My last fitness competition was in 2004 and since then many people have asked when I was going to compete again or suggested that I should continue to compete. In fact, someone approached me at the gym just today to compliment my back development and was surprised when she realized I wasn't preparing to step on stage. While all of my six fitness shows were a great experience and helped shape who I am today, there are many reasons why I retired.
Before I list my reasons for not stepping on stage again, let me explain why I competed in the first place.
For starters, to me, the stage wasn’t an arena for physical affirmation, a bucket list item, or an opportunity to show everyone how much weight I’d lost or what personal hardships I overcame in order to get there. When I set out to compete, I was in it for the kill. I wanted to win and I was prepared to go all out in order to achieve my goal. Each time I didn’t place in a competition, I learned from it. I kept improving and working towards a win until I reached my goal. Once there, I exited the stage knowing that I was never coming back.
Here are my reasons:
The sport of fitness competitions is one hundred percent based on looks. Bikini competitions in particular are defined by very specific ideals and not all of us are built for them. Mother nature gives us a pre-designed shell the second we are conceived, and although some of us can diet like champions and train like beasts, factors such as wide/narrow hips, thick waists, skinny legs, scrawny shoulders and a flat butt are attributes not even a world class trainer or nutritionist can fix. You can certainly enhance the hand (or the chest or butt) you’ve been dealt, but for the most part you can’t change your genetic make-up.
When you step on stage, you are not defined by how hard you trained, or how well you dieted. You are judged on your looks, and when you don’t have what is perceived to be ideal, you are not going to place. When I first started competing I lost to competitors who were less fit than me, but possessed superior genetics, and brought a much more expensive package to the stage.
Yes, competition is an extremely expensive sport. Even when you have a sponsor, you are looking at thousands of dollars of investment towards your edge. Hair, make up, nails, spray tan, bikini, bling, hotel, parking, entrance fees, enrolment fee, choreography, posing classes, supplements, photos, just to name a few. If you are a bikini competitor you also have to have chest, round butt, and curves. If mother nature didn’t give you any or you didn’t have them installed, you are probably not going to win, unless you are the only competitor in your class. It sounds chauvinistic, sexist, crude, and unfair, but that is the reality of the game. If you don’t possess the requisite genetic characteristics that denote the ideal for the competition, you are highly unlikely to win. The judges and the audience don’t care for what’s fair. It doesn’t matter what performance enhancement drugs you took, who your trainer is, who designed your meal plan, or how shiny your suit is. You need to have what it takes going in. And although symmetry, well defined abs, and musculature are the core of the ideal, what it takes to win still seems to change at every competition and with every federation so you never truly know what you’re heading into. Sure, I felt good about how I looked, but my package came at expense of insomnia, emotional roller coasters, relationship issues, irrationality, irritability, constant hunger pains, and extreme body dysmorphia just to name a few. I pushed myself to the limits in order to win, but by the time I stepped off the stage for the last time, my adrenals were exhausted and so was my body.
Competing is extremely self-centred. It takes over your life and affects your social, personal, and intimate relationships. Not everyone in your circle of supporters is supportive so you end up alienating yourself from them. Your friends and loved ones feel neglected, while you feel resentful towards them for not being understanding. In the final weeks of contest prep I was training two or three times a day and my energy was completely gone. I was exhausted, starving, and uber cranky. All I could think about was food, training, and winning. It wasn’t something that made a positive difference in my life. It caused a lot of stress and hostility. Competing is extreme and unbalanced and the closer you get to the show the more intense and hardcore it becomes. Your mind has to be in the game at all time. I tend to thrive on a regimen but the process of contest prep was interfering with all aspects of my life and I became withdrawn from everyone around me. Carrying all my meals in Tupperware containers, avoiding all social events and depriving myself of all tasty food is not something I want to do again. I’d rather be disciplined about learning a skill like a muscle-up or taking a Thai cooking class because it’s something I’ve always wanted to learn.
After competing, I took comfort in all the food I couldn’t eat for months prior to the show. I became food obsessed because I was used to weighing out my portions and accounting for every calorie and the process began to overwhelm me. I tried to maintain control by reverting back to contest prep eating and exercising more than necessary to maintain an “unattainable stage image”. This lead to a lot of unhealthy thoughts and body image issues. I became disordered about food and I had no one but myself to blame. I didn’t realize until it was over that that’s where the real struggle began. I believed that a super-strict diet structure was going to be the magic ingredient to get me back on track again. It took a very long time (about three years) to get my mind straight after competing. What finally worked was educating myself. I stopped counting calories and learned to wing my portions. I always knew what to eat and when to eat it, but letting go of the vicious cycle and allowing myself to enjoy food off the competition menu was what made all the difference and brought comfort to my mind and how I see myself when I look in the mirror.
Competing is a mind game. There is definitely something extremely satisfying about being determined and driven to reach a goal, but if it affects me negatively in the long run then it’s not worth it. I like to train hard and eat clean in order to feel strong and powerful. That’s why I love challenges like my famous 100 squat or kettle-bell challenge, or taking on a crazy difficult skill like handstands or learning pull-ups because investing my energy into my workout victories, rather than focusing solely on how I look in a bikini, is a much more empowering goal.
Many women compete in hopes of becoming a fitness model and getting on stage is a great platform. But for me, it is not about becoming a model. It is about modelling healthy habits and behaviours. The things I did in order to place, such as water, potassium, and sodium manipulation were far from healthy, but I indulged in order to gain a competitive edge. Not proud of it, but everyone else was doing it and I wanted to win! Deciding not to compete is by no means an excuse to not stay in shape, but rather a decision to stay fit in a healthy way. I like to enjoy pancakes with my son on Sunday mornings, a glass of wine with my partner every day of the weekend and not feel like it’s the end of the world because I missed a workout.
I’m much older now. My body has endured childbirth, and I have the same problem areas as everyone else, yet I find myself less critical, more accepting, and more respectful towards my body than I did when I was in my late 20’s and early 30’s. I no longer have a chiseled six-pack, but I feel stronger and much more balanced on the whole.
In saying all that, I still respect any person wanting to compete and would never discourage anyone from entering a fitness show; because we all have our own reasons and the freedom to make our own decisions. I have met many competitors over the years and I’ve realized that not everyone goes through the same things as I did.
Maybe if I’d taken a different approach to nutrition and training, and contest prep in general I’d still be competing today, but my experience is what it is and it seems our mistakes make good teachers. As with most things in life, had I not done things wrong, I wouldn’t know what right looked like.
Still don’t want to compete though…