“Dear Unsupportive” is a series of letters addressing topics that offend others relating to female bodybuilding. “Unsupportive” is not specifically about you, Dear Reader (or maybe it is), but represents the many people who don’t understand, and in my cases, resent the sport and the women who participate in it. The author of these letters, “Muscle Girl Misunderstood,” represents the collective voices of the many women who live and love the bodybuilding lifestyle, but find support for their craft to be lacking. May these letters help give a voice to those who need it as well as a different perspective to haters everywhere.
You know that childhood cliche, sticks and stones may break my bones…bla, bla, bla?
Yeah, that sh*t’s real.
It doesn’t matter that I’m a grown up. Or that I’ve been around the block enough times to know that some people suck. Or that I’m not supposed to care what other people think.
When something unkind is said about my quest to hit the stage, well, that hurts.
Especially coming from you.
Maybe you have no idea that your comments feel like a gut punch. Maybe you think you’re being helpful. Or maybe, just maybe, you really are just trying to be a jerk.
So let’s talk about the things you say that maybe you shouldn’t.
Five Things You Should Never Say to a Bodybuilding Competitor Unless You Want Them to Hate You:
“You have an eating disorder.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of this. “You are obsessed with food,” “You’re getting too skinny,” and “You look gross” are part of the soundtrack of contest prep. And while on some level I understand – because yes, I am hyper-focused on what and how much I eat – this is part of the process of training for a bodybuilding competition. It is temporary. Most of us do it safely under the guidance of a trained professional.
And it’s damn hard to do.
Look. The truth is I already know that I have an unusual fixation on food (try putting yourself in a consistent calorie deficit for months and see how your body and mind respond). I know that you think it’s an obsession. I know that it annoys you that I have water when you are drinking beer. I know the veins popping out of my arms look a little freaky sometimes.
What I don’t understand, is why you get so darn angry about it. Who cares if I bring a container of food for myself to a family dinner? I’m still present at the table. Who cares if I don’t have any of those donuts you brought to work? I really wish I could, they look delicious (and yes, one bite will hurt so please don’t say otherwise). Who cares that I track what I eat? It’ the only way I can keep myself honest when all I really want to do is crawl in a closet with a bag of chips.
I’m doing this not because it’s fun, or because I aspire to experience starvation as a personal statement, or because I want to show off my will power while simultaneously making you feel like you have none.
I’m doing this because I don’t want to look back and think that I didn’t give it my all.
It’s as simple as that.
Plus, when did it become okay to comment about someone’s dietary habits in the first place? I mean, if you were at lunch with a plump friend would you even dream of saying, “Hey Bob, I don’t know if you realize it, but you’re becoming fat. You’re welcome for the heads-up. So anyway, how’s work going”?
So don’t do it to me either.
Lifting weights is going to make you look like a man.
This statement pisses me off because it’s stupid. Like, the person saying it is literally stupid. Why?
Because women, no matter how often they are in the gym, no matter how heavy they lift, no matter how much they eat, will not develop a male physique as a result of bodybuilding (the exception to this is women who use steroids which, in case you don’t know me at all, I don’t do).
First, I don’t have a penis, which is pretty much the hallmark of looking like a man…so…yeah. Second, my body contains only a teensy weensy bit of testosterone. In the event you failed miserably in sex education class, testosterone is the male sex hormone that makes men “manly.” (Interesting fact: While testosterone makes men think about sex constantly, it also makes men fart a lot and completely fixated on electronic devices while being completely unaware of their surroundings.)
What I do have is estrogen, which is not a hormone known for its muscle-producing powers. In fact, because men have more skeletal muscle than women from birth, it’s physically impossible to naturally gain enough muscle to have someone mistake me for Hans or Franz.
So the muscle that I do have? That’s the result of a ton of consistency and effort because biology is constantly working against me. Plus, the last time I looked, everything that makes me a woman – my breasts, my emotional superiority, my va jay jay – were all still intact. Maybe I don’t look as “soft” or “curvy” or “fragile” as the female “standard” dictates, but Victoria Secret models don’t exactly represent the norm either. And I don’t see you complaining about them.
As Helen Reddy sang on her famous record, “I am woman see my core. Six packs aren’t just for men anymore.”
Okay, she didn’t really say that. But she should have.
Referring to my competition as a “beauty pageant.”
Yes, I wear heels and a sparkly swimsuit. Yes, my hair and makeup is glammed up. Yes, I even walk on a stage in front of judges.
But for the love of God, please do not ever refer to my bodybuilding contest as a “beauty pageant.”
Beauty pageants focus on what society considers the most desirable female attributes; the hour-glass figure with long, lean legs and a beautiful face free of blemishes; the ability to say the right thing in an articulate way when asked a question; possessing natural poise and composure under pressure; and having a deep desire to save the world through acts of service towards others.
Now, before I have people everywhere all up in my grill, I want to point out that I am not attempting to make fun of pageant contestants. Women who compete on this type of platform are more beautiful, intelligent, and positioned for success than I can ever hope to be. They didn’t get on that stage by accident; they worked hard and deserve to be recognized for their accomplishments.
What I am saying is that beauty pageants typically emphasize cultural expectations of what makes a “perfect woman.” And this is where the difference lies.
Women bodybuilders take pride in challenging conventional female beauty. They believe that looking and being strong can be owned not only by men, but by women too. They’re using their bodies not to perpetuate the female stereotype, but to go completely against it.
So no, I am not participating in a “beauty pageant.” I’m participating in a sport; one that celebrates the amazing transformation human bodies can make through something as simple as diet and exercise.
Side note: While I’ve made it clear that you are not to refer to my event as a pageant, I strongly suggest you do not refer to your friend Mike’s upcoming bodybuilding competition as a beauty pageant either. He may react even less kindly than I do.
The amount of time you spend at the gym is selfish.
You might be surprised to learn that I often feel guilty when I work out. After all, this is time I could be spending with my family. Or earning money. Or checking off one of the many tasks waiting on my list.
In other words, you don’t have to tell me that I’m being selfish. I tell myself that all the time along with “you’re not pretty enough,” “you can be a better wife,” “you need to call your parents more often,” “you need to work harder.”
See, women in general have a fantastic ability to internally berate themselves for pretty much everything. I don’t know if we are born with this characteristic, or if it’s been given to us by our parents, school, or society at large. Either way, it is always there telling us we’ll never be good enough.
Taking time out for myself goes against my natural instinct, but it shouldn’t. I mean, is it selfish to do something that I not only enjoy, but that also makes me healthier inside and out? Is it selfish to demonstrate to those around me that it is possible to achieve their goals despite time constraints, age, responsibilities, and/or health conditions? Is it selfish to show my kids that women do more than go to work, wash dishes, make dinner, and yell repeatedly to pick up their $%^%&@ toys?
If that’s selfish, then sign me up. Maybe you need to start being selfish too.
What’s the point of competing anyway?
Because the answer to this question is so complex, I’ve decided to develop an at-a-glance list for easy comprehension. If you think any of these reasons are silly, do me a favor and go jump in a lake.
- Because I love the adrenaline that competition provides.
- Because I enjoy having a platform to show off the muscles I’ve worked so hard to build.
- Because I love being part of a community of people who love the same sport I do.
- Because I’ve always been last in school yard picks, and I feel vindicated when I step on stage.
- Because it makes me feel strong and beautiful.
- Because it gives me confidence.
- Because I love being successful in a traditionally male-dominated sport.
- Because I want to show women that their bodies are not something to be ashamed of, but something to appreciate.
- Because it’s fun to have an acceptable opportunity to look glamorous when normally all I wear are yoga pants and mascara.
- Because I want to see if I can compete beyond amateur level in a sport I enjoy.
- Because I want to inspire other women who think it’s “too late” to chase their dreams.
- Because I want to show my kids that moms have aspirations too.
- Because it makes me feel empowered.
- Because it’s what I want to do and my reasons are irrelevant, so back the F off.
Well, my unsupportive friend, this concludes my trilogy of letters dedicated specifically to you. Maybe my compelling prose has shown you that bodybuilding is a more meaningful endeavor than most people realize. Maybe, while it’s not something you’d personally like to participate in, you can understand why others might be drawn to it. And maybe, just maybe, you realize that your comments – intentional or not – minimize an activity that means a whole lot to me.
So before I go, lest you think of me not only as an anorexic-food-obsessed-gym-rat-who-cares-only-about-how-she-looks, but an anorexic-food obsessed-gym-rat-who-cares-only-about-how-she-looks-and-is-complain-ey too, let me leave you with some ideas on how you might support me moving forward:
- If you want to get together to catch up, perhaps consider a venue that’s not filled with the delicious smell of pizza or the alluring sizzle of fajitas. Let’s meet for coffee or tea instead. Coffee houses are filled with atmosphere, and they offer several drink options I can enjoy. Plus, if we’re lucky, maybe someone will mistake us for young college coeds (hey, we can dream).
- Keeping with the food theme, if we’re getting together for a group gathering, don’t be offended if I bring my own meal. It is not a passive aggressive statement about the quality of your culinary skills, rather it’s the only way I can accurately track what I’m eating. If you don’t remember why I need to track so closely, check out my last letter to serve as a reminder.
- If you don’t understand why I’m doing something that seems unfamiliar or unusual, ask me about it. I’m happy to explain the purpose behind my training in and out of the gym. Chances are, you’ll learn something new about the amazing adaptations our bodies make!
- Finally, don’t let my competition be a taboo topic between us. Whether you “get it” or not is not the point. You are in my life because I care about you and you care about me, so being open to hearing about my experience should be a no-brainer. Contest prep is about as hard as it gets physically and mentally, and feeling like I can’t talk about it makes things so much worse. This is a big moment in my life, so recognizing that this is important to me should make it important to you too.
I’ll be sure to return the favor with whatever dreams you may decide to pursue. Even those that involve your doll collection or passion for clowning.
Thanks for listening,
Post series #1: Dear Unsupportive, Let’s Talk About Bodybuilding
Post series #2: Dear Unsupportive, Let’s Talk About My Diet.