, there doesn’t need to be some standard pointing out a flaw in order for it to be real.

    When it comes to the “agenda” behind all of it, I do think it comes down to the Mother runner thing. Which as we’ve discussed in previous roundtables can be another controversial topic, but certainly a conversation to be had. A woman’s achievements do not need to be immediately followed up by her child status every time she does something. How many times do the announcers talk about how many kids Meb has, or what about Rupp having twins at home. Just because they didn’t give birth (therefore their bodies probably haven’t changed as a result), doesn’t mean they are less of parents. We talk about “mom’s who do it all” and I give them so much credit, Steph gets it done- and I love reading those articles about how she makes it work. I’d rather read those articles any day than articles and photos about how she LOOKS as a result. FWIW I’d also love to read more about male runners and their personal lives and families behind the scenes just as I would women. They’re real humans too, with lives and training and personal obligations such as kids to take care of.

  8. I think she’s just self conscious about it. I mean, she’s standing on the starting line with all these girls who mostly have 6 packs, so she wants to make a big deal about it as a defense mechanism. Same thing about the way she makes about big deal about having 2 babies in 15 months. Ooops, her mistake, instead of someone giving her a hard time, she’ll just talk about how hard it is to preempt them.

    And I second all the positive comments on Alysia Montano! She’s awesome, and just puts that into action, instead of insecurely calling attention to herself.

    1. That thought did occur to me – how it could be really tough to see yourself as this lithe athlete who has to defend herself against skinny-shaming to a woman who, while still very thin, isn’t seen by the outside as “perfect” as she seemed before. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the impetus for the whole thing, but I highly doubt there wasn’t some element of a calculated marketing move either.