It seemed farcical. An ardent women’s rights advocate, and outspoken feminist, especially on body issues, I would be entering a fitness competition where winning meant being judged solely on appearance, presence and onstage personality.
12 weeks later, I’ve rarely been so humbled. The twice a day cardio and weight training and strict nutrition program brought me back to my swim meet days and seemed the natural progression of the training I’d already been doing – although far more intense. I watched in amazement as my strength increased, my body morphed and I surpassed my limits by leaps and bounds. All at once, the only competition you see is the person in the mirror. The only goal that matters is bettering yourself. The consistency and dedication required are the same as in any other sport.
Stepping on stage for the first time in June, I took first place in the morning Open division against 30 other fantastic women, and then 1st overall in the Elite division at night, winning my pro card and earning an entry into the North Americans in November.
I felt like any other sports competitor might: that I’d worked hard and that it had paid off. Nevertheless, I never stopped thinking along the way. Here is what some of those thoughts looked like.
Q: Did people express concern about you getting too muscular as a woman, or that you looked unfeminine?
A: As an athlete, my body is built towards a result and might not always fit into the normalized concept of ‘beauty.’ Judgment, of course, is rampant. Comments on my body have been mostly positive, but they rest on the notion that my body is up for dissection in the first place, before I even step on stage. Unfortunately, they are often also accompanied by negative judgments on female bodybuilders or figure athletes, whose frames are far more muscular and thereby considered more ‘manly’ and ‘unattractive’. I always answer that it is not up to us to pass verdict and in this sport, these rulings should be reserved to those who do it best: the judges.
I have had men tell me I was too muscular, that I should watch out because men don’t like muscular women. I’ve listened to them all of zero times. I’ve learned that while men have bodies, women are their bodies. As an athlete, beauty stereotypes have to take a backseat to doing what you love: competing against the person in the mirror. I will always wear stretchy jeans to accommodate my legs and bum and I have a very strong back. It took me some time, but I am now very okay with this. We all have different bodies and learning to use mine to its fullest potential has been a very liberating process.
Q: What was the competition environment like in terms of being friendly/respectful of women competitors?
A: Because everyone at the competition has been through the same kinds of grueling training, nutrition and competing process, everyone is extremely respectful and supportive. In fact, I found being backstage and onstage completely refreshing. Indeed, on any other day, the men and women in their tiny suits might have been eye candy, but during a competition, they are merely an afterthought. This might sound odd, but I found it to be a feminist’s paradise. No one is judging me, for the first time in my life. I can’t compare myself to any other women, because all our bodies are so different. The criteria the judges use is very precise but is also very much based on your stage presence, posing, symmetry and overall look – all of which are extremely individual features.
Q: Did anyone express the opinion that standing on stage in a bikini was somehow incongruent with being a feminist?
A: I puzzled over this for a long time before beginning to train. And then, as soon as I began the morning and evening trainings, the nutrition program, as soon as I became an athlete again (and away from the ‘down season’), I forgot about it. Yes – I see that women are posing in bikinis being judged on their bodies, their faces, their personalities. Yes, I see that women are standing being judged, period. But so are men. We are all in the same boat, and the judges are male and female. It’s a sport that has been around since the dawn of time – pushing the limits of a body’s physical attributes into this so-called realm of ‘perfection.’
I do, however, think this is the deciding factor: I don’t live under the presumption that this is perfection at all. I know that fitness websites and ‘fitspiration’ messages are just as harmful as ‘thinspiration’ boards, parading near certain eating disorders in the name of health.
I think, as women, we are so happy to be able to do the fitness thing in a mainstream way because it’s a space we’ve never occupied before. It’s so traditionally male: being strong and fit and powerful with our bodies – and then showing it off without being told to be quiet or sit down. We should not, however, make it become the only space in which ‘sexy,’ ‘healthy’ and ‘fit’ women exist – because the reality is that there is an enormous variety of healthy and beautiful bodies out there.
“Strong is the new skinny” or “skinny is not sexy” – these are exclusionary statements. Anything can be sexy depending on the beholder and anything can just be – without needing to be sexy or sexual or intended for the ‘male gaze.’ Women need a space to simply exist – and what they choose in terms of health and body image should be their own – without the additional pressures of having a thigh gap or a six-pack. Aesthetic mandatories in the name of fitness are still lies masquerading as health.
Let me be clear and say that no one can happily look like those lean fitspiration pictures 365 days a year. For the .01% of people who do, that’s great. For the rest of competitors, the ‘off season’ is perhaps the most important part – your body must rest, your mind must recuperate – and if you’re going to come back with a better package, you need the food, the rest, and the strength. It is the hardest part, however, because all at once you see your body changing and you can’t help fearing it’s for the worst. This is where a lot of competitors develop eating disorders. It would be ridiculous to assume that one’s perception of beauty doesn’t change and sometimes it takes a while to regain perspective. Yet just as football trainers aren’t smart to train when injured, so fitness competitors are deluded in believing they can maintain such a low body fat percentage all year long and that this could even be a healthy goal.
That being said, if it is your choice to bench several plates and it is your goal to deadlift twice your body weight, I encourage you to do so! I am addicted to heavy weights, plyometrics and sprints on the stairmaster…. But I’m not sure that makes me better or sexier than anyone else. It just happens to fit the sport I partake in and love, and I get results from these activities that fit the criteria it takes to win.
I really believe that to be good at this type of competition, you have to love both aspects. Maybe you like being the center of attention – maybe you’re a natural performer. But you also have to love the training. Because the training is the most exhausting work I’ve ever done – training for swim meets doesn’t even come close. Your body becomes your tool, your prize possession, like Beckhams’ right foot, or a pitcher’s arm. You are judged on how well you have trained, how hard you have worked, and what you bring to complement that training.
Q: OK, but what about the implants?
A: Ah yes, the implants. First, body fat percentages drop so low for female athletes and especially for fitness competitors that often we lose our breasts completely. Personally, I’m a big fan of padding. But I’m not passing judgment on women that choose implants, and if this sport is your entire life, you might want to keep a ‘feminine’ look, or enhance your ‘curves’ for a fitness model look. I do think, however, that one should always examine one’s choices. What kind of pressures are you under that you would consider implants the only solution? If your body is your tool and you are getting implants to ‘perfect’ that tool in the industry and sport you are in, that’s your choice. You might equate it to men using steroids. All reasons are good reasons, because they are your own – but I would encourage women to thoroughly examine their choices.