I never thought I’d do a bikini competition.
Growing up, I was NOT an active kid. Well, I was active in the sense that I ran around outside with my friends playing Cops & Robbers, but I never played a sport. I preferred art and science and didn’t care at all for anything competitive or athletic. So when I decided I was going to try out bodybuilding, pretty much everyone was surprised.
What got me interested in bodybuilding in the first place?
As you know, I went to school for fashion design to become a knitwear designer. In my first few years of school, I found myself falling into the trap of the “fashion body” – skinny was prettier, better, and cooler. I was sketching rail-thin Amazons and staring at bony models all day in runway shows, fitting on super-slim figures and, consequently, critiquing my body every moment in between. I was always a skinny kid growing up, but suddenly I found myself doing everything I could to keep myself that way. It wasn’t a healthy mindset, and it didn’t take me long to realize I wasn’t healthy physically, either.
I love research, and I’ve always been fascinated with nutrition (reading Michael Pollan freshman year changed my LIFE). I started doing lots of digging into eating disorders and the extent to which they plague the fashion industry. I wrote a paper for one of my classes on the dangers of unrealistic body image and the pressure young girls feel to meet them. Looking for a way to reset my mind towards a healthier lifestyle, I started peeking at fitness blogs.
This is where things really got going. Tumblr was a pretty hot platform when I was in school, so I’d spend countless afternoons scrolling through #fitspo and saving images of fit women (who, in hindsight, weren’t THAT much healthier looking than the fashion models I was used to). As time wore on, I found myself liking more muscular bodies – until one day, I saw a bikini competitor’s picture.
BOOM. She looks amazing. Can I be that?
I had been following Cassey Ho’s blog, Blogilates, for a few years by then, but when I read about the bikini competition I started getting excited. I had never seen anything like that before, and didn’t even know it existed. I had already been doing Pop Pilates videos in my bedroom, but Cassey’s training got me a little bit interested in weight lifting for the first time. I started going to the gym with my boyfriend (who had to teach me everything) but without a dedicated program, I didn’t make a ton of progress.
The summer of The Big Coincidence
That summer, I decided to forgo my usual co-op semester and do an entrepreneurial quarter instead. With my peaking interest in fitness, I designed and prototyped a small activewear collection. I had a ton of fun doing it, and while spending my summer days researching, sketching, and sewing, I dedicated some time to learning about bodybuilding as well.
That’s when I bought The Magazine. I was at the grocery store, and I popped down the book and magazine aisle to see if there was anything I wanted. I grabbed a Muscle & Fitness Hers and took it home. This was my first fitness magazine that actually talked about bodybuilding – not just pilates and running and yoga, but actual iron pumping for females. I opened to the first spread and there it was – a comparison of a bikini, figure, and fitness competitor, side by side, and they encompassed, to me, the most badass beautiful women I’d ever seen in my life.
Figure became my goal, right there
I spent the rest of the summer deciding on a training plan to get me to look like that figure competitor. I told myself I’d compete in bikini first, to give myself the experience and some motivation along the way – knowing it would take a couple years for me to build up enough “figure size” muscle! I was headed off to my first job out of college at the end of the summer, where I’d have my own apartment for the first time – aka an opportunity to be in complete charge of my meals, my schedule, and my lifestyle. It was exciting.
The Plan was set in motion to begin the very day I started my job. I’d sign up for a gym membership, meal plan and grocery shop, and get the ball rolling. I show up to work, complete training, and am assigned to my team – and head out to be picked up by my new boss. She arrives, in all her muscular glory – delts, quads, everything. I follow her back to our desk area, the whole time thinking, oh my god, I think my boss does what I want to do. She did.
The Big Coincidence
She immediately became my coach. Having just won her Figure Pro card, she was everything I wanted to be. We’d work a full day together, then go straight to the gym and train for 2 hours together. I’d text her nutrition questions. She’d tell me her favorite protein powder flavors. It was literally the best and biggest coincidence I couldn’t have even made up or asked for.
The big day came when my competition rolled around. I was excited – I had incredible coaching, felt confident about my posing routine, and was stoked to eat a giant cheeseburger after the darn thing was over. The competition environment was riveting – everyone was shiny and tan, my boyfriend didn’t recognize me in my overloaded makeup and skin color, and I was pumped up by the idea that all the people surrounding me were obsessed with the same thing.
How and why it all ended, right there, even though it didn’t
I placed third … out of 3. Which was fine. I was a little discouraged, but it was a small class in a small, natural federation, and I knew someone had to take that spot in the bikini competition. HOWEVER … the two girls that beat me both had one thing in common – breast implants! Clearly articulated, sharply defined chicken cutlets.
This is NOT uncommon in this industry. Not at all. However, it got the gears turning in my head – it’s all about aesthetics again! Here I was, trying to get away from the fashion industry’s image obsessed ways, and I’d just wandered into a different industry’s body image fixation. A healthier one, but not the point.
I continued training for 6 more months, bulking up to a healthy size that was 35 pounds over where I started from! Now, this sounds scary and giant, but I needed every single one of those pounds. I looked healthy, and I felt strong, for the first time. My lifts were going up steadily and I was seeing changes take place in my body that made me proud. I started to realize something.
I wanted to be a part of something that celebrated goals, not looks.
My competition bug started slowly dying. I got less and less excited about the prospect of stepping on stage again, to be scrutinized and picked apart by my appearance alone. What about the badass squat I did the other day? Does anyone care about that? All those months and years of prep work, to come down to a few measly seconds under some bright lights. It just didn’t seem fair, or satisfying, for all that work put in.
This is where my motivation slumped, big time. I could no longer get myself to train as hard or as dedicatedly while working full time – my heart just wasn’t in it! My coach / boss moved to the west coast, so my gym sessions became lonely. Bodybuilding can be a very solitary sport, in that way – you aren’t on a team, you’re just you. If you don’t have someone training with you or pushing you, it’s easy to get defeated and lose sight of what you once had or wanted.
Getting derailed, and hopping on the train again
Towards the end of my bikini competition, I had another thing going on in my life getting me down – a strange, persistent, excrutiating pain radiating through my entire abdomen. I saw multiple doctors and specialists, including a homeopathic nutritionist; tried a handful of different prescriptions and had many tests done to try and figure out what was going on. No one had any ideas to offer me! Unable to handle the pain when it got up to 12 hours a day, my training slid. Those final days, months after my competition trying to bulk up for figure, were numbered and I eventually stopped to transition myself into a more “normal” lifestyle.
The pain lasted for an odd year or so, and then one day, it just stopped. Like, just like that. I woke up, it never came around, and the next day, or the next day, the same thing happened. I’ll never get an explanation for it, now that it’s gone – but I couldn’t be more thankful to have energy and a full range of motion of my torso again. The motivation started to come back.
My boyfriend and I moved into a house (still a rental) but it had a garage – we wanted this so we could put together a home gym for ourselves. We started training again, with a focus on strength and hitting PR goals. During this time, a friend of mine started doing Crossfit, and we heard a lot about, as anyone who does Crossfit will tell you! We didn’t know much about it, so we were hesitant to get excited or interested. Isn’t it like a fitness cult? Why don’t people shut up about it? Isn’t doing work for speed a little dangerous?
Well, we signed up, and now we aren’t looking back
We finally were talked into taking the fundamentals class. While my boyfriend and I loved having our home gym to work out in, we were lacking in the motivation that comes with a coach or trainer. We decided to give it a go – and were blown away.
The support, the community, the focus on GOALS and PROGRESS – it was such a welcome change to what I experienced with bodybuilding. Now, this is just one person’s experience – I don’t mean to knock the entire sport, or discourage anyone from doing it! I know plenty of people who feel happy and supported in competing on stage.
It just wasn’t for me, and hopefully you understand why. I feel so much happier focusing on getting stronger and faster – and much less obsessed with my body image, which sort of just “falls into place” with all the training and healthy eating I’ve been doing anyway. If that doesn’t sound appealing, well, sometimes you just have to try it.