On International Women’s Day, here’s a look back at our story from February 2016 about India’s female bodybuilders and fitness athletes who battle the bulge, a genuine lack of opportunities and sexism just to do what they love.
Twelve women are changing into bikini tops and sports bras around me, with tattoos and stretch marks finding equal favour on their skin. The conversation, mostly in Marathi, is strewn with MC-BCs. Their bodies are shredded, with abs that look like bars of chocolate. We’re at the Mumbai audition of BodyPower Expo, a fitness and bodybuilding platform that’s scouting for athletes in the country. The men, with muscles the size of Hulk’s, outnumber the women ten-to-one. Maybe because of their sheer number, or maybe because most Indian men lose their shit when they see skin, these 12 women pose and strut to the sound of lewd catcalls. In the green room later, one of the athletes, Jimmy, breaks down. When I ask athlete Ashwini Waskar, 32, how she manages to stay cool about it, she says, “I had read this statement once, ‘Women don’t wear clothes for men. If they did, they would be naked.’”
Waskar is one of several women who have made their way into fitness and figure competitions by way of bodybuilding. Across the world, support for female bodybuilding is thinning. Instead, fitness competitions, in which the focus is on muscle definition and not size, on grace and not bulk, are gaining numbers. “There are several levels — sport figure, bikini figure, athletic figure, fitness figure and model figure,” says Waskar.
In India, the sport is gaining followers among women, though most of them first hit the gym to lose weight. After looking at other athletes with perfect bodies, they become hooked. An exception is 32-year-old Deepika Chowdhury, India’s first international female fitness athlete, who started working out because she was losing her mind.
Because of an unhappy relationship with her in-laws, which is now on the mend, Chowdhury started working out seriously about three years ago. “It scares me to think about my mental status [then]. I had completely ruined my health and lost my self-confidence. It was my husband’s suggestion to join his gym and start working out with him,” she says. Today, her regime includes 30-40 minutes of cardio in the morning and 90 minutes in the evening; her diet is regulated to the last calorie; and she has won medals in all five international fitness competitions she has participated in. Over the phone she tells me, “Our work as an athlete is to make ourselves better. It’s not easy to maintain the discipline; it’s not human. If you don’t love the sport truly from your heart, you won’t be able to sustain it.”
Waskar and Chowdhury have seen the sport become more prominent since they joined its ranks. “In 2013, at the first bodybuilding competition, there were six women,” says Waskar. “A month later, in the first fitness competition I participated in, there were eight women. In 2014, there were more than 20 women. Today, there are so many platforms — BodyPower Expo, Musclemania, IFBB, Fit Factor. Because women are participating, platforms are opening up, and vice versa.” In 2015, 50 women across India auditioned for Fit Factor India.
With their rise, even corporates have started to notice. Shweta Rathore, 27, and Yashmeen Chauhan Manak, 35, are sponsored by Neulife, a leading Indian sports nutrition company. Rathore, in fact, is the first Indian to become one of the brand ambassadors of MuscleTech, an American brand for sports nutrition supplements. “Neulife only takes very refined athletes,” says Rathore. “When I met Samit Gupta [owner, Neulife], he was very impressed. He was the one who introduced me to MuscleTech.”
Rathore does not let you forget she’s Miss World 2014 Fitness Physique, Miss India 2015 Fitness Physique and Miss Asia 2015. Her achievements suffix her name like MD suffixes the names of doctors. Her swagger comes from a mountain of effort. In the run up to a competition, she works out and practises seven hours a day. “Two hours of cardio in the morning; two hours of weight training and stretching in the evening; and about two to three hours of preparation with my choreographer and martial arts instructor for my performance in the afternoons,” she says. She competes in the fitness physique category, for which she needs to look “muscular, feminine, beautiful, defined”. She thinks the media can do a better job of educating the public on the various sub-categories in the sport. “So many articles written about me say that I’m a bodybuilder. So many women become scared because [they think] ‘I don’t want to be a bodybuilder’. This sport doesn‘t make you manly.” Rathore has had a 24-inch waist since she was a 16-year-old.
“In India, due to lack of knowledge, they think that a nice body is no legs, no back, no muscle; it’s lean and requires crash-dieting. If they see someone having a defined, well-developed body, they think it isn’t acceptable,” says Rathore. “Having muscles don’t make you any less of a woman,” says Chowdhury. “In fact, you become much more confident and composed than when you were into this. You become a complete woman.” It’s possible that they’re easy targets for body shaming because they wear bikinis onstage. Waskar had to take her father’s permission before wearing two-pieces in competitions. “He understood it’s necessary for the sport; that only then can I show off the body I’ve earned,” says Waskar. Chowdhury had once written a blog post titled, ‘Bodybuilding sport vulgar? Come here; we need to talk.’
On societal disapproval, Rathore says, “I don’t have time to make friends. I don’t let so many people into my life. I’m answerable only to my family. I’m single, so I don’t have that headache. Do men get jealous because of my dedicated workouts or because of how many weights I can lift? Of course they do. But, I believe that you need to turn your haters into followers,” she says. In an interview given to a website, Manak, who owns Sculpt, a gym in Gurgaon, bluntly said, “There are some men who get intimidated by a woman who is more successful in a field which was once dominated by them. To my face, nobody dares to utter a word of criticism, such is my aura. Behind my back what cowards say, I do not care and am always unaffected.”
Unwittingly, these athletes have taken on the role of motivational speakers. Their social media presence isn’t about self-promotion — it is about getting people off the couch. “Any woman who is competing today knows the amount of effort she had to take when she was at the first level. This is not just for competition; this is also for awareness,” says Waskar. Chowdhury says, “Men are hormonally blessed. A woman has to work harder than a man to increase muscle mass. It’s two times harder [for us] to get into this kind of body form.” At the BodyPower Expo audition, newcomers would frequently stop Chowdhury for advice. She would tell them gently and firmly, “Just enjoy yourself onstage. You’ve worked your ass off for this moment. Don’t underestimate yourself.” If there’s one thing in common between these athletes, it’s that they’re on a strict diet of optimism and self-confidence, along with protein bars and egg whites.
This story was first published in February 2016