Female bodybuilding: ‘You don’t see your body the same way; you’re looking at every fault’
It is gruelling, expensive and time-consuming, so why is women’s bodybuilding growing in popularity?
It wasn’t until the 1970s that women’s bodybuilding began. Jenni Muphy (left), Siobhan O’Hagan (centre) and Jade Wilson (right) Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
When you think about it, Arnold Schwarzenegger has a lot to answer for. Bad impressions of Austrian accents, cheesy “I’ll be back” one-liners – and the impression of bodybuilding as being, well, for freaks of nature with more muscle than sense.
“The popular view of bodybuilding is just of people who tend to be muscle-bound,” says Mick Bullman, president and founder of the Republic of Ireland Body Building Federation (RIBBF) which is, along with the National Amateur Bodybuilding Association (NABBA), one of two main federations in Ireland.
In 1981, Bullman set up the Irish arm of the International Federation of Body Builders (IFBB) in response, he says, to how bodybuilders were treated.
“My younger brother started to compete,” he says. “The competitions were run by the Irish Amateur Weightlifting Association – and the bodybuilders tended to be an afterthought, after the weightlifting competitions. With the amount of training that goes in, I didn’t think that was fair. So I suggested we organise separate bodybuilding competitions.”
The sport of bodybuilding for men was officially established in 1940, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that women’s bodybuilding began – and, says Bullman, Irish women weren’t exactly lining up to compete.
“Going back even a few years ago, we would have been lucky to have five, maybe six women entering these competitions,” he says. “But at our last competition in Limerick, at the end of April, we had more than 100 female competitors.”
Bullman says social media has helped increase the popularity of the sport for women – but there was also a sea change within the organisation. “Around five years ago, the IFBB decided that it wouldn’t hold any more women’s bodybuilding competitions, as such,” he says. “They would take on a different form completely, focusing on the aesthetic view of the physique, rather than seeking out big, muscular women.” In other words, muscle-bound was out, muscular but feminine was in.
Not so glamorous
At April’s RIBBF competition, Siobhán O’Hagan (28), a personal trainer and reluctant social influencer (“I hate that term,” O’Hagan says) took to the stage for the first time.
Working as a personal trainer at Evolution Fitness, O’Hagan was surrounded by bodybuilders. However, she was never quite sold on the idea of competing.
“I always thought it involved being miserable, eating very little and putting your life on hold,” she says. But just a few months later, she found herself at a crossroads in her training and, having seen friend and coach Amanda Moroney, of Recalibrated Bodies (recalibratedbodies.com) competing, “I felt like I could do it. And I wanted a challenge. It seemed like the right time for me, when I felt like I could enjoy my life at the same time.”
I just kept going with it. As the weight was dropping and I was getting better at what I was doing
The only glamorous part of bodybuilding, says beauty therapist and make-up artist Jade Wilson (23), is “when you’re actually on stage. That feeling is incredible.” Wilson wasn’t always into fitness; five years ago, she was “quite overweight – nearly a size 18”.
She took up weightlifting, lost four stone and, she says, changed her lifestyle completely. “I just kept going with it. As the weight was dropping and I was getting better at what I was doing, I was seeing these girls competing and just thought, this looks deadly.”
Wilson is effusive about the work that goes into bodybuilding. “We train as hard as athletes,” she says. “Coming up to competition, we train twice a day – and doing this while having a full-time job, it’s exhausting.”
During prep – which begins as many as 26 weeks before a competition – Wilson gets up at 5am for a morning cardio session. Then she has her regular eight-hour working day before heading back to the gym for her weight training. “The competitor lifestyle is not for everyone,” she says. “It’s culturally unacceptable in Ireland not to drink, for one.”
Wilson entered three competitions in 2016 and qualified for the European Championships, but decided not to compete on the European stage. “I gained a little bit too much weight after my last competition, and it left me with too much work to do. Trying to juggle a full-time job – especially one where I’d be on my feet all day, doing massages – and then fit in meals . . . It was a bit too much. And I’m only 23. Why am I in such a rush? Some of the women on the team are 32.”
Life after retirement
Jenni Murphy (34) says that “once you decide to change any part of your body, you’re bodybuilding. You don’t have to compete to do bodybuilding – in fact, a lot of people do it as part of their training, in the gym, to build muscle.”
I have my Pro card. I’m Irish champion and I’m world champion
Murphy competed nationally under NABBA and in the WFF championships – and won both. Now she’s retired – from bodybuilding, at least. “I have my Pro card. I’m Irish champion and I’m world champion,” she says. “There isn’t anything else for me to do, other than constantly try to prove myself and keep my title.”
At the age of 30, Murphy left a secure job in advertising and retrained as a personal trainer. “Once I got over the hurdle of standing in a room, telling people what to do, I thought, if I can do that, I can do anything,” she says.
In Ireland, bodybuilding is not a paid sport. Winners at national level go home with nothing more than a trophy and the comforting thought of all the food they can eat, having cut calories consistently, usually for six weeks before competition, and then dehydrated themselves for at least 24 hours in order to reduce body fat and ensure maximal muscle exposure on the day.
It’s the best thing I ever did, but it’s mentally tough
And it’s expensive. There are costumes to consider – bikinis start at about €500 – not to mention shoes, hair, make-up. And tan. Lots and lots of tan – all the better to accentuate those muscles.
“It also takes up a lot of your life,” says Murphy. “I always ask people: are you in a good place in your relationship? Are you in a good place mentally? Why are you doing it? It’s the best thing I ever did, but it’s mentally tough. You start doubting yourself: are you good enough? And you don’t see your body the same way; you’re looking at every fault.”
For O’Hagan, it was the post-competition period that she found most challenging. “I had to remind myself – you’ve loved your body the whole way down, so you have to love it on the way up, too,” she says. However, she acknowledges that she “definitely struggled” when, two weeks after her competition – she came second in her category – “I felt like I’d undone all my hard work”.
Wilson has just decided her next challenge – she’ll be competing with the RIBBF in Limerick this October, meaning she has another 14 weeks of early mornings, late nights and calorie counting ahead of her.
I suffered a lot when I was overweight. I couldn’t run . . . but lifting a heavy weight off the ground, something just clicked
“Training is my therapy,” she says. “That’s why I got into it: for my mental health. I suffered a lot when I was overweight. I couldn’t run . . . but lifting a heavy weight off the ground, something just clicked.
“If I quit competing tomorrow, no one around me would care. There’s no pressure. I do this for myself – for the feeling of accomplishment, stepping out on that stage. To know that you’ve nothing else to give. You can’t buy willpower, you can’t buy that feeling, and no one can take it away from you.”