Women bodybuilders with impossibly proportioned muscles are putting the average beer bellied male to shame.
Strong, tough, brawny, with rippling muscles and glistening biceps, these ladies redefine body beautiful. But getting there hasn’t been an easy road. And it comes with its perils. A troubled childhood and issues of self-image were the trigger that led Pune-based Deepika Choudhary to pursue power lifting. “I was really thin and scrawny and didn’t like how I looked. Then I saw women figure athletes on stage at the Sheru Classic event in Delhi. I couldn’t believe women could look like that. I knew I had to do it.” Winner in the Figure Category at International Federation of bodybuilding (IFBB), 31-year-old Choudhary is the first Indian woman bodybuilder to win the Pro card (a coveted title among professional bodybuilders).
But not all bodybuilders start out with a low body image. Jaipur-born Shweta Rathore is the winner of the Fitness Physique category of IFBB (a new division of bodybuilding that is different from the traditional muscle flexing) and also winner of various championships like Miss World, Miss Asia and Miss India. She started working out her soft stomach, broad shoulders and thighs to build a new figure comprising solid muscle soon after school. “I was into sports and loved working out. But I had to hide my passion from my father who thought that girls who go to gym at an early age become like men. So I would skip tuitions and sneak off to the gym,” confides the Instagram queen. And though her family couldn’t initially comprehend the reason why she was going to extraordinary lengths to achieve the proportions of a competitive bodybuilder, they soon reined in their reservations when they saw her level of commitment.
But not all bodybuilders have buns of steel or glistening biceps as their contemporaries. Some like Shweta Sakharkar are pretty and feminine. Sakharkar bodybuilds in the bikini category and wants to steer clear of a rippling physique. “I don’t want to look muscular. Most look beefed up because of the stuff they put into their bodies. If you just weight train and diet, you won’t look muscular.” Not long ago, if women wanted to compete in a physique competition there was only one category: bodybuilding. These days, women can compete in bikini, figure, fitness, physique and bodybuilding. The posing and related requirements are different for each, but the main difference is obvious: muscular size.
Diet of a bodybuilder
Apart from committing themselves to a grueling regime of training for hours at the gym, these women also invest time and money preparing the numerous meals that they consume every three hours in the day. Rathore follows a high protein diet of six whole eggs, 450 gm chicken and fish, protein shakes, nuts and salads everyday. A typical day for the 27-year-old gymnasium owner involves at least three hours at the gym, training young girls in fitness, managing her NGO, macronutrient measuring, careful meal preparation and posting regular updates on social media. Choudhary, too, juggles these chores with holding a full-time job as a virologist at the National Institute of Virology, Pune. Sakharkar works for a supplement brand.
Drugs That Transform
Many women bodybuilders suffer from high cholesterol and high blood pressure due to their diets. Moreover, it takes a lot of effort for the human heart to supply blood to such a large body mass — and so it increases the risk of heart issues and complications. And there is also the steroid use. Alarmingly, this “bigger is better” mentality is pursued at virtually any cost. Anabolic steroids to a woman does a whole lot more than help her win a gold medal — it can change her body forever — sunken eyes, veins in foreheads, sharply angled jawline, a bigger nose and a coarseness of the voice.
According to Dr M.M. Bahadur, Senior Nephrologist and Transplant Physician, Masina Hospital, Mumbai, female bodybuilders frequently use dietary supplements (non-hormonal) and anabolic steroids (hormonal) to acquire strength and body bulk. “High-protein intake (more than 300 gm a day) is associated with kidney damage if prolonged insult continues. Creatine powder that these women use is marketed as a muscle building supplement but can precipitate exercise-induced acute renal failure, and eventually lead to serious kidney and life threatening medical complications.” Excessive vitamin D supplements used to enhance bone building can cause hypercalcemia (a condition in which the calcium level in the blood is above normal) with potential for kidney damage. Excess vitamin C can cause oxalate stones and high protein diet predisposes to uric acid stones, he adds.
A Consuming World
In the world of female bodybuilding, many pay a higher price for their 60 seconds on stage. The toll on their bodies can be irreversible and the subculture can be all-consuming, obsessive and dangerous. Just 48 hours prior to the competition, these women pull out all plugs. “It’s not a healthy way and I won’t suggest it to anyone. Just 48 hours prior to the competition I give up water, salt and carbs completely. This makes the muscles look leaner and sharper. But on the day of the event I load the body with carbs to make my muscles look fuller. So I gorge on brown rice. And just before I step on the stage, I eat a muffin or a chocolate for the energy to pose,” says Shweta Rathore. All this for a few seconds of strutting out on stage, striking a pose and hoping for the No. 1 ranking. “Drugs like NSAID (for muscle soreness) or diuretics to ‘look more shredded’ or for weight loss lead to acute kidney injury. Add reduced water intake to this and you have a potent formula for acute kidney shut down,” warns Dr Bahadur. Leading cardiologist, Dr Chandra Shekhar T. of Apollo Clinic, Hyderabad, blames the long term use of steroids to reduced systolic (pumping effect of the heart) and diastolic function (relaxation capacity) of the heart resulting in heart failure. Simply put, it can cause heart attacks and strokes. The dehydration, innumerable supplements to cut fat, pills that mask fatigue and increase energy and testosterone to get big are all seen as essentials in looking a certain way and winning an aesthetic competition.
The emotional angle
For many of the women who take up the sport, being stared at, whispered about and insulted to their faces is a way of life. ‘What is that? A man or a woman?’ is the most common remark which they learn to live with. “Most guys can’t digest the fact that a girl lifts better than them. It hurts the male ego. Some want to wrestle with me while others send me their naked pictures on FB. It’s disgusting,” complains Sakharkar. But not all attention is bad, believes Rathore, who says, “They look at you like you’re from outer space or something. Guys slow down their cars to take a good look at my muscles (laughs). But once they get over the initial shock, they want to know how I train and what I eat.” When not battling lewd comments, there are moods swings and aggression to deal with. “I keep to myself when prepping for a show. It’s important to stay stress-free and motivated. So I cut myself off from all distractions and negativity,” says Sakharkar who has her eyes set on acing the WBFF bikini competition to be held in London.
There’s more to being a professional body builder than just looking good on stage, cautions Choudhary. “A successful figure competitor has a great body and a great stage presence and personality.” In the end, it’s all about showmanship — an aspect Choudhary relishes. “My favorite part is that first moment when I step onto the stage and know that all my hard work, dedication and training has paid off.” The least favourite part for this Virologist is wearing a bikini for the competition. “I am really very shy. But then it’s a requirement of the sport. When you are up on the stage you are just a sportsperson. Your morals, upbringing, ethics, etc. shouldn’t come in the way of being an
So what makes bodybuilding so appealing to women? “Lots of women come into this to get strong, to say they accomplished something, or even to overcome something from their past,” Choudhary says. But it’s not about the past for Choudhary, it’s about the future. Her goal is not just a chiseled physique or a personal best, but the Ms Olympia title (the so-called Super Bowl of the sport). “I want to be the first Indian to achieve that. I am almost there.”