Selfie-confidence, or what bodybuilding taught me

A few members of BBAC's Team Maximus

A few members of BBAC’s Team Maximus

If you are my friend on Facebook or know anything about my gym, chances are you know that there was a bodybuilding show this past weekend in Westbrook. Chances are you were reminded of that over and over and over if you are associated with any of the competitors on Facebook. Sorry (not sorry) about that. Bear with me, because here’s a little more about it. But maybe, like bodybuilding itself, this blog isn’t what you think it’s about.

True story: I’ve been piddling with this blog for a few hours, which is out of character for me. From my days as a daily newspaper reporter, I can whip out copy pretty fast, but for some reason I couldn’t finish this thing. I was wondering why I felt this way, and then I realized it’s because I feel apologetic. Maybe it’s because in the past certain people have been snarky about my own involvement in bodybuilding, which many people seem to think has a lot to do with vanity. And maybe it does, a little, but that’s not what it’s really about.

I can’t tell you how many people have said square to my face during the past few weeks, when I’ve been in the midst of coaching a dozen people for last weekend’s show: “I hate bodybuilding.”

And yeah, I’ll admit, it’s a weird sport (I’m lumping all the divisions – bodybuilding, bikini, figure, physique, etc – together). Seriously, it’s like a cake stacked with different layers of weirdness, and then it’s frosted with a very dark tan layer of even more weirdness. Sorry about the cake talk, competitors, but you know it’s true.

But it’s a pretty awesome kind weirdness, when you get down to it.

You work your ass off for months – or more accurately, for years, as muscle takes a long time to grow, especially for natural athletes – and follow a rigorous diet that causes social isolation or even ridicule, all for the few short minutes you stand on stage while being judged like a state fair exhibit. Then you’re given a trophy (or not) and you feel good (or bad) about it. You eat pancakes, pizza and ice cream, and then the next morning while suffering a food hangover you scroll through Facebook/Instagram/Twitter, feeling lots of love and support. But then you see the inevitable unkind posts by people you don’t know. Or maybe you receive judgy messages sent by a couple of jerks you thought were your friends, and if you didn’t bring home a trophy (or place higher) you wonder why the judges didn’t like you, because clearly you were bigger/leaner/more symmetrical than someone who placed ahead of you, and why oh why didn’t you measure up? What is wrong with you, you wonder.

Why would you ever put yourself through something like that? Another true story: every bodybuilding competitor I’ve ever met has told me competing changed their life in some important, positive way. (I have to add a caveat here because there are bad contest preps and there are good ones. If you’ve followed a less-than-healthy program, the negatives can outweigh the positives.)

Those positive changes — that awesome weirdness — have very little to do with looking in the mirror and thinking, “Damn, I’m hot!”

Prepping for a bodybuilding show is like training for an Ironman triathlon – the period leading up to a competition is all about overcoming, as it takes over your entire life: you’re squeezing in workouts whenever you can, you’re carrying around premeasured meals, and you need to make sure to get enough rest. You’re tired and yet exhilarated. People don’t understand, they think you’re obsessed (and you kind of are), your friends and family can get resentful (and honestly, they didn’t sign up for all the rigamarole of contest prep, so who can blame them?), people judge a little (often behind your back) but if you’re lucky you find a good support network, if not in real life (like our awesome team at the gym) then online.

But pushing yourself beyond what’s normal – beyond the boundaries you thought existed for you – is what competing is all about in any sport. Forgive the dime-store philosophy but even though bodybuilding is all about sculpting the body, if you do it right, the most important lesson of bodybuilding is that you are NOT your body. Especially your body as represented during that fleeting “peak” time you’re onstage.

You are everything that it took for you to get ready for that show. You are the drive, the discipline, the focus, the perseverance. You are the bravery it takes to stand onstage that first time even though your legs are quivering and you can feel your cheeks twitching while you try to smile, and in all your nervous glory you try to remember how to flare your lats or whether your knees are supposed to be bent or locked in any particular pose.

Just as someone who runs a marathon is every step they take to train and then complete it – that’s what bodybuilding is about. It’s the confidence that comes from knowing you have it in you to do see something all-consuming through to the very end, and then to do it even better next time. It’s a sport — a subjective one, but a sport nonetheless.

Sometimes in bodybuilding there are a lot of selfies, yes. And sometimes there are trophies, sometimes there are not, sometimes there are cookies, sometimes there are not. But there is always the confidence in having the discipline to see something so all-consuming through to the very end.

That’s what I love about bodybuilding, and about coaching, too, as I watch people grow, even while they’re getting more shredded for competition. Let’s call it selfie-confidence: yummier than cookies, more valuable than trophies and longer-lasting (and way healthier!) than a visible 12-pack.

So yeah, I’m done feeling apologetic, and I’m gonna keep spreading that selfie-confidence.

Wendy Watkins

About Wendy Watkins

Wendy Watkins is a Brewer-based personal trainer and author of The Complete Idiots Guide to Losing 20 Pounds in 2 Months. Visit her website at wendyfitness.com.