How Doing a Figure Show Changed My Life, Slightly

Overall view of the x theatre during figure medium group (with Fitbabe).

Overall view of the Maclab Theatre in downtown Edmonton, with the Figure Medium class on stage (Fitbabe is at the back, second from the left). All photos courtesy of FFG’s crappy camera.

On Saturday June 01, I finished up my cardio and headed over to the Northern Alberta Bodybuilding Championships to watch PDDs and Fitbabe compete in Figure. Both ladies did really well and—get ready to cheer along with me—both placed in the top 5 of their respective classes, which means that they can continue in higher-level competitions should they wish. I went to see the morning show because that is when the judging actually takes place, and most friends and family attend the more spectacular evening show to hear the prizes announced. As the girls were getting first call outs that night, I was at home, baking up cheese cakes for PDDs, and chilling some olives and white wine for Fitbabe. The placings mattered little to me for I was already proud of them, knowing how hard they had worked, as well as some of the many obstacles they had encountered and overcome along with way. I have to admit that I almost cried with happiness when they were posing onstage, something rather unusual for a non-emotionally demonstrative person like myself.


Fitbabe takes centre stage.

Fitbabe in line

Fitbabe in line, second from the left.

PDDs in line, Figure tall.

PDDs in line, Figure tall, far left.

PDDs in line,

PDDs in line, far left.

My experiences of shouting, snapping amateur photos, and celebrating on Saturday encouraged me to reflect back on my own competition, which I was shocked to realize was a full two years ago. Has my life changed as a result of that experience? Well, in most ways no, but in some ways yes. In order to explain, I have created an unscientific numerical list of the lasting changes:

1) My relationship with food is different. Before the show I was a carb-loving vegetarian, but now I am a giant meat whore. I still eat clean about 90% of the time, having six small meals of balanced protein and carbs throughout the day, including oatmeal, protein powder, chicken, and beef. I am not very concerned with measuring anymore, however, which means that I now overeat healthy food rather than crap food, something of an improvement. When I announced my competition-as-research plan, a few people warned me that I might develop an eating disorder as a result, taking drastic measures to maintain a lean body. That did not happen to me, perhaps because of my academic approach to becoming a figure girl. In the end, my foodie identity was reinforced, giving me a renewed appreciation of diverse dishes, textures, and flavour combinations. Still, there are a few things that I will no longer eat, including anything deep fried, nacho chips, pasta, and pizza, because they are just not fucking worth it to me. Now that I know a bit more about what such food does to my particular body, I cannot go back to my carb-heavy, cheese-loving days. Ever.

2) I love and trust my body more than I did before. I pay more attention to what it is telling me. In short, I have learned to listen to it. According to Keith Morton: “Most people, whether they believe it or not, have never taken a moment to sincerely listen to another human being.” I could not agree more, Keith. To take that idea one step further: most people have never sincerely listened to their bodies either, or they would not be filling them with nutrition-free garbage while remaining in a seated position most of the time. I learned that my body is pretty amazing in some ways—it will lean out when I treat it right, has amazing stores of energy, and some surprising abilities that will soon be revealed—but it also has limits, notably rather painful bony fusion in both feet, and an intolerance for delicious fresh melon. I now recognize and accept these and other limitations.

3) I am more attentive to my appearance and generally more vain than I was before hitting the stage. I regularly have facials, get my nails done, and pay top dollar to have deep conditioning treatments applied to my long (now dark again) hair. This transformation is expensive and arguably far from positive, except for those who get to gaze fondly at my desperate attempts at youthful loveliness. I should really start charging a fee, especially to those Saturday morning gym creepers.

4) I now have keenly developed visual skills, which render me able to discern a fit from an unfit body, something that is not dependent on size or amounts of fatty tissue. Recently a rather large woman began taking my spin class, but I could tell from her posture, effort, and expression that she was already quite fit and able to handle the drills. In contrast, the skinny guy beside her had me worried, and not only because of his too-snug-in-the-basket-area riding shorts. His huffing, sweating, poor technique, and lack of core strength had me rehearsing the latest CPR protocols in my head. Of course, he failed to heed my repeated cautions and advice. One dark side to this ability: I become enraged when (mostly non-fitness) people fail to recognize that I am fitter and stronger now than when I was onstage two years ago. “Oh did you lose all your muscle?” asked a skinny-fat professor lady. “No,” was my angry reply, “I am much more muscular now, but I am also fatter. Thanks for noticing.” Q: Why do I even give a flying fuck what she or anyone else thinks? A: Please see point number 3 above.

5) My ass is much bigger, better, and rounder than when I was on stage, a result of repeated ass cardio and heavy squats for the past two years. Now that is a great use of my time, don’t you think? Please see point number 3 above.

When all is said and done, my core identity remained unchanged after I hobbled off stage two years ago because I am first and foremost a scholar. I love to learn, read, do research, and write books. For me, getting a PhD and writing three books were a million times harder than training for and competing in a figure show. That statement is not meant to undermine the massive accomplishment of anyone who has competed at any level. But that fact is probably why the competition experience did not fuck with my head too much. In the end, I am more brain- than body-centred, even as I recognize that this distinction is false. I would love to hear feedback from others who have competed, especially Guest Poser, Fitbabe, and PDDs. How did competing in a bodybuilding, figure, or fitness show change your life for better and/or worse?

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 51-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. About eight years ago, I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

17 thoughts on “How Doing a Figure Show Changed My Life, Slightly

  1. Excellent blog, made me think back on ny fieldwork, not so long ago and how it changed/didnt change me 😀

  2. I really love point 4. I love it a lot. I have similar “size-up” abilities now, and no, I do not necessarily judge someone’s “fitness” (I really don’t know what that word means, it must be specified what KIND of fitness–cardio-respiratory? Maximal strength? Muscle endurance?) by how much fat their bodies are carrying. I am working on a bulk and I know that certain individuals would judge me to be not as fit (again, that word…) because I look, well, bulkier. Softer. I’ll lean out and THEN I’ll show them…or not. A lot of fitspiration is built upon the foundation of an image of a woman who has muscle but has leaned out as much as Fitbabe, PDDs, you when you went through your own competition. Does body fat in excess of absolute minimum levels make an Olympic sprinter or a marathoner’s performance more difficult to execute? Probably–so for those small populations, being lean as heck is appropriate (maybe). If your activity really doesn’t require excessive levels of corporeal “dryness,” but you can perform said activity like a champ (hey, I finally squatted 190 lb, and I did it for two reps in a row, so now it’s my two-rep max and I don’t even have a 1RM. That is pretty awesome in my book–and I didn’t need to be super-lean to do it!) then you need only worry about leanness when someone makes a bullsh** comment as related in the last few sentences of point 4. And I imagine in that circumstance, you worry about it for a second, and then think “[commenter on my body, which you shouldn’t be doing anyway], whatever. You have no idea what you’re looking at in regards to my body and most likely your own.”

  3. Very interesting to hear your reflections two years on. I’m glad you are one of the few who didn’t develop an eating disorder. And big asses are always a plus!

  4. I competed in my first show this past April in Bikini Masters. The training was comparatively easier than the strict eating plan – out of all the possible food options, I was allowed to have 17, day in, day out, with minor adjustments. I understand now why diets don’t work. Beyond that, what have I learned? The removal of body hair is like a strategic military operation. Even at 47, with the correct eating plan and training regimen, it is possible to gain significant muscle in a matter of months – and even then I was too small when I stepped on stage. Yes, this was an exercise in vanity to a large degree but my ego wasn’t fed by male attention or the traditional compliments about my hair, skin, boobs. The best compliment I received during the process was that I looked “thick”.

    I remain somewhat baffled about my decision to train for, effectively, a glorified boob and ass show; and, pre-emptive apologies to those who feel differently, despite the months of daily training and strict diet, sauntering on stage in a sparkly bikini is not an athletic endeavour. I was surprised by the number of women aged 40+ who were entered in the competition, many of whom are mothers, and while the prevailing mantra in the industry seems to be, ‘girl! You’re doing it for yourself!’, I also found the experience kinda sad. It may be unique to Bikini but my fellow competitors were a helluva lot more concerned about their boobs than their quads, they weren’t pumping iron backstage, they were primping their extensions. My expectation when I decided to compete was that it’d be an empowering journey and, as FFG, details, it was – but it simultaneously was not.

    • I have many thoughts on competing, good, bad and ugly…which I will post in a timely manor. I just want some time to reflect and respond in a well thought out way…just for everyone to know, I have just had the BEST contest prep of my almost 10 years of competing!

  5. I have never competed in a figure competition and for the first time in my life do not consider myself an athlete. I find it interesting however, because I am lighter than ever and more vain than ever in preparation for my wedding this summer… I’m finding that I am the “skinny-fat” person that FFG mentioned above. My body looks “healthy” when in fact I’m probably the most unhealthy I’ve been. You really can’t judge a book by it’s cover. I hope to improve upon my health soon but it’s amazingly sad how low of a priority it has become for me this summer. Thanks for the reminder to reprioritize!

  6. Very interesting. While I have never been in “figure shape,” I have been a lot of different sizes and shapes over the past 5+ years. In the past year or so I have lost perhaps only ten or fifteen pounds, but my body composition is pretty radically different. Owing to the student budget, I have not had my body fat percentage measured, but I’m willing to bet it’s lower than it was when i was thinnest (at 17 years and 140 pounds; I’m now 23 and 170 pounds). I definitely find it interesting to be able to tell (to some extent) whether someone is fit, and what’s so interesting about it is that it’s not necessarily correlated with someone’s leanness or lack thereof.

    I hope to hear more about what you’re doing in the gym, FFG- what are your current projects in that area?

  7. My show was so long ago, 1998, but it was a big event in my life. Unfortunately, I was an over-eater before I started preparing for a show, but over hearing a woman talk, in a blasé way, about eating a piece of apple pie and then throwing it up was not a good thing! I had never thought of doing that before.

    Another point to the negative side is that I now have Fibromyalgia and can’t lift weights anymore. Going to the gym and being strong was a big part of my identity and giving it up was and still is hard. I now own a treadmill and do a modified yoga and try to keep fit, but am in a love/hate relationship with my body.

    There was definitely a positive side, though. I’ve always been “big”, but I never knew that I had these lovely muscles underneath. (Yeah dad, thanks for calling me fat; it helped a lot.) I had something to be proud of. Then there’s the fact that this extremely shy young lady actually got on stage. In a bikini.

    I definitely think things would have gone better if I’d had a trainer or somebody working with me. I did it all on my own. I think it’s great that you are there for your training buddies. I could’ve used you!

    (Check out the arms in this photo!)

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