A Body Revolution: Re-Building the ‘Feminine’

12 Jun

Muscle on a woman? Stop everything. Seriously, drop that ham sandwich right now and take a sharp intake of breath. Actually, I take that back, pick up the sandwich and sit back down, that was tasty. Whether it be a woman with a Spartan physique, visible signs of muscle definition, or perhaps just a willingness to open that jar of gherkins, now more than ever before women are proudly asserting the right to have muscle, and boy have they worked hard for it.

Despite the huge growth in recent years within the female fitness industry, there is still a stigma attached to certain types of exercise adopted by women. An hour of Zumba fails to raise any eyebrows, even boxercise and pump classes are a widely accepted class for females, but for many, a woman deadlifting a heavy weight is still unsettling. There exists an oddly negative association between masculinity and female fitness, with bodybuilding and weightlifting in general being subject to judgement. This disapproving attitude comes in many unpleasant forms; everything from abusing female athletes on social media to openly staring at a woman’s muscular physique as she walks down the street. Stereotypes, gender expectations, cultural ‘norms’ – it’s all a bit of a socially-constructed mess, really.

So agrees Amber Krol, 24-year-old Dutch personal trainer and nutritionist based in London. “I think that we as people tend to fear what we don’t know, and muscle on females…that’s not something that’s very common. I think that’s why people notice it.” Indeed, looking at Amber’s biceps, it’s easy to understand why she would get noticed – they are something to marvel at. She mentions a fellow fit friend of hers, who was recently stared at on holiday for being ‘too’ muscular: “That’s what’s so messed up in today’s society. A fit woman stands out. It’s like, shouldn’t the unhealthy people stand out? Because a physically ‘strong’ woman isn’t the standard, it’s considered weird.”

An obvious problem with modern-day society is an over-abundance of nosiness, with people paying too much attention to other peoples’ bodies and neglecting to focus on their own. We’ve all done it – looked at that girl or that guy and passed judgement, however big or small, on the way that they look, or the lifestyle choice that they are making. Amber says: “When people ask ‘Are you on a diet?’ I reply with, ‘No, I just like to eat healthy’. Choosing to eat well, choosing to exercise…people just consider that so unusual.” Although a world free from such judgements is a pleasant thought, it’s rather unrealistic.

It often seems as though the image of a ‘fit’ woman – let’s just say for instance, with visible abs and shapely biceps – is regarded with distaste and even a little bit of discomfort. If I had a penny for every time I’ve read comments such as “That’s disgusting!” and “Where has she hidden her balls?” on a fit woman’s photo, I’d have an uncomfortably full piggy bank, possibly two.

“Muscular women are only branded as ‘manly’ because of what is portrayed in the media,” states Amber. “Bodybuilding has always been a very male-dominated sport. Female bodybuilding basically started underground in a basement, that’s why figure girls and competitors wear heels nowadays – they needed to still look ‘womanly’ while doing it.” Encouraging a more ‘feminine’ outlook on stage is something that female competitors are expected to do, even though walking barefoot on stage doesn’t change the fact that they are female.

As with everything, the image of the female bodybuilder carries its own stereotype. “The thing is, when they step out on stage they will have dieted for 12-20 weeks, they would have worked their asses off, and the way they look on the stage – starved, shiny, orange – they look like that for one day.” As Amber says, when people think about muscle, they instantly picture that orange girl. “If you see that same bodybuilder a day after her competition you might not even know that she’s a bodybuilder, because she looks like the girl next door again.”

Indeed, the image of a ripped, heavily tanned physique smiling ear to ear and standing in what seems to be a very uncomfortable pose is the stereotype that these athletes carry – but underneath this exterior, that is what they are – athletes. Behind the on-stage persona that, as Amber says, only exists for show day, there is months, years, often decades of dedication and commitment of the fiercest degree. Those who are quickest to judge bodybuilders as ‘vain’ or mere ‘meatheads’ are often the ones least aware of what goes on behind the scenes.

“Bodybuilders are constantly underestimated as athletes, but if you look at the dedication, the insane amount of exercise, you need to be very strong and very disciplined.” Indeed, this is something that Amber knows a lot about. She is a self-confessed ‘gym rat’, happiest working out than she is anywhere else. Having a naturally very thin physique, she finds it a constant battle to gain size at the rate she would like to. “The first time I got called a ‘man’ on Instagram for a photo of my abs, it actually made me very proud. Coming from being so teeny tiny skinny to being called a ‘man’, that just helps me think ‘wow, that’s good, my hard work is showing!’ For me, that’s motivation. It’s not why I lift, but it shows something’s working, right?”

Being able to turn what was clearly meant to be an insult into a positive thing is one of the many admirable qualities about Amber both as a person and athlete. If you judged her at face value right now, you’d see a smiling blonde with a visible passion for fitness, doing a job that she loves and spending her days training clients and managing a gym. Yet, below the surface lies a surprising reality: Amber is chronically ill, and has been in constant pain since the age of 11.

It all started with a scooter. “I fell off and innocently sprained my ankle, and not so long after that they [doctors] decided it was complex regional pain syndrome, which basically comes down to nerve pain.” CRPS, as it’s known, is usually triggered by an injury, and the resulting pain is much more long-lasting and severe than normal. Affected areas can undergo fluctuating changes in temperature, colour and sensitivity to the slightest touch.

Unbelievably, things only got worse. “Four years later, it had spread to the entire left side of my body, and that’s when the doctor told me that it could be fibromyalgia.” Along with the constant pain, fibromyalgia bears the added complications of fatigue, difficulty sleeping, headaches, IBS, problems with mental processes (known as “fibro fog”), muscle stiffness and depression.

“Sounds like a fun thing, huh?” Amber laughs, smiling at me. My face doesn’t mirror hers; I’m in a state of complete shock. I ask, so you are constantly in pain? “Yes. I was an 11-year-old guinea pig, being stuffed with any and every kind of medication; try this kind of morphine, try this kind of pill…but for me, nothing really helped. People are always surprised that I don’t take any drugs for my illness now, but I always say I would rather live in pain than be a zombie with a bit less pain.”

It doesn’t end there. At fifteen, upon being diagnosed with fibromyalgia, Amber found herself in a wheelchair. “I wasn’t paralysed, I could walk, but after literally walking 100 metres I would be exhausted and in so much agony. When you’re in that much pain, you become scared of moving.”

I asked, what was school like when you were suffering from such a physical disability? “I got teased a lot, because you didn’t see that I was sick, so I looked perfectly healthy. Kids are mean, I got bullied a lot just from people thinking I was be overreacting. I think that helped me a lot. I thought ‘fuck it’, if they aren’t even going to ask me what the real story is…I learned really quickly that people can only hurt you if you allow them to.”

Whilst attending a rehabilitation centre, Amber was encouraged to exercise, and nearly two years after first getting into the wheelchair she decided to stop using it, quit school and focus on her new found love for fitness. Even now, you won’t hear her complain. “Sometimes I have moments where the depression sets in and I struggle to get out of bed. But hey, we all have our issues. Maybe I was meant to be this ill so that I can help other people. Sometimes you need people who make you realise, ‘I’m alive. I’m healthy. I can do this.’”

I call her a role model. She shakes her head and disagrees, with a genuine modesty that only makes her even more endearing. “Every session at the gym is like a ‘fuck you’ to my illness. I win, I’m in control for those few hours. Nutrition and exercise is my drug. That’s what fights the pain.”

For Amber, weightlifting, nutrition and general fitness is not only a passion, but a necessity. As it stands, food is the most widely abused anti-anxiety drug, and exercise is the most under-utilised anti-depressant. So why is there such a negative attitude towards exercise in our society? Why do so many of us groan at the thought of running, and shudder at the thought of aching muscles? “Again, it’s people being afraid of what they don’t know,” Amber explains. “Exercise can seem intimidating; to gain results you need to commit to a lifestyle change and work hard, some people just don’t want to – and that’s fine, just do whatever makes you happy.”

Perhaps the issue is that exercise is being constantly projected as something we should be doing, which in turn makes it more of a chore than a pleasure. There are hundreds of different exercises in existence, it’s just a case of finding which ones suit you as an individual – which is easier said than done with a busy lifestyle and sometimes quite limited options. It seems fairly clear that there is a gap in knowledge about the benefits of exercise, especially weightlifting, in modern-day society.

“Exercise reduces your chance of diabetes, heart disease, certain types of cancer, cholesterol, high blood pressure…all of those kinds of issues that are very common to us in the western world.” Amber calls them ‘lifestyle illnesses’, a result of a culture that has become too convenient. This generation is more privileged than any others before it; we have everything we want available on the high street or at the click of a button, whereas past generations have had to physically labour to reach supplies, and more than ever the ‘office job’ is devitalising the human body, with certain occupations demanding less activity. “A lot of people that are ill would not be ill if they were just more active and ate properly.”

Bodybuilding keeps your bones, muscles and joints strong and flexible; it fortifies the vessel that we all depend on for the length of our lives. Physical activity releases endorphins, which in turn influences mood, can encourage a better quality of sleep and releases psychological tension. As mentioned, exercise has been found to significantly help those who suffer with stress, anxiety and depression. Perhaps most importantly, exercise is about you versus you. Weightlifting and cardio involve you actively working with your own body and mind; you can set your own goals, push yourself to reach them, and the sense of achievement gained from fighting and winning your own personal battle is a private victory that only you can truly appreciate.

Often, bodybuilding is accused of being a highly superficial activity, as it involves a lot of self-examination and attention to aesthetics. In defence of this, Amber points out that this can be applied to any profession that an individual takes seriously: “Some people want to be the best chef, the best guitar player, the best runner…I think it’s the same with every hobby. Setting goals, achieving things, completing what they want to complete – but because it’s measured in physical appearance, it seems superficial on the surface.”

Usually, displeasure towards the female bodybuilder is based on a dislike of her aesthetic appearance. Yet, the viewer often fails to look deeper than this exterior and consider the qualities that these aesthetics point towards: dedication, resilience, drive, a positive attitude towards sustaining their own health – many qualities that people search for in a partner or friend. “Obviously you’re attracted to a body type, but for me I’m attracted to passion, and bodybuilders tend to be very passionate people. They set a goal and reach it.” Indeed, the desire to keep fit and eat well – to preserve one’s own health – is a hugely underrated quality, especially when the observer mistakes a dedicated personality for superficiality.

So, what of nutrition? Aside from the hours of exercise that goes on behind the scenes for a bodybuilder, the culinary side is occurring as a silent but crucial element in the background. Hours of meal preparation occur each week: counting macros and micros, balancing the right levels of food groups, buying, cooking and portioning – organisation and forward-thinking are the key to supporting a bodybuilding lifestyle. Or, as it is often put, ‘making gains’.

“Exercise shapes your body, nutrition is what makes you either bigger or smaller. You can lift for two hours every single day, but if you’re not eating what you should be then you’re not going to rest or grow appropriately.” Amber maintains that nutrition is paramount, and she is absolutely right; it’s true – you can’t out-train a bad diet. “With bodybuilding, you get out what you put in. It’s very simple. If you work your quads, they grow. If you eat real food to support that muscle, you’ll grow – basically, if you work for it, you get it.”

There is a strong need to further educate people about the importance of good nutrition if they want to live an energetic and healthy life; but we as a nation are swimming in a whirlpool of information that is often conflicting and confusing. “I think there’s too much information out there,” agrees Amber. “They say don’t eat carbs, don’t eat fats, eat 3 times per day, don’t eat after 7, do intermittent fasting, do this, do that…people are like ‘what the hell do I need to do, then?’ I’ve had several clients that have had to un-learn the rules. The best one is to learn what’s right for your body.”

It’s true that everyone has different needs; Amber eats a mainly paleo – ‘caveman’ – diet, and whilst that suits her body, it will not be the case for everyone else. The problem is these brightly-coloured labels promising less of this and less of that are hoodwinking the nation; food has become over-processed and overcomplicated. Ultimately, the best plan of action is to eat foods that are as natural and simple as possible, balanced to suit your specific lifestyle and that will make youfeel energised.

I asked Amber if she had any words of advice for a woman who would like to pursue bodybuilding as a form of fitness, but who is discouraged by the negative association that society can have towards it. She replied: “Look into your heart and think about what makes you happy. There will always be people who dislike what you like, so if you want to do this, do it. At the end of the day, you need to be happy with who you are.”

Fortunately, with athletes such as Amber standing as an ambassador for female fitness, the future of women’s bodybuilding is looking bright. At the end of the day, if you don’t like it, don’t look at it. But if you do like it, compliment it. Perhaps that is exactly what society needs: a little more acceptance of and appreciation for the diversity of the human figure. The categories – female, male, large, small, average, muscular, lean – boil down to the same thing: human. When you cut away the varying degrees of body fat and muscle that we all have, that is what unites us.

Written by Laura Evans .