I competed in a fitness competition in 2013. My daughter was 3 and a half years old, and my son was 18 months old the day I stepped onto stage. I had trained a good year, half with a trainer and half on my own. My diet was super clean for that year and started getting really strict about 4 months out. To sum it up, I worked my ASS off every day. The hard work paid off. The day of the competition, I looked aesthetically better (by the industry's standards) than I ever had, even after 2 kids. I rocked a teeny tiny bikini and felt GREAT in it. It was such a freedom for me, as body image has been an area of my well-being that I have struggled with since I was 8 years old. My cellulite that I'd had since I was 10 was totally gone. The social anxiety I suffered with for years was a distant memory as I stood on stage alone in front of 300+ people as a panel of judges picked me apart silently.
And you know what? I felt fucking awesome. The pride I had for myself engulfed any fear or insecurity that may have threatened to rise. I was invincible.
Since that time I have had another baby and my body has again changed dramatically. I am fluffier than my "normal," and my motivation to stick to a strict diet has never returned. I am asked on a very regular basis if I will ever compete again. I usually answer with "I don't know" and give a lengthy list of why I may or may not. I did love the journey and motivation I felt and I may or may not be a chronic goal setter. However, it is only recently that I have decided that no, in fact, I won't ever compete again. While I have respect for the work these athletes put into the craft, I have a lot of my own personal reasons why I'll never go through that process again.
1. Hormone Imbalances
Here I am one day before I stepped on stage
I looked damn good. My belly was flat, my muscles were defined and my ass rock solid. So what was the issue? In this picture you don't see the month I went without my period because my body fat had dropped so low. You don't see the clumps of hair that would come out every single day because my adrenals were totally taxed. You didn't see the nights I couldn't move off the couch because I couldn't muster up another second of energy to move. When you begin restricting your fat and caloric intake, hormones, energy, moods and overall well-being begin to suffer. My cortisol levels shot through the roof because I was putting my body (and mind) through so much stress, creating chronic inflammation within my body.
2. Disconnection with the Body
As a Holistic Nutritionist (I wasn't at the time), it is most important for me to connect with my body and to listen to all it tells me, because I know that's how I will stay healthy and vibrant. Training for a competition like this takes away any connection with the body, as you follow a food plan no matter what. 4 ounces of broccoli mixed with 4 ounces of tilapia and maybe a few ounces of sweet potato. It didn't matter if I was craving peanut butter (because my fat intake was so low). It didn't matter if the sight of tilapia made my stomach turn. Those were things I ate. Day in and day out. No matter what. I stopped listening to my body's wisdom and instead became impatient, even angry with it, for saying things to me that counteracted what my plan was saying. It took me a long time to nurture that relationship again.
3. Body Dysmorphia
I will admit that in the few months before the competition, I would have jumped at any opportunity to saunter around in a bikini. I had a body that I was proud of and wanted to show off to anyone even slightly interested. The stricter my diet got, the more workouts I put in, the more my body changed and the more pride I had. So what happens when the competition is over? Well, typically there is a backstage loaded with treats - cookies, cupcakes and muffins. The second the competition is over you can find dozens of athletes stuffing their faces uncontrollably, making up for the months of deprivation experienced during training. And if you aren't used to the process of reverse dieting, you go home, open the cupboard and stuff your face full of all the things you hadn't been able to eat for months. And don't stop. And very quickly gain weight. Truth be told, the way athletes look onstage typically isn't a sustainable look. And putting on weight can really mess up your sense of self worth if you have so much of it tied into the way you looked on stage. Again, for me, in the end, competing created a big rift in my relationship with my body. I started disliking the way my body looked and felt. When my pants no longer fit (they were a size 0 and still a bit big), my self esteem suffered greatly. Coming back around to a regular weight and size felt like obesity to me, for I had become accustomed to being so small and defined.
4. Playing into Society's Standards
Rock hard glutes. Glutes that don't sit on the hamstrings. Defined shoulders. But not TOO defined. Flat abs, Curvy hips. Chiseled back.
These are just some of the qualities judges look for when deciding who looks the best amongst a stage of athletes. Everyone stepping on to stage is fully aware that their hard work, sweat, tears, dedication and discipline are about to be picked apart by watchful eyes. For me, I didn't care. The fact that I was on stage in front of hundreds of people after battling serious social anxiety was enough. I had no concern for what anyone thought of me. Me, at 31 years old, in a line full of 20 years old....I had won. However, after the initial elation of the first competition, many go on to compete with the goal of placing. They work harder, eat stricter, work out longer...and it becomes a very slippery slope between dedication and obsession. Almost without notice many athletes pick apart their body, wondering if their shoulders are round enough, if judges will notice the defined lines along the back...appreciation of the body evolves into either being satisfied or disappointed in a feature that others will approve or disapprove of. The standards of the profession becomes the barometer for which self approval resides. And if I am honest with myself, I am not entirely convinced I can avoid that downslide. And I certainly don't want to test it to find out.
5. Creating Unhealthy Habits
Binge eating once a week. Chewing sugar free (aka artificial sweeteners) gum nonstop to deal with severe cravings. Drinking flavoured BCAAs (aka more artificial sweeteners). Weighing every morsel of food incessantly. Avoiding social situations so you don't have to be around the food. Drinking flavoured water crystals (aka total crap) to give your diet some taste. Dehydrating yourself. Pushing the body through illnesses. Giving up sleep to get a second workout in....the list goes on. Now that I know the things I know about health and well-being, I see so many unhealthy practices that I at least indulged in during the year or so that I prepped for my competition. And I knew at the time (to some degree) that those things weren't things I would normally do, but...when your body is so deprived of calories, fat and enjoyment from food, you'll do some atypical things just to get through. I'm not willing to sacrifice my health for my appearance.
6. Nutritional Deficiencies and/or imbalances
As I mentioned already, my diet was super strict. My food choices were very limited, to mostly vegetables, sweet potato and white fish. Without a variety in the diet, you are bound to run into some sort of deficiencies in a vitamin or mineral necessary for optimal body functioning. Also, such intense training puts the body under a huge amount of stress and creates large amounts of inflammation. Without addressing that, every system within the body starts to become affected - hormones, adrenals, thyroid, immune system, digestive system....everything.
So now that I know better I can do better and the idea of a competition just doesn't sit well with me. Perhaps there are better ways of approaching the sport that I could create for myself. I'm sure of it actually. But I feel as though my body and mind are still trying to recover from the effects of restricting my diet and depriving my body of things it really needed at that time, especially as I was raising 2 small children and breastfeeding one of them.
I do not, however, regret for a second the journey I took to get on stage. There were so many benefits for me - to prove I could accomplish whatever I want to, to prove I had the dedication and drive, to prove to myself I didn't have to allow social anxiety to drive my life, and so many more lessons. I met lots of people, I discovered a deep passion I had for fitness, which brought about my business and has brought many ridiculously amazing women into my life.
However. I kind of have a "been there done that" type of attitude to competing. It served it's purpose in my life, and while there are times I miss the intensity such a lofty goal provided my life, I know there are other goals and dreams I have to work toward that don't include threatening a relationship with my body that I have poured myself into strengthening over the past 4 years.
Stay tuned. Goals in progress :)