A woman stands onstage: her lips form a tight smile; her eyes blink rapidly through falsely-lashed lids.
Cameras snap, capturing her winning physique with its carefully sculpted muscles and impeccably bronzed skin. Palms come together in recognition of her achievement.
In October 2014, at age 31 I achieved the award that marked the pinnacle of my fitness competition career: the coveted Bikini Athlete Pro Card.
I would like to say that my motivations for entering this aesthetics-driven world derived from my love of weight lifting, or from my competitive personality. In reality, I was seduced by the glamour. For me, fitness competitors were beauty queens with muscle. They shone (literally in their sparkling bikinis), emanating strength and confidence. Whatever they had, I wanted to have it; whatever they were, I wanted to be it.
Encouraged by my dietician, I signed up for what was to be the first of many fitness competitions and, in doing so, was granted membership to that elite group of dazzling women.
For me, preparations begin 3 months prior to show day. This is when I exchange body building for sculpting; stripping away soft flesh to uncover the (fingers crossed!) goddess-like form that waits beneath in all its defined, curvaceous glory.
This process requires meticulous planning. Calories are decreased, carbohydrates cycled, and macronutrients precisely calculated. I consume countless supplements: vitamin C for dehydration; green tea to boost metabolism; fish oil to aid recovery. Early morning HIIT is factored into my daily routine to burn stubborn fat cells (fasted hill sprints at dawn are not for the faint hearted). I have a freezer full of turkey and tilapia; and cupboards stocked with pink salt and calorie-free condiments in order to survive the weeks of no sugar and no sauce.
During this period, I also employ a posing coach to evaluate my body and decide which parts are the most aesthetically appealing, and therefore should be emphasised onstage; and which are somewhat lacking, so must be concealed with a hand, or a shadow.
Posing is an illusion of smoke and mirrors – working your best angles. However, being told which parts of your body are acceptable, and which you should hide does not typically boost self-confidence. During my competition career I learned, not without a degree of dismay, that there were many things ‘wrong’ with my body. My shoulders were too big for a bikini girl, my abdominal muscles were insufficiently defined, I had too many tattoos, and my hands turned into witch-like claws when I walked.
Having been made painfully aware of my body’s deficiencies, I was then, ironically, expected to ‘present myself with confidence, poise and grace’ onstage. Immobilised by my sky high heels, I had to adhere to the dictates of the competition judges, who ordered me to stand, walk and pose in a way that displayed my physique to its best advantage.
On the day prior to the competition preparations become more extreme, often involving the severe restriction of liquids and the consumption of diuretics. Attention is then turned towards the body’s physical exterior: spraying deep tan; vigorously backcombing hair; and applying heavy make up. After having glued my diamante bikini bottoms to my bronzed and oiled derriere, I then pump up my muscles to create optimum definition and vascularity onstage.
All that remains is to arch the back, suck in the stomach, and smile.
On show days, the audience admire and applaud my physique. But they don’t see behind the curtain. They don’t see what it takes to be that woman holding the trophy.
In the end, my hard work paid off. I won first place titles in both Bikini Athlete and Fitness Model; and was eventually awarded with my Pro Card. Yet, for me, this extreme lifestyle proved unsustainable.
7 years on, I still lift weights for my own enjoyment; but the days of Tupperware and tan are now just a glorious memory.