Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fitness Competitions: A dissection of fitness, health and beauty ideals

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. Stepping on stage for the first time, 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.  

I felt like any other sports competitor might: that I’d worked hard and that it had paid off. Nevertheless, I never stopped struggling with some competing thoughts - here is an excerpt of what the discussion in my head looked like.

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 ‘physical 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 and how intelligently 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. The implants and the hair and the makeup and the crystal suit and those clear heels! Trust me, I'm the first to raise an arched brow at it all. I guess let's not forget that this is a fitness competition and bodies are on display. Naturally, given our social markers for beauty, we conform to displaying our bodies in a certain way, which includes all the traditional feminized accoutrements listed above. As for the implants, well, 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, if its your profession, you might want to keep a ‘feminine’ look, or enhance your ‘curves’ for a fitness model look. 

There is intense pressure in the fitness world for women, even at the highest levels of bodybuilding to maintain traditionally feminine 'curves', an attitude I find at complete odds with the sport itself. Its depressing to think of the internal struggle certain female athletes face in this community, in the mirror and on stage. Because of this, I think 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, perhaps 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 before undergoing what is still a very dangerous procedure for a goal that is perhaps not what they may want. Its a delicate issue, but at the base of it all, I trust and believe women and the choices they make.


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Anonymous said...

What are your thoughts on traditional beauty pageants? Are you for or against them and how do you see them in comparison to fitness/figure competitions

Anonymous said...

I am also a young woman dedicated to a healthy lifestyle who frequents the gym daily. Moreover, I'm considered 'very attractive' by the general public, and naturally my looks and physique have garnered attention from show promoters that would like to see me 'flaunt' my 'assets' on stage. I've been told I have the ideal physique for the figure category and that my looks will only be an asset.

Having said that,I refuse to compete because the nature of the show doesn't sit well with me.I can't tell you how many times I've encountered a young competitor in the change room who is crying because they didn't fit the judges 'criteria'. This is a very subjective 'competition'(refuse to call it a sport),and there really isn't an objective criteria to use as a yardstick--at least not for women.On the same note,the criteria for men is very consistent;he must come in conditioned and symmetrical for his weight class. I've spoken to a male friend of mine who was on the panel of judges for a show and he said he wouldn't judge women again because its super subjective.You have women awarded trophies/prizes because they may have better facial aesthetics than that of their fellow competitors who bring a 'better' physique to the stage.I understand that there are points for presentation(posing etc)as there are points for symmetry etc., but often times the winner is chosen based on ambiguous criteria.And to build on that, I would also add that some girls are chosen based on their affiliations with the judges or show promoters; but one can say that politics exist everywhere so I wont open that can of worms.

All in all,I would like to say that I appreciate the hard work, dedication, and sacrifices one makes to compete in a show;I'm definitely not discrediting the work it take to prepare for a show.However,as an athlete in my own right(power-lifting/Olympic weight lifting), I would venture to say that body-building competitions for women contain similar elements of beauty competitions:we both know beauty competitions do more harm to a woman's self esteem than any good.

I also would like to know if you would have felt differently about your experience if perhaps you did not place well? You are a very attractive woman and that surely was considered when you were awarded your trophy. Also, I would like to know if you would encourage your daughter to compete in a body-building competition?

In closing, I just wanted to add that I'v never classified myself as a 'feminist' but I am sensitive to gender inequality. I find your blog illuminating and I was quite surprised to read that you competed in a body-building show.My impression from your review of the experience was that you felt empowered, but I've spoken to many young women who have walked away feeling a sense of disgrace.

Thank you for sharing your experience on this blog. I may have to experiment with competing myself to form a fair opinion.

Clara Vaz said...

Thank you for your comment - you raise some interesting issues, which I hoped I explained in my post, but perhaps I can clarify a little further.

For me, the competition was exactly that: the day to day rigorous training and nutrition. The workouts were extremely intense, but I loved them, and I realized only a few days in, that if I didn't love the training so much, I would not have completed it at all.

There is a video of me when my name was announced as the winner - and it shows, just as I can tell you, that I did not expect to win. I was part of a group of 30 girls and I was in the last 5 that went on stage. I did not look at many girls backstage, because I was nervous and concentrating as best I could. I could not tell you much about the other four girls I was with - I was concentrating on presenting my best self - from the 12 weeks of work that went into this body and the posing and presentation that I had learned.

I have thought a lot about whether I would have been disappointed had I not placed - but I have come to the conclusion that I wouldn't have. Because I did not expect to. I had no comparison - so I did not know how I could rank - and I was so nervous in my first presentation that I only dared assume that I could have come off as anything more than a first timer. But I had fun and I made it look like nothing was awry.

I will say, emphatically, that it is a sport. I have never trained so hard in my life - and I've swum competitively for many years. It is not so much the dieting - that is just discipline. It is the meticulous training and constant supervision of the way your body is developing - much like a swimmer would examine her strokes, and analyze every breath or turn, or move - the body is analyzed in the same way.

It is subjective - especially for women, but I've heard it for men as well - but if you are in the figure category and then onwards through fitness and bodybuilding it is much less so - muscle symmetry and definition, posing and lat spreads (you must have a beautiful map across your back) and the overall tightness of your body, especially in your glute/hamstring region is primary - your looks, although important, are secondary.

It also depends on which federation you choose to compete within - there are some, especially in the States, that have very beautiful women - with the unspoken prerequisite of breast implants being the norm.

I would encourage my daughter to pursue this as a side venture, just as I had. In my article, I speak to the mind mess that it creates, and how you do have to have your wits about you to maintain a clear head about beauty norms, health and your own body image issues. My mother didn't quite love my mood change in the last few weeks, but she was very supportive, as were my friends and partner at the time. I was very grateful for their encouragement.

You say you are surprised that I could be both a feminist and compete in such a competition. If anything, I'd like to emphasize through my writing, that we are complex creatures - able to fit multitudes inside us, sometimes disparate, sometimes of the same colour. This competition fit me to T - it was the natural extension of my fitness self, my competitive and disciplined nature and my drive to better myself at every turn. That I fail at times, is no less feminist or human than my successes.

Thanks again for your comment. I would encourage you to do as you will - and if you do, I wish you only the best of luck.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for responding.

I will admit that my perception of bodybuilding competitions is tainted by experiences shared by female friends that have competed.My own brother is a competitive bodybuilder so I have been heavily exposed to the nature of these competitions.I still stand that the cons outweigh the pros for most female competitors.The majority of female competitors Ive met have full blown eating disorders or have undiagnosed thyroid problems from dieting. Moreover, there is more pressure for women to maintain a certain look post competition; everyones body will respond differently to whatever measures are used to attain the 'tight skin'.I've witnessed young women blow up after shows and they are told to stop pinging/purging when in reality its a metabolic issue.

I'm quite familiar with all the federations in Canada, and as I've mentioned, I've been approached at the gym many times by promoters and the head of one particular federation;I will continue to politely decline their invitations.Having said that, I do not judge women that compete in these shows or aspire to be pros:I just hope they are able to stay healthy, both in mind and body. This is an extreme competition, so without a doubt, extreme practices and extreme behavior will exist.

I also wanted to add that I understand that people are not one dimensional. I'm a woman that loves wearing dresses and heels but I also love lifting heavy ass weights;in contrary, I also love ball room dancing.I also feel insulted when a man doesn't hold the door open for me and that is largely influenced by my eastern European heritage. However, knowing what I know about these shows, I guess I was a bit surprised that you competed.At the end of the day, it's a matter of perception, and if you(as a woman) felt empowered on stage then that's something I cannot argue with.

It was still a very interesting(even fascinating) dissestion of the competition.