I’ve gotten a lot of questions over the past couple of months about my experiences with competing. I have individuals coming to me who have been toying with the idea of entering a bodybuilding, figure, or bikini show and are curious as to how I found the process. I think now would be a good a time as any to enlighten you all with what I went through.
Before I dive in, I want to emphasize that this piece is solely a reflection of my personal views. You are not expected to be on the same page as I am; in fact, I know that many of you will vehemently disagree and may even be angered by words. I’m okay with that.
The overall experience
As a whole, I found competing to be… a very draining process. My bank account dwindled away, my energy levels plummeted, and I just didn’t have anything left in the tank to do anything else. I went through a 12-week competition prep all for a 2nd place trophy that is now quietly gathering dust on my shelf. Oh yeah, and I have some half-decent pictures, too, but they don’t even look like me, what with all the makeup and the layers of tan.
So would I do it again? Probably not.
There were certainly benefits to competing – otherwise I wouldn’t have followed through with the entire prep. Knowing that I had to go the gym and get in my workout and that I absolutely had to stick to my diet if I wanted to place well was enough motivation to deter me from making excuses. This was hard to do, and not many people can get to that level. For that, I am beyond proud of myself. I proved that I could stick to a program without wavering. This did a lot to improve my self-confidence in my own potential.
There was also the bonding aspect of it. There’s something about meeting another competitor for the first time, having been through similar diet struggles, standing together naked in a hotel room wearing a silly shower cap as you wait for your freakishly orange tan to dry that brings you two together. Honestly, there’s nothing quite like it. Oh, did you cry through your cardio once, too? How wonderful! Morbid, but true. I formed fast friendships the day of the show, and we stuck together like glue. We hung out together backstage all day, took pictures, encouraged each other to be brave and sassy out there, and shared almond butter. There’s not much that beats a group of girls hunched over one jar, dipping fingers into the gooey mess and giggling like schoolgirls.
- Financial costs. This one was the most concrete drawback that I could quantitatively measure. I paid for training and nutrition services, posing lessons, my bikini, tanning sessions, hotel fees, registration fees, photograph fees, posing heels, makeup services, and travel expenses all out of my pocket. Mind you, for some, this may not be an issue. But I’m a college student, and we tend to not have very fat wallets. The total racked up to over $1,000 out of my bank account. That one hurt.
- Mental exhaustion. Maintaining 100% compliance on a strict diet has a way of exhausting the majority of your mental willpower, leaving little room for much else. I was taking on a full load of classes, I was singing in an a cappella group, and I had a job. Everything suddenly became a chore. The simple thought of getting on my bike and peddling to class was enough to make me snap. You also can’t do much else other than run to the bathroom when you’re drinking 10 liters a day in the week leading up to the show. And especially on show day – waiting around backstage all day, trying not to smudge your tan, keeping your makeup intact, eating the right foods at exactly the right times – I couldn’t wait for all of it to be over. Patience? I had none. Everyone and everything became annoying to me.
- Unhealthy obsessions. I’m embarrassed to admit just how much time I spent perusing food blogs, drooling over recipes, and babbling to my friends about what I would eat as soon as I stepped off that stage. Placing such a heavy emphasis on my aesthetics pushed me a little closer toward the extreme body dysmorphia times of my past. I found myself in front of a mirror ten dozens times a day, scrutinizing every inch of my own body. One minute, I was freaking out because I thought I was too skinny. The next, there was too much I could pinch on my abs. And then my shoulders were too small. And my butt was still not tight enough. And this. And that. I stopped enjoying training in the gym because as I viewed it as a means to an end rather than relishing the lifting itself. Hang on a minute here – isn’t this mentality exactly what I’d been striving to move away from for so many years?
- Little reward. I think the focus on the prize as a specific placing within your class is too petty to merit the sacrifices that are required of the process. The external motivation – being able to tell everybody that yes, you placed, and here’s my shiny piece of plastic to prove it, haha! – is neither sustainable nor realistic. As I mentioned before, I got a trophy, some pats on the back, and some quick snaps of me blinking and looking down. Oh yeah, and the judging was also subjective and political, but I think we all knew that. And then life went on.
- Aftereffects. I’ve found this to be true of many, many competitors immediately following the show: they’re lost. With the bat of an eyelash, they find themselves without a goal to work toward and nothing to keep them on the straight and narrow. Chocolate covered almonds? Sure, why not; it’s not like I have to stand on stage half-naked tomorrow. I deserve this red velvet cake. Oh, my body’s going to soak up all the food and burn through everything. Pass that Ben & Jerry’s, please. I found it difficult during this time to grasp that fitness was a long-term, lifetime endeavor, not some one-time event. Open fridge, peek around, close fridge. Open, peek, close. Not to mention, I personally know several competitors who have undergone some pretty drastic rebounds, putting on up to 40lbs in a matter of a few short weeks. Even worse, some experience metabolic damage and end up looking much, much worse than they did before they began their journey. Is the price worth the pain? You tell me.
What You Can Do Instead
You might be wondering what to do if you’re in love with fitness and want some options outside of competing. There are many, depending on what your interests are:
- If you want to get lean and want something to work for, schedule a photoshoot. Give yourself ample time to diet down slowly so you can maintain your muscle mass and possibly even make strength gains while shedding fat. This can be done. Ask me how. Photoshoots aren’t the cheapest either, but remember that the photographers are there for you. They’re there to capture quality shots that you can frame on a wall, send to your friends, and keep as a souvenir. Yeah, that was me. I looked hot, huh?
- If you enjoy playing around in the gym, set some strength goals. I am in strong favor of this. I think that placing the emphasis on performance and not aesthetics – and using your diet to help your achieve your goals – establishes a much healthier mindset. A 0.4-lb fluctuation on the scale won’t be nearly as important to you anymore. The aesthetic gains will come as a side effect of your strength gains. Stop fretting over it. Capture your achievements on video, too, so you can watch them on repeat later. Trust me: you want to catch your badassery on film.
- If you’re simply bored, try doing something different. Heck, I joined the rugby team this year because I thought it would be good for me to expand my horizons beyond the confines of the four cement walls of the gym. Am I the best player out there? Far from it; I never played ball sports growing up and have no idea how to work a field. Half the time I’m lost. Am I terrified of being tackled? Petrified. But you know what? It’s fun, and it keeps me active in a way that is new and different.
- If you really want to be ambitious and gain some publicity, there’s always fitness entrepreneurship. Carve out a career for yourself as a fitness model, personality, trainer, talent, intellectual, etc. There are so many different fitness spaces out there. Figure out what it is that you want to do, find some hole in the industry that has yet to be filled, and offer something novel to the world.
- If you’re none of the above, simply aim to improve your overall health. Do you want to be able to run around in the backyard with your kids? Do you want flexible, healthy joints? Silky hair, smooth skin, healthy nails? That’s a great goal. Good on you for wanting to take care of your own body.
At the end of the day, though, really ask yourself if your fitness goals are a true reflection of what you want to do. Don’t feel like you need to compete because oh, everybody’s doing it. Striving for something you don’t honestly yearn for from the bottom of your heart is an exercise in futility and will not yield lasting success. It’s your health and it’s your life, not anybody else’s.
But back to the point. If you can truthfully tell yourself that you love competing and the benefits outweigh the costs, then by all means, I am in support of your decision. I simply wanted to present to you how I perceive the sport. If there comes a day when I am able to feel that I can stand up on stage without such a heavy cost, then I may reconsider. But I highly, highly doubt that.
You wanted my opinion. Ask and you shall receive.