Turning my back on the bodybuilding world

This is a story that begins knowing exactly how it will end. Like the first paragraph of Romeo and Juliet, you know right from the start that the love will be over before it even began.

I remember exactly when I decided to start training like a machine. I was in my favourite place, theatre five of my first (and most loved) hospital, operating on a hip with one of my favourite bosses. We had been talking about all manner of pointless trivia when I commented on how much I enjoyed his specialty, orthopaedics. He looked me square in the eye. "If you want to be an orthopaedic surgeon," he said, "you'll need to be stronger." And with a nod, I said I would do exactly that. I'm still not really sure if he was serious about that comment but I took it to heart. And so the training began.

I joined a gym. I got nice sneakers, I was surprised to find that training made me hungrier, which in turn increased my grocery bill. I trained every day, getting up at 4:45am, arriving at the gym around 5, heading off to hospital around 6 to make it in the front door at 7:03am, giving me almost an hour to do some early-morning study before the hospital day got started. I travelled all over the world in my last two years of medical school and made a habit of getting in a workout no matter the schedule. I distinctly remember being miffed that I couldn't access 24 hour gyms in Edinburgh, which meant I was unable to train Christmas Day that year. I had a personal trainer who would needle me with comments like, "if you want to be a good surgeon, you better keep lifting that weight." I was convinced that getting strong would make my surgical life easier and the mental aspect of physical training would be an essential career step.

I had never heard of bodybuilding at that stage. The word had no meaning to me. But then, one day, driving around the streets of Dubbo, my friend asked me if I went to the gym every day because I was a bodybuilder. I threw my head around at her, puzzled. "What is that?" I asked myself. I spent hours researching this unknown sport that night. It seemed like something that would suit me - a type of training aimed at perfecting physique and gaining muscle size.

I was hooked. My training had a specific, measurable, achievable, time-based focus. My sessions revolved not only around strength but also around the specifics of symmetry. There were dates and deadlines, nutrition guidelines and a constant focus on progress. Every session was a small part of a larger puzzle. And so the journey continued.

Many competitors have coaches. They hand over the keys to their training, nutrition, sleep and health to someone else, with the responsibility left to the individual to follow the plan. Failing to meet those targets come with grave consequences, not necessarily for one's physique but certainly for one's psyche. Coach makes rules and the competitor will follow.

The last time I stepped on stage, I had a coach. I did what I was meant to do. I gave that person my blind faith. And I hated it. This person told me they had my best interests at heart but I was convinced, even in my carbohydrate-depleted state, that the only interests they had were making money. Sometimes, at our group training sessions, Coach would look to me and say "wouldn't you agree with [non-evidence-based topic A], given that you're a doctor?" I would stare back, challenging, infuriated that I would be asked to condone such spurious claims. I would shake my head, bewildered that anyone would believe such unreasonable statements. I had come to a coach with a specific goal - to be a competitive fitness physique, however long that would take. But that was not the plan I was given, which was an endless source of frustration for me. It wasn't even the money that was the big deal. I was infuriated that this person would take my health, and that of my team mates, so lightly. That this person would purposefully sabotage our metabolisms and play manipulative mind-games to enforce unrealistic expectations.

I hated how I looked on stage. I was too small. I wasn't defined enough. I looked flat. I was tired. My abs were less defined than they had been three-weeks prior. I couldn't lift anywhere near my normal weights. And most of all, I didn't have the energy to read, learn or contribute to the world as much as I would have liked.

It's been almost a year since then. And now that I'm an adequately fed, independent woman, I've realised a few things that I knew before but didn't take to heart.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to look a certain way. But you have to realise that "stage lean" is not "everyday lean" and the cycle of competing means yo-yoing between on- and off-season in order to build muscle size then strip off the fat for competition. The problem with that is that stage prep means losing muscle size, because you can't get that lean without sacrificing some of those hard-earned muscles. So unless you enjoy ruining your metabolism or are one of the blessed few with an effortlessly lean body, you'd be better off finding a happy medium where you can grow muscle or increase your endurance or whatever fitness goal you have while being a sustainable level of lean.

The fitness industry is just that. It's an industry. While there are good people within it who will support you in reaching your goals, there are plenty of unscrupulous folk who are out to make an easy buck. Competitions and their preparation cost a pretty penny. If you have endless dollars to sacrifice in order to get up on stage, that's your choice. You alone can decide if the monetary loss is worth it. Winning a trophy is unlikely to bring you any financial break - even winning competitors may only find they gain sponsorship for their supplements, leaving many other costs to juggle. There are very few stages you can grace for under two-hundred dollars, and some are more than this. Add upwards of four-hundred for your stage suit (a skimpy, crystal-studded tiny piece of fabric that you'll likely only wear once), a hundred for your tan, two hundred for hair and make up, several hundred for your wings or ball-gown, another fistful of hundred-dollar bills for a photo shoot and you've already spent several months' wages on a single day. That's not including the thousands you'll fork out for your trainer, the extras for posing practice and, of course, the emotional costs to yourself and your loved ones. Just imagine what else you could do with that money. And, if you really are keen to look good in a bikini and have some nice photos, just pay a photographer for their time. You'll still save yourself thousands.

I've met very few competitors who are happy with who they are. They'll tell me, during off season, that they're fat, that they're not growing muscle fast enough, that they can't stand how they look in the mirror. I look at them and wonder how they can think that. Their body fat looks less than average and their strength is going up. During their preparation for comp, they'll pinch at their belly-skin and tell me they're too fat, that they're not going to lean out fast enough, that their hard-earned shoulders are dwindling away and, with great concern, that they won't ever be ready in time.  A week post comp, they'll show me how they looked on stage and tear apart their physique. The glutes could have been bigger, the skin around the abs could have been tauter, they could have carbed up a little more. They're never happy. An anxiety, a total body dysmorphia appears to overwhelm them.

I've heard of many coaches who will happily exploit these insecurities for their own gains. They'll promise these competitors the leanness they've always wanted and muscle size they could only dream about. And when the competitor fails to achieve these outlandish changes in a short 12 or 16 week preparation, the coach will blame the competitor for not being dedicated enough. "You must not have followed the plan," they'll say, while rubbing their hands together for the money coming next season.

It's not uncommon, and not surprising, that many female competitors reveal a previous diagnosis of an eating disorder. They'll say that training saved them - that it gave them a reason to put on weight and eat better. But then striving to be lean, to follow a low-calorie diet aimed at dropping fat, is only to serve that part of their mind a cure-all for the new weight they've gained. It's shifting the illness without solving it. And it makes me so upset to see this obsession continue in the guise of something "normal."

If, despite all that, you're still keen to compete, that's your choice. Make it freely, as an individual with capacity for autonomy. Make it with the knowledge that the pain and suffering should be your choice, and your choice alone. If your coach tells you to do something that feels wrong within yourself, don't do it. They are not you. They are not the boss of your body. They do not have to live with the consequences of those decisions.

I'm turning my back on the sport. I'm leaving behind ridiculous diets and unsupportive, money-hungry coaches who have little regard for my health. I'm focusing instead on training because it makes me happy and eating to fuel my brain and my body for the challenges I face each day. Sure, I'll try to eat nutritious foods and avoid getting to unreasonable levels of body fat, but I also won't say no to a burger if one takes my fancy. I'll avoid saying "I can't eat that" and instead say "I don't want to eat that." I'm going to avoid pulling at my belly-fat and complaining to anyone in earshot about how I could be leaner. Because I could be but I don't really want to be. I want to be healthy. I want to be strong. I want to be happy. I want to be a good, thoughtful, emotionally-competent surgeon. And competing is a sure-fire way to kill all of those goals.


Bec Chambers said…
This is so incredibly well-written. The paragraph about those who have previously suffered from eating disorders simply shifting their trajectory without actually solving the problem is brilliantly put, so common and so very true. Your writing is electric.

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