Who’s Gonna Cheer for Me? When Bodybuilding Feels Like an Exile.
“Don’t get too bulky.”
“All you care about is working out and what you eat.”
Do any of these sound familiar to you?
They sure do for me.
Here’s my story.
-By Jenny Baker
A Girl with a Plan.
My bodybuilding journey began over two decades ago after a brief and ungraceful career in gymnastics. While it was clear from that experience I lacked the grace and balance essential to the sport, I did come to appreciate the strength my body developed. Shortly after my retirement, a friend invited me to a gym and it was there that my love affair with weight lifting began.
It was also there that I learned about a sport known as “bodybuilding,” and I wanted to do it.
For many months I worked out with the intention to compete. Men at the gym showed me how to lift properly. I bought a posing suit via a company advertised in the back of “Muscle and Fitness” magazine. The owner of the gym taught me how to pose. The date for the contest was on my calendar. I was ready to do this!
Then Dad caught wind of my plans.
While it’s difficult to remember just exactly what was said, the message was clear: His daughter was not going to look like a man and she most certainly was not going to step on a stage in a bikini. He demanded that I put this foolish idea to rest and ordered me to remove the bodybuilding posters adorning my bedroom walls (Corey Everson, Lenda Murray, Rachel McLish – thanks for the inspiration!).
That was the day I learned that “unwavering support” didn’t apply to me.
So I didn’t compete after all. Only a couple years later I gave up bodybuilding all together.
Flash Forward 20 Years.
College. Food. Dating. Food. Marriage. Food. Kids. Did I mention food? Life left me fifty pounds heavier and four pant sizes bigger.
After many one-night-stands with exercise videos and a brief fling with cross fit, at the age of 39 somehow the gym and I reunited.
And my love for lifting weights returned as though it never left.
Incredibly, muscle definition began to find its way back fairly quickly (thanks muscle memory!), and so did a desire to live out a dream I had given up so many years before.
I was so sure, now that I was an adult and a mother and boring old housewife, that everyone around me, including my parents, would be pouring on the support. I mean, who wouldn’t encourage someone to carry out a lifelong dream?
Apparently, pretty much everyone.
In retrospect, I should have predicted the reaction from my parents. I suppose it was simply the desperate hope that they would be in the audience proud of their daughter’s determination and discipline despite being a 40 year old mother of two. But it was not to be. Mom responded that they would not attend the show and requested that I not talk further on the subject because it “upset” my father.
It was like ripping those posters down all over again.
However, with age comes a wider scope of family and friends. Clearly my parents were simply products of their generation and my extended circle would be much more accepting of my endeavors. But as I shared my plans with others, the reaction was nearly always the same: disinterested nods and forced smiles designed to disguise their underlying sense of judgment. Most didn’t understand the hard work and courage it would take to undergo such a transformation; instead they viewed it as a vain opportunity to walk on a stage half naked to show muscles that didn’t belong on my body in the first place.
And the diet required during prep? If I was at all unsure if judgment was perceived or real, all it took was a food-based event to reveal the truth. “You mean you’re not going to eat any of my super five cheese lasagna and triple cheddar garlic bread that I made especially for today?” or “C’mon, it’s not going to hurt you to have some birthday cake just this once” was said more times than I can count. People’s resentment was palpable whenever I suggested an alternative to eating out or offering to bring my own meal, and I felt like any mention of diet or exercise were taboo subjects best left in the closet.
If it weren’t for my husband – my biggest supporter, fan, and friend – I don’t know that I would have ever made it to the stage.
As it turns out, I’m not alone.
While writing this article I reached out to a group of competitors to ask if anyone shared a story similar to mine. I was overwhelmed with the response. From parents to husbands to best friends and even strangers; support can be difficult to find for women looking to step on the stage.
“Leading a healthy lifestyle is completely foreign to [my family],” says Shelley, a Figure competitor whose been strength training for 20 years. “My husband thinks I am having a mid-life crisis. My mother and best friend think I have an eating disorder.”
“My parents nor my sister support me,” Shania says only one week out from her first bikini competition. “People think I’m taking valuable time and energy away from my children. My mom thinks I am starting to look manly and not soft like a woman should be.”
Virginia, who competed last year, shares that her mother thinks she’s going to get “too big,” while at the same time worrying that she was getting “too skinny” when she was deep into prep.
Why is it that so many people frown upon women participating in this sport?
Some say jealousy. Others think perhaps it’s simply misconceptions about what a novice female bodybuilder actually looks like. I believe it has to do with gender roles and stereotypes.
The issue of muscular women is addressed in a great article by a website called The Conversation. In it the author writes, “A muscular woman challenges what it means to be a “real” woman or a “real” man. It challenges the assumption that all men are big, strong and powerful and that all women are smaller, weaker and dependent. A muscular woman can be wildly perplexing.”
In a society that still embraces the “sugar and spice and everything nice” ideology, it should come as no surprise that muscularity challenges the restrictive box of what it means to “be a woman.”
But don’t let that stop you.
While I wish I had a remedy for making people view our efforts to get to the stage with the awe and appreciation it deserves, I don’t. As Millennials everywhere have wisely pointed out, “Haters gonna hate.” And there’s not much we can do about it.
But that doesn’t mean you’re destined to ride this journey alone.
Support is all around you; you just need to know where to look.
Here’s where you might find it.
- It may be obvious, but support can be found just a click away. Facebook, Instagram, blogs; cyberspace has an endless supply of women interested in the sport of bodybuilding. Facebook in particular has large communities of Muscle Girls and it only takes finding one group of them to stumble upon hundreds of others. A great place to start is the GF2 Fitness and Contest Prep support forum where you’ll find others just like you.
- Lean on your coach. You hired him or her for a reason, and providing encouragement and support should be part of the deal. A coach is essential if this is your first time competing, and finding one who has competed themselves can provide an understanding others in your inner-circle won’t have. You can find coaches at your local gym or there are several online. I used an online coach for my first contest and would highly recommend her not only because she helped me win four trophies, but also because she was there to listen whenever times got tough. She provided opportunities for all of her clients to commiserate using Facebook, and made me feel part of a greater community of competitors. (Click here if you’d like her information.)
- Find other people competing in the same event as you. Pretty much every bodybuilding contest has an event page on social media, so finding other competitors is as easy as posting on a timeline. “Any ladies out there competing at this event?” seems to work well. If your state’s bodybuilding federation offers posing clinics, these are also great opportunities to develop relationships with like-minded women.
- Refuse to feel guilty. This one is worth saying again: REFUSE TO FEEL GUILTY. Mothers in particular struggle with insinuations that their dedication to rigid diet and exercise plans is impacting those around them (especially children). This may be true, but not in the ways one might think. There are far more positive examples to be gained from seeing you through this process: To follow your dreams no matter where you are in life. To stick to a commitment and see it through. To show courage in the face of adversity.So I encourage you to share this experience with your children. Tell them how hard it can be to exercise when you don’t want to. That you wish you could eat all the twinkies and ho hos in the world, but part of being an athlete is to show discipline. That it’s a scary thought to step on a stage in front of hundreds of people, but you will do it because you can do anything. These are life lessons worth that both children and adults can benefit from.
- Don’t forget you are an athlete. Football, basketball, wrestling – every sport requires a passionate commitment to training if you hope to succeed. Somehow this is understood and widely accepted for men and boys, but gender roles influence how women are viewed relating to athletic pursuits. The older you get, the more unacceptable it seems to become. However, spit in the face of society’s expectations and do what you want to do. Consider yourself an ambassador for redefining femininity for our newest generation of women.
- Finally, remember why you are doing this. Is it because you want to look in the mirror and love what you see? Because you love the spirit of competition? Because you want to prove you are stronger than you ever thought you could be? All of our reasons differ, but that’s not the point: What matters is that you are doing this for reasons that mean something to you. No one else has to understand why.
If you had
Or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted
In one moment
Would you capture it
Or just let it slip?
One final note.
I asked some of the ladies I referenced above if they had any pearls of wisdom to share with others who may find themselves lacking support . Here is what some said:
“Compete for you and not anyone else. It is a very fulfilling and empowering process. Use the anger to fuel your workouts.”
“Women should be strong and fearless. They can take an hour out of the day to have time for themselves. Teach your kids that it doesn’t matter what gender you are, anyone can be strong and fit.”
“Help your friends and family understand the reasons why you want to compete. Hire a good coach that you can trust and even introduce [your coach] to your family so they can see that you’re being careful. Explain that you will compete with or without their support, but it would help a great deal if they were positive about it.”
And when all else fails, just say “fuck you.”
Have you struggled with lack of support from the people around you? We’d love to hear it! Feel free to share your story in the comment section below. You never know, your experience may make a difference to someone else exactly like you.
Jenny Baker is a writer by trade, but left the corporate world to become a full time stay-at-home mom, which she complains endlessly about but would have no other way. Her favorite past times include pumping iron, eating, sleeping, and laughing at her own jokes. A mother of two children, two cats, one dog, and a husband, Jenny spends most of her days in yoga pants and thinking about cleaning the refrigerator (which she never does).
Despite her luxurious life, Jenny is currently pursing her Precision Nutrition Level I Certification, which will allow her the opportunity to help people everywhere realize that being fit doesn’t mean a diet made exclusively of chicken breast and salads. She hopes to hit the Figure stage once more this fall, but first has to convince herself that the prep diet — which she believes might be a viable option in fighting terrorism — is worth giving up french fries for.