The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

What you need to know before you go out and buy a shiny suit and stripper heels

You are most likely well aware of all the “good” things that can result from you competing in your first figure or bikini competition. It’s likely that these are the very things that have you logging extra hours at the gym and stalking your favorite fitness celebrity’s instagram, while contemplating when you will do your first show. No doubt about it, there are many positive effects of taking on the challenge of competing in a physique competition.

First and foremost, the personal and internal challenge you will endure is unlike much of anything I’ve ever done. Committing to a competition will require a level of discipline that reaches far beyond your physical capacity; it will require mental and emotional muscles that you quite possibly have never exercised before. As a result, you will grow personally from your experience.

The next attraction would be your obvious physical transformation. It’s hard to deny that if you do indeed commit to your first competition, you will end up in “the best shape of your life,” by all appearances anyway. We’ll touch on more of this in a bit. But for now, yes absolutely you will look fantastic and you’re likely to experience some exaggerated attention and even acquire a few new admirers along the way. Oh and yes of course “inspire others” to take on their own physical transformation.

In addition to your personal growth and new physical appearance, you’re likely to gain a few new friends along the way, or if you’re competing with your spouse of a friend, it’s possible you could grow closer through the process. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you may score some free product or a sweet t-shirt in the form of a “sponsorship” or even acquire a little instagram “fame.” No doubt about it, the positive effects are many.

By now I bet you’re ready to click “X” and start shopping for that perfect sparkling suit, but wait just a second because I bet there are a few things your online prep coach(who probably just finished her second competition) hasn’t mentioned.

So let’s talk about ‘the bad’ that always seems to get ignored. Your new coach probably won’t get down and dirty and tell you that this little hobby can cost you big time. From the coaching, (don’t forget posing if you really go for it)to the suit, and everything in between: the jewelry, the shoes, the entry fee, the NPC card, the travel, the hotels, the supplements, the food. Now obviously there are going to be different variations on these numbers depending on a few key choices. Coaching can range from a $25 meal plan to thousands of dollars. You could rent a suit for $100 bucks or so or you can purchase one for upwards of $1000(Yikes, who does that?). There’s cheap hotels and then there is the host hotel. You get the point, and hopefully you’re starting to see how these numbers can add up. I’m not saying it’s not worth it, I’m also not saying it is, because this is a decision you have to make for yourself. So what else do you need to know before investing thousands of dollars into this new hobby?

You need to be prepared for the SUBjectivity of this sport. Contrary to popular belief, this is not an objective sport. Your results will not be quantifiable. Your outcome is largely out of your control and rests solely in the opinions of a few selected judges who may or may not be coaching one of the girls standing on stage next to you. Something to think about, right?

What about how lonely this sport can be? Has your favorite IG celebrity posted about that? Probably not. Throughout this process, you will most likely have a birthday or work function or some other life event that you will either choose to forgo all together or will attempt to attend while sticking to your plan. In either case, you will find yourself in a very isolated place. If you choose to stay at home, you’re missing out on important life events and memories that you will never be able to gain back. If you choose to brave the event, you subject yourself to ridicule from others because let’s be honest, nobody wants you to show up to a birthday party and eat fish and asparagus out of tupperware while they devour birthday cake. So what events are you willing to miss? Or how uncomfortable are you prepared to make your friends and family and at what point does your ‘dedication’ become selfish behavior?

So that’s it right, the good and the bad, everything you need to consider before deciding whether competing is for you. Hold that thought. There’s an “ugly” side of competing that rarely gets talked about. These are things I wish I knew six years ago.

There are several different nutritional approaches to competing. I’m not about to dive in to which one is best, but I will touch on the wrong one because I experienced it firsthand. If you don’t do your homework, you can find yourself in the hands of a coach who either doesn’t know better, or doesn’t care. There are coaches who will have you doing hours and hours of cardio while consuming very low calories and they’ll have you believing that it is all necessary in order to perform well in the sport. Sure, it works. You will drop weight rapidly and likely be the leanest you have ever been. But what happens after the show? As naive as it sounds, this is a question I never asked myself. I trusted my coaches with years of experience and proven “results” to guide me in the right direction. So I did what they said, no questions asked. Oops! After my 5th competition over a 4 month span, I found myself exhausted. I was exhausted physically, emotionally and I would soon learn, physiologically and psychologically as well.

What your coach doesn’t prepare you for is all these things that can happen AFTER your 2 minutes (at best) of glory on stage. In the somewhat immediate, you can expect to see a spike in your body fat percentage, which will obviously be relative to your diet, both before and after. If you sign up for an extreme caloric deficit, for an extended period of time, you should be prepared for a very large initial spike in your body fat despite your seemingly “normal” postshow nutrition. What is not always immediately apparent is the sometimes irreparable damage that competitors do to their bodies. If you are careless (or naive as in my case) you can find yourself spending years trying to repair the damage you caused in just a few short months. In some cases, mine included, you can find yourself in even worse physical shape in just a few months post-competition than you were at your starting point before you ever even considered competing.

What often (I’m resisting the urge to use ‘always’) accompanies these physical changes that you don’t often hear competitors talk about, but is arguably equally significant and just so happens to be profoundly important to me, is the psychological effects this experience can have on you. You should be prepared for moments of depression, anxiety, potential eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, worry, self-doubt, low self-esteem and downright bitchy self-talk.

We are starting to hear a little more chatter about the disordered eating or full blown eating disorders that sometimes occur following a competition. Many competitors find themselves in an extremely unhealthy relationship with food following a show. If it’s not fish or broccoli, you feel guilty. And if you indulge in a cookie, well you’re sure to make yourself pay for that. I’m glad to see that more people are discussing these experiences publicly and increasing awareness.

Following my first year of competing, I experienced a significant increase in my body fat due to my reckless nutritional approach. It seemed no matter what I ate or didn’t eat for that matter, I could not stop gaining weight and subsequently, I found myself experiencing my lowest of lows emotionally. At the time, I didn’t understand the physical damage I had done to my body and couldn’t comprehend my lack of control over the situation. I beat myself up emotionally. I experienced moments of severe depression and found myself anxious and fearful of some social situations. I didn’t even want to go to the gym for fear of what others might think.

The worst part is, when this happens, you have nobody to talk to about it. Remember all those friends you isolated yourself from for the last 16 weeks, do you think they want to hear about how “fat” you think you are or how all you want is to have your abs back? Even if they were willing to listen to you, will they understand?

Body dysmorphic disorder…Huh? What?

Even before my post competition rebound, in between shows, and then again as recently as probably a year ago I have showed signs. With BDD, you become preoccupied with and consumed by an exaggerated or even imagined defect in your appearance. You sometimes spend hours or even days unable to control negative thoughts about these perceived flaws.

I can remember one instant in particular while driving to a photoshoot, I could not shift my focus away from an imagined roll I felt on my stomach and how fat I felt. When I received the images from the shoot, I still could not shake the feeling that I wasn’t lean enough. Years later, I am able to look back and see just how ridiculous it was to for me to feel that way. I had veins in my stomach for goodness sake! I include that, not to impress you, but so you can fully grasp how severe this disorder can be.

BDD can interfere with your daily functioning, lead to further isolation, and can even lead to thoughts of suicide. BDD is very real and I believe very present in the fitness industry. Unfortunately it is not often discussed.

Regardless of how extreme you diet or which approach you take, you are not going to be able to maintain your “stage-worthy” physique forever, so you need to be mentally and emotionally prepared for that. After six years competing, while I have certainly improved, this is still an adjustment I struggle with after a show. I’m willing to bet if you ask around, you’ll find several others having this same battle.

So when its all said and done, should you compete? That’s something only you can answer. I can only hope that this will help you realize that before you slip on those stripper heels, there are few more things to consider and be prepared for if you do decide to take it on. If you are thinking about competing here are a few of my best tips:

Establish “WHY” You Want To Compete

Everyone wants to ‘inspire others’. Truth be told, you don’t need to strap on a pair of heels and walk on a stage to inspire your neighbor or loved one to change their lifestyle too, you just need to walk the walk and invite them along for the ride. If you think you’re going to get rich or famous, you really need to think again. A VERY small percentage of people make any money at all from competing, and if you look closely, the majority of the fit instafamous, either never or rarely compete in competitions. Bottom line, your “why” should probably just be about you and what you will gain from the experience.

Do Your Homework

I’m not saying you need to hire the most expensive coach around, but do your homework and make sure they have your best interest at heart. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and talk about anything you’re experiencing. Each of us is unique, what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another so it’s important to communicate. If you’re coach doesn’t like you to ask questions, that’s a red flag!

Set Boundaries

It’s easy to get caught up in the process, so set boundaries ahead of time. Decide what you are and are not willing to sacrifice for the sake of your competition. What events are you willing to miss? How much time each day are you comfortable devoting? This will allow you to get clear on what makes sense to you and maintain balance along the way. Try your best to honor these boundaries throughout the process.

All things considered, you’d probably expect me to say that if I knew then what I know today I probably wouldn’t have signed up for that first competition. But I’m not sure thats the case. I’m not sure if I would or wouldn’t, but what I do know is that I wish I had been fully prepared for everything that competing entails: The good, the bad, and the ugly.