“You are one very bright, beautiful light in this very dark industry”.
I received these words last week from a friend of mine. To be described as beautiful is lovely, and to be described as bright is even better as, if it were meant this way, intellect will always be something I strive for beyond aesthetics. However, what really got me thinking about this sentence was the description of the fitness world as a “dark industry”. The question is, and one that keeps crossing my mind as I go about my daily fitness routines – from training and meal prep to scrolling through social media – is this industry toxic and, if so, where is my place in it?
I have taken a break from blogging for a couple of weeks as I threw my energy into my second competition of the year, the UKBFF USN BodyPower Classic, and then had a week to settle back into normal life and put plans in place for my off season. This has given me time to reflect back over what I have achieved this year, and to think about my future within this sport.
There has been a lot of negativity surrounding this year’s BodyPower Expo – an event which sees world class bodybuilders, athletes and training enthusiasts come together under one roof in celebration of all things muscle and fitness. Although slating BodyPower is something of a popular bandwagon to jump on, some of the criticism does give us food for thought. A lot of the negative press surrounding this year’s event seems to be how mainstream and commercial it has become. Gone are the days of the young gym-going generation attending the event in order to catch a glimpse of their bodybuilding idol and, if they are lucky, getting the opportunity to grab his or her autograph and quiz them about their diet and training. Instead, the event appears flooded with puny boys desperately taking selfies with anyone remotely Insta-famous, and getting a semi over the prospect of a free t-shirt or sachet of luminous pre-workout.
A further criticism, and one that I noticed in abundance at the show, is the sexualisation of the event. The lines between fitness and pornography are being increasingly blurred, nowhere more so than on Instagram, where images of “fitchicks” bending over are now as ubiquitous as the other Insta-craze of Avo Toast. So, surely it’s only understandable that BodyPower, as just another pocket of the industry, would also become increasingly sexualised. The most overt expression of this at BodyPower was the girls walking through the Expo wearing nothing more than a stage bikini and a smile, butt cheeks hanging out for all to see. It would be hypocritical of me to take offence to this, to some degree, as I myself was stood onstage in similar attire on Sunday. The issue I do have, however, is that half of the girls trotting through the event didn’t look like they had ever stepped foot in a gym! Most of them were slim and beautiful, and all were very glamorous, but what this has to do with fitness, muscle or motivation is beyond me.
Despite the above criticisms I enjoyed my weekend at the Expo, and here’s why – I did my own thing. On Friday I spent my time with the MAS Body Development team and, as ever, there was an awesome energy at the stand. MAS have made the bold decision to not return to BodyPower next year (partly due to the changing nature of the event), and I would not be surprised if other exhibitors soon follow suit. As well as working with MAS I also took some time to watch a representative of The Workout Mill participate in BodyPower’s Strongman event, which was a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of the Expo. I also managed to grab precious time with some girlfriends, who did a great job of eating the share of nut butter samples that I had to decline due to my imminent competition. Quite simply, amongst all of the forced glitz and glamour, I was able to make BodyPower work for me.
I must admit that there were moments that I felt inferior to some of the other women at the event. They say that comparison is the thief of joy, and I momentarily fell foul of looking at others and feeling envious of their physiques and/or appearance. Perhaps I should have made more of an effort? On reflection, however, I’m happy in the knowledge that I remained true to myself. I wouldn’t have been comfortable walking around the NEC in my underwear with the vain hope of attracting a sponsorship deal. I don’t need fake tits, tan, hair, nails, lashes and eyebrows to know and demonstrate that I love the lifestyle, the training and the physiques that bodybuilding creates. I made my debut on the UKBFF stage on the Sunday, at which point I had to have some of these enhancements. I must admit that love it for stage, and having my hair and make up professionally done helps me feel sassy and confident whilst up there. However, if anyone sees me walking around a future Expo dressed as a half naked drag queen, feel free to throw some baby wipes and a hoodie at me and tell me to get over myself.
So, BodyPower aside, what other factors make this industry potentially toxic? Well, like any industry, its primary objective is to make money. There are prep coaches popping up left, right and centre who do not give a toss about their athlete’s health, welfare and life outside of competition prep. I am fortunate in that my coach always starts our check in’s with the question “How are you feeling?”, and takes an interest in how the lifestyle impacts my relationships and my job. This sport is time consuming and ultimately selfish, and it can be hard to balance normal life alongside the commitment that a successful contest prep requires. But, as I have mentioned in a previous post, competing has also given me a sense of unity and community, one which I drew on for support at several stages of my journey. As I go into my off season I therefore have no intention of hiding away and eating my bodyweight in Oreos until I decide to compete again. Instead, I will offer my friends the same level of support and empathy that they offered me during prep, starting this weekend as I cheer on my team mates competing at the UKBFF South East Championships in Hayes.
Other toxic factors in the industry include the use of steroids in the supposedly more naturally achievable categories of Bikini Fitness and Men’s Physique ; Nepotism and a culture of “it’s not what you know (or how you look), but who you know (or are sharing a bed with)” in fitness competitions ; the role of social media as a platform for offering the world a skewed view of bodybuilding, where indulgent refeeds go hand in hand with shredded eight packs ; the fact that most competitors are so obsessed with the lifestyle that they would sell their Grandma all for the sake of a plastic trophy… Topics for future blog post perhaps? In the meantime I will continue to do my own thing, to strive to stay humble and bright in this complex industry that I have found myself a part of.