Obtaining Bodily Perfection: A Deep Dive Into the Rituals of Female Bodybuilders

Words by Su Ertekin-Taner

The process doesn’t begin at the start as most processes do. There is a prestart, a prelude to the prelude.

The urge to body build begins in those moments before the decision to do it, 32-year-old female bodybuilder Shalom Barile informs me. We are on a Zoom call now, and she feels the need to justify her shuffling after she says this. She tells me she is returning to her apartment after her ER shift. She is energetic considering the time — 8:10 p.m. — and the length of her work day as a nurse practitioner — 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. 

She spritely attacks my next question about the aforementioned precursors that led to her now year-long bodybuilding career: “I don’t know anyone who just decides to start exercising and immediately goes into bodybuilding or bikini prep. There’s usually always a story as to how they got there.” 

Before elaborating on said narrative arc of her personal fitness journey, Barile, now stationed in her apartment’s kitchen, admitted, “I’ve tried it all.” She nearly had. For her, group fitness institutions like F45 and Orange Theory, CrossFit and conventional weightlifting — also referred to as progressive overload — were precursors to bodybuilding. The gym was already a second home for Barile before she began bodybuilding. 

As much as she affirms that she moved from exercise to bodybuilding on a natural, expected continuum, Barile also parses out her more tumultuous emotional motives or, as she understood them, the true “why” of the change. The graduation to bodybuilding was meant to reform the aesthetics of her “ugly duckling” body and wean her off of the emotional dependence on food that she struggled with from childhood to grad school. Between smiles, she assures me that most girls experience the same struggles with weight and food. 

In repairing her relationship with her weight and her eating habits, bodybuilding, Barile hoped, would encourage more self-assuredness in her body. She found that she desired this positive emotional product of bodybuilding when she observed female bodybuilders at her gym: “[I saw that female bodybuilders] had a lot of self-esteem. So much self-esteem. I wanted that for myself.”

At 31, Barile made the catalytic decision to begin bodybuilding — catalytic because she divides her life into two timelines: before the switch to bodybuilding and after the switch to bodybuilding. Perhaps, the nature of the interview prompts this temporal division. Regardless, throughout the interview, Barile exclusively refers to bodybuilding in present and permanent terms, even referring to bodybuilding as a “whole life” affair at points. Everything before bodybuilding is past and accordingly, in the past tense. 

Later and upon transcription, I found that Barile echoed the perspectives of my other female bodybuilder interviewees — 38-year-old, two-year bodybuilder Sarajane Maples; 29-year-old, three-year bodybuilder Kristiana Brush; and 21-year-old, two-year bodybuilder Chloe Jones. 

Bodybuilding is their present. 

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Bodybuilders begin their preparation for competition season with a pre-preparation — another one of those prestarts of bodybuilding. This pre-preparation is called an off season, sometimes improvement or building season; other, more traditional sports that involve intense bodily regimens also use the term. While the “off” of off season seems to imply a relaxation and flexibility in training, there is little relaxing or flexible about bodybuilding — or its sister sports for that matter — during this time, especially for serious female bodybuilders. 

Jones is the first to point out that the premise of the wording “off season” is entirely wrong for bodybuilding. “Bodybuilding, if you take the sport seriously, there is no such thing as an off season,” she said. 

Instead, the off season is a period of several months for structured body building and refining via training schedules and meal plans. For my cohort of interviewees, all bikini division competitors, this means the sculpting of an “X” or hourglass shape. In the most official of terms, judges look for a healthy, muscled belly, a trimmed waistline, rounded glutes, toned legs, sculpted but not too capped shoulders and a pronounced glute-hamstring tie-in for bikini competitors.

Accordingly, off season rituals may involve a bulk, a period of gaining muscle mass in appropriate areas accompanied by eating in caloric surplus or smaller tweaks of physique for those competitors who have already competed and received judge feedback on their physique. While judges dole out their desired tweaks effortlessly, the achievement of these small adjustments is the culmination of processes that are anything but effortless.

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Each female bodybuilder’s weeks and days are numerically divided for ease. They all weight lift five to six days a week. The remaining one or two days that they affectionately and, for the general public, improperly call their “rest days” are devoted to cardio. Each interviewee also eats five to seven times a day in predetermined time intervals. Brush, who is currently on an off season, chuckled a bit as she admitted, “In this off season, we’re eating good good.” 

This numerology varies from off season to off season depending on the equally variable judge critiques. Bodybuilding coaches build tangible training and nutrition regimens each off-season in response to these broad, sometimes abstract judge critiques (i.e., rounder glutes, more pronounced glute-hamstring tie-in, tighter, etc.). They are as necessary for the sport as the competitors themselves who follow their instructed regimens.

But Barile, Maples, Brush, and Jones all suggest their coaches are more than experts in bodily manipulation; they are partners in the process. The right “mesh” of personalities, Maples said, between bodybuilder and coach creates a comfortable enough environment for usually uncomfortable body-related conversations. She lists some of the uncomfortable knowledge she must divulge to her coach, Laura Ruggio: “She knows when I go to the bathroom — when I do my check-ins. I write when I’ve had a BM [bowel movement]. She knows when my menstrual cycle is. She writes the macros [macronutrients] for my food, so she sees my weight. She basically sees me naked in the photos I send over, so it’s a very intimate relationship.” 

During the rest of her interview, Maples rarely refers to herself as a separate entity from Ruggio. Her bodybuilding career and the process of bodybuilding is taken on by the collective “we” — the bodybuilder and the coach. 

Her non-bodybuilding related emergency appendectomy and partial colon removal, for example, led to an intermission in her bodybuilding career. The subsequent recommencement of training two months later gave Maples — or rather the “we” — promise for future competition. “We plan on competing again in the springtime,” Maples said. 

In addition to maintaining full bodily alignment with the bodybuilder, a coach must maintain emotional alignment. Barile and Jones, who share coaches Steve Mousharbash and Britni LaRue of Flawless Physique, note that their coaches suppress the habitual body dysmorphia that accompanies weight gain during the sport’s off season. Both agree that their coaches are the necessary objective lens that views their bodies and corrects their own subjective, often pessimistic observations. “What my friends and my coaches see versus what I see are two very different things, so I sometimes have to really trust my coaches’ eyes rather than my own,” Barile says.

It is with this physical and emotional support from coaches that female bodybuilders approach the intense physical rigor of on season.

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“Dialed in.” Maples and Jones use these two words to define the on season contest preparation or “prep” process. For female bodybuilders, dialing in means putting all effort toward chiseling their newly built, tweaked muscles. It is this 10-24 week process that defines bodybuilding as an “extreme sport” for Barile.

Prep involves a tailored ratio of bulking and cutting (the process of losing fat while maintaining muscle through caloric deficit) for each competitor. Barile rattles off her personalized numbers. She’s memorized them by now: a six-week bulk and a 10- to 12-week cut. 

More than this personalized ratio, prep signals the termination of the niceties of the off season. Meals decrease in number and sometimes in size, cardio elongates every workout, cheat meals are omitted entirely, alcohol is forbidden and black coffee becomes the morning norm. Each bodybuilder lifts lighter weights to compensate for the leanness that results. 

The body may suffer as a consequence. “You deal with extreme burnout, extreme fatigue. Your hair loses its shine sometimes. Your skin looks kind of dull. Your sleep suffers immensely,” Barile admitted. 

Competitors like Brush who compete multiple times a year experience these intense physical constraints before every competition. Last year, Brush competed four times. 

She knows she’s crazy. She says so, as she prefaces quite a few sentences with the phrase “I’m a little crazy” when we talk. But she quickly follows up with something along the lines of “but I love it” or “this is what it takes.”

While forming this vascular, conditioned body, female bodybuilders practice the posing that will allow them to effectively show it off. Barile puts the art of posing in her own words. “Posing is meticulously flexing and standing and rotating and transitioning into different muscular poses with enough grace so that it looks like you’re doing it effortlessly,” she said, “but in reality, you are flexing every muscle on that stage.” 

Such a meticulous exercise requires the expertise of a posing coach: Sometimes an already-hired training and nutrition coach performs this role, sometimes a new coach entirely is required — and at least half an hour more in front of a gym mirror.

While my cohort of female bodybuilders agrees unanimously that prep is the most difficult part of the sport, they also agree this process precedes the best part of bodybuilding: competition day.

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Competition day, as the term suggests, is a full-day affair, usually beginning at 10 a.m. with a round of pre-judging. Competitors are grouped into categories depending on their physique and experience level.

The true novice category accepts competitors who haven’t competed in bodybuilding before. The novice category accepts non-pro competitors or those who have not earned their pro card at a national competition. The pro category accepts pro competitors. The open category accepts all competitors of the same gender and the overall category group competitors according to their weight and height.

Competitors in each category approach competitions with varying goals. Novices attempt to qualify for national competitions — of which there are seven — where they may earn pro cards depending on their national ranking. Pros attempt to prove their sovereignty over the sport.

Regardless of competitor category and during pre-judging, judges line up sparkly bikini and clear heel-clad bikini competitors on a stage and instruct them to switch spots with each other, assessing each competitor’s physique as they do so. Judges may also “call out” pairs of competitors to be compared to one another. To move to their instructed spots, competitors perform their prescribed walk between “X” marks on the stage while flexing.

“Pre-judging” deceptively suggests that this process is a precursor to the important, more decisive judging of the competition. However, judges make most of their decisions at this point: The competitors that finish toward the center of the stage after rounds of rotating and performative walking are more likely to rank higher. 

By finals held that night, bikini competitors have nearly resolved themselves to their ranking. They perform their 10-30 second posing routine in a spectator-filled room, dramatizing their bubbly personalities for the scoresheet, as personality is a factor in judging. Anticipated rankings are revealed after the posing, sucking in and flexing comes to an end. Often rankings close out a 12-14 hour day. 

In reality, competition day is more than a one-day affair: It is the result of a months- or even years-long investment. The burnout and fatigue of bodily perfection become worth the work and deprivation on the stage. The relationships sacrificed in furtherance of this bodily perfection are forgotten. When loved ones cheer — or, in the case of Maples, bring cardboard cutouts of female bodybuilders — the “grind” makes sense. “I’ve never felt more beautiful,” she recalled of her first competition. “I’ve never felt more supported.”

While competition day can be the exciting climax of physical and emotional investment, it can also be a financial investment. Female bodybuilding is an especially costly sport. When appearance and aesthetics matter as much as they do in the sport, female bodybuilders want the finest of things: the best hair, makeup, competition suit or personalized, crystal covered suit (which can cost $1,000 alone), tan, etc. The price of travel to the competition site, the hotel, food and training add an additional burden. 

Sponsorships from suit sellers and training teams alleviate some of these burdens. For college student Jones, her sponsorship through Flawless Physique means everything, especially because Jones has been on the brink of inability to financially invest in the sport. After Jones’ car had broken down the month before her second competition, her coach bought her a competition suit to alleviate the financial burden of paying for both the car’s repair and the suit.

Perhaps, the financial cost of bodybuilding became worthwhile to Jones when she won novice bikini overall at her most recent competition. She will compete at Junior Nationals next June.

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Female bodybuilders return to their jobs post competition, touting a title or feeling the increased desire for one. Maples resumes her hairdressing, Brush her personal training, Barile her nursing, and Jones her college life. 

Between shifts, the competitors begin their off season rituals again. The “crazy” ones stay in condition and compete in several subsequent competitions. All female bodybuilders commit to growing again, maturing their bodily perfection. They continue their prescribed bodybuilding cycles and rituals again, empowered by their strength, beautiful and feminine because of it.

 

About Su Ertekin-Taner

Jacksonville native Su Ertekin-Taner is a student at Columbia University with a passion for everything arts. While she writes creatively, satirically, journalistically, and enthusiastically (of course), she also loves to sing, dance, and do impressions; her favorites are Toddlers and Tiaras Mom and Shakira. Find Su critiquing the quality of reality TV that she willingly spends several hours a day watching, petting her cat even though she recently discovered her cat allergy, and probably watching paint dry because it's fun.