Friends often ask if I plan to compete in a bodybuilding competition. As if everyone who is passionate about diet and exercise should want to parade around in a bikini. I follow a classic bodybuilding workout split, eat lots of broccoli, and even drink the odd protein shake. But that does not make me qualified to participate in the intense world of bodybuilding. I workout because it helps me de-stress and makes me feel empowered! But it’s pretty obvious, bikini competing is only about appearances. Behind the glittery bikinis, fake tans, pumped muscles and vascular veins are girls who’s bodies have become objectified.
Here’s everything you need to know about Bikini Competitions
What do bikini competitions and Instagram have in common?
They’re all about appearances! Take #fitspo for example:
What is #fitspo?
Urban dictionary defines fitspo as images of active, strong, and fit women that promote proper exercise and diet, much like thinspo (images of dangerously thin women used by people with eating disorders to motivate) but healthier. Now I have to admit; the shift away from #thinspo to #fitspo can be seen as a step in the right direction. Instead of excessive hours of cardio and hardly eating, Instagram now promotes lifting weights and planned meals.
A study of #fitspo found that “fitspiration messages include a comparable amount of fit praise (i.e., emphasis on toned/defined muscles) and thin praise (i.e., emphasis on slenderness), suggesting that women are not only supposed to be thin but also fit. Considering the negative outcomes associated with both exposure to idealized body images and exercising for appearance reasons, findings suggest that fitspiration messages are problematic, especially for viewers with high risk of eating disorders and related issues
But Instagram is still being used as a tool by the health and fitness industry, to reproduce the “dominant notion produced by the Obesity Clinic of ‘eat less and exercise more'”(King, 2003). The ideal body is not just about being slim now, its about being slim and muscular #strongisthenewskinny. But it can be said that #Fitspo culture has warped the way we think about working out. This can be really damaging towards woman as some are not able to adhere to these standards. Perhaps they have a full time job and children. With the rise of fat shaming, “the notion that fatness is socially unacceptable and detestable” (King, 2003). There is this idea that women should do whatever they possibly can to avoid gaining weight, this includes extreme dieting and hours in the gym. Within the tyranny of slenderness, “eating disorders become a characteristic of the situation of contemporary women” (Rodgers, 2012). Because carrying fat on your body now means that you are out of control and lazy. “Discussions of obesity in mainstream media are laden with the discourse of “personal responsibility””(Thomson, 2007). This leads to the view that if you do not look like the slim ideal that is a personal problem. “With the notion of failed will-power and poor eating choices” (Thomson, 2007). Its sick actually.
Look at her body, you’ve got to admit, this still seems pretty diet and exercise obsessive. Not to mention practically impossible without spending countless hours in the gym and obsessively counting macronutrients. #Strongissexy means still limiting calories but now tracking food intake to make sure you are getting enough protein to build those muscles. Societies ideal body may have changed, but its still being circulated via social media sites to make woman believe they need to look this way. This reminds me of an article that says “the body became a status symbol and an emblem of one’s moral worth and personal discipline? (King, 2003). One’s physical body is a representation of their personal choices.
This relates to Foucault’s theory of the gaze
With this transition from #thinspo to #fitspo there is a changing body ideal, being healthy is still not the core focus. This exposure to an idealized body promotes exercising and dieting solely for appearance. Instagram operates as a tool through which the gaze is imposed through, individual’s constantly compete to have the ‘better body’. With this competition comes the idea that the body is ‘always under construction’, there is always another pound to lose or more muscular definition to seek. According to Courtney’s lecture, the gaze acts as a mechanism of surveillance, a sort of unspoken persuasion that operates with panopticon gaze to make viewers internalize the desire to achieve the ideal body that is circulated through social media. How #fitspo operates is to motivate people to diet and exercise by bombarding them with images of what they should look like, this encourages these people to share their ‘fitspo journeys’ all to encourage more users to replicate them. In an article by Szto & Gray (2015) they discuss how one is held accountable to their ‘community’ by posting their diet or workout on social media, for example a photo of a salad with the tag #wanttobeskinny suggests that the motivation behind eating healthy is not for improved health but for physical appearance.
Let’s take it one step further: The Female Bodybuilding Craze
Many girls who compete have Instagram accounts; maybe it’s a way to keep themselves accountable, or to promote products and look for sponsorship’s, or to keep tabs on other competitors, who knows. What I do know is that these accounts allow users to participate in this subculture of “bodybuilding”. Look at the distorted body shape above, this is the new ideal to achieve. The above physique is the female body transformed into what is known as a “stage ready” body. This is achieved through hours spent in the gym and a restrictive diet. This is not a physique that is meant to be maintained year round. The photos posted by bikini competitors can promote an unrealistic body standard, the idea that girls should exercise and diet with the end goal to look like this. An ex-bikini competitor admits that what started out as an innocent exercise plan quickly turned into an obsession as she fell deeper and deeper into the bodybuilding subculture. It’s dangerous for the girls that compete and it’s dangerous for the girls who see this ‘culture’. Girls may strive to look like those who compete by ‘transforming’ their bodies in a short time period through excessive exercise and extreme dieting. I respect the sport of body building when it is reserved for dedicated athletes with proper coaches and realistic expectations of their bodies.
This “sport” of parading around in a bikini drives this ‘bro culture’ dieting of eating the same thing, everyday and for every meal. Sure, the photo highlights someone getting creative, but who plans their diet like that. The majority of bikini competitors most likely use a fitness app to track their diets. Read about The quantified self movement. An issue that can arise is that people begin putting numbers before experience. Bikini competitors most likely turn down a friends invitation to meet for happy hour because they have minimal calories left for the day and can’t risk going over. What we lose is phenomenological aspects, its not about feeling full after a day of eating, its about if you met your daily needed protein macros and have not gone over carbs.
Why I would never compete in bikini
The ridiculous diet
Let’s talk about the sport that requires participants to stand in a bikini on stage, being assessed by a panel of judges, based on solely their appearance. The biggest reason I can think of not to compete is the ridiculous diet, in other words the lack of food. Side effects can include insomnia, spontaneous crying, emotional breakdowns, unbearable hunger pangs, zombie-like behaviour, complete irrational thoughts, and escalating body dysmorphia. A typical meal can consist of a small portion of chicken, rice and broccoli. What I’ve noticed is that this diet lacks any source of healthy fats. I may not be a kinesiology major but I know that our bodies need fats to function, even Canada’s food guide recommends a portion of daily calories should be contributed to fats. Woman in particular need enough fats to sustain their bodies reproductive system. But as Bonafini & Pozzilli said, the ideal of female beauty has shifted from a symbol of fertility to one of mathematically calculated proportions (2011). Wide hips would certainly be out of place on a bikini competitors stage. According to research, women aged 20-40 years old under 21% body fat are unhealthy. But, if you are a serious competitor in the bodybuilding circuit, you will most likely drop below 12 percent body fat. A certain amount of fat is essential to maintain bodily functions, women need about 15% body fat to maintain normal ovulation. Exercise-induced amenorrhoea is the absence of menstrual periods due to excessive exercise, low body fat levels or the effect of exercise-related hormones on the menstrual cycle. For female bodybuilders, it is not always an option to do less exercise. How can we support this sport?
Really disordered eating
Really, I would label this bodybuilding diet as a new type of eating disorder. As a bikini coach said I’ve padlocked refrigerators, and removed stashes of junk food from under beds, the means by which some women cheat on their diets is, by some measure, as creative as it is duplicitous.
The Journal of Psychotherapy identified a new type of eating disorder called bodybuilder-type, it is characterized by high protein, high calorie, low fat diets that are pre-measured and eaten at regular intervals throughout the day.
At the start of a diet, individual’s may feel a sense of self control, but before long individuals are likely to spiral out of control and wind up facedown in a hot fudge ice cream sundae, two weeks out from the show. Women who have this disorder often refuse to eat out at restaurants or at friends’ houses for fear of not knowing the precise caloric intake of their meals and report intense anxiety when a scheduled meal is missed. What is really devastating is that sometimes after all that hard work it just comes down to genetics. You can have the best trainer, the best diet guru, the most crystal that can possibly fit on your suit, the best hair, makeup and killer tan but you’re never going to compensate for poor genetics. Bikini competitors must have the foundation to build on (i.e. a certain ‘body type’)
Not to mention, this sport of bikini competitions is mentally damaging to woman. Australian Personal Trainer of the world stated women that suffer from low self-esteem and see it as a way of getting external validation. Women who don’t workout will undergo drastic measures to get stage ready in the same time as a professional athlete. Not to mention what happens after you compete, it must play with your mind not being able to maintain that lean, vascular and shredded look year young. This contributes to an increase in body dysmorphia, disordered eating and self-esteem issues.
We also can see how unhealthy the diet and exercise regime of a bodybuilder is, because it is sustainable. Everyone knows the right diet and exercise plan is one that you will stick to. But this type of diet and exercise plan is not sustainable, the obsessive passion with fitness and bodybuilding will come to an end when the girl “can’t do it anymore” and “falls off the wagon”. A lot of women do it for the wrong reasons, someone that competes should be an athlete, who understands what is at risk, still chooses to participate and has a great coach. If someone has just lost a ton of weight and wants to compete as a part of their personal journey- then hire a personal photographer! We don’t go to baseball games to watch athletes who can’t play baseball, who wants to go to a body contest to see an ill prepared competitor, it an insult to the audience who paid to see real competitors compete.
How Instagram makes it even worse
If you search for #BikiniCompetitor Instagram brings up posts of skinny girls on stage, photos of competitors binging after competing, women describe themselves as ‘recovered’ from disorders like anorexia and bulimia, and quotes about “the grind”.
I am all for woman empowering each other through social media, but Instagram does promote an unrealistic body standard through the accounts of these girls who compete in bikini. That we need to always look stage ready, that our bodies are always under construction, that we should never be satisfied with how we look, we need to be smaller and more muscular. Those early morning cardio sessions, lack of soul food, too much exercise, its too obsessive.
What does this body tell us?
That she has conformed to societies depiction of the ideal body. Once again, we focus solely on the outcome (appearance), but audience members don’t want to pay attention to the work that goes into this appearance. Behind the scenes, chances are this woman is very unhappy and unhealthy. So, the purpose of this rant was to make us more aware of what goes on behind the scenes in sports. Bikini competitions can be dangerous to those who compete and those who view their stage ready bodies. Those who compete in bikini competitions should be prepared, as athletes to participate in a way that is full of dedication but also safe. Also, women reading this I hope I have gotten through to you that; A STAGE READY BODY IS NOT SUSTAINABLE YEAR ROUND! WORKOUT AND DIET BECAUSE OF HOW IT MAKES YOU FEEL INSIDE. THE AESTHETIC RESULTS ARE A BONUS.
Bonafini, B. A., & Pozzilli, P. (2011). Body weight and beauty: the changing face of the ideal female body weight. Obesity reviews, 12(1), 62-65
Bordo, S. (1993). Unbearable weight : feminism, Western culture, and the body. Berkeley University of California Press
King, S. (2003). Doing good by running well: Breast cancer, the Race for the Cure, and new technologies of ethical citizenship. In J.Z. Bratich, J. Packer & C. McCarthy (eds.), Foucault, Cultural Studies, and Governmentality, (pp.295-316). New York: SUNY Press
Ramazanoglu, Caroline, 1939- (1993). Up against Foucault : explorations of some tensions between Foucault and feminism. Routledge, London ; New York
Rodgers, J. (2012). Body Politics in “Truismes”: “The Tyranny of Slenderness”. Dalhousie French Studies, 98, 29-38. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23621668
Simpson, C. C., & Mazzeo, S. E. (2017). Skinny Is Not Enough: A Content Analysis of Fitspiration on Pinterest. Health Communication, 32(5), 560-567. doi:10.1080/10410236.2016.1140273
Szto, C. & Gray, S. (2015). Forgive me Father for I have Thinned: Surveilling the bio-citizen through Twitter. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 7(3), 321-337.
Thomson, D. (2007). Spectacular Decapitations: the Body Politics of Shaming Fat with Personal Responsibility. Conference Papers — National Communication Association,