Bodybuilding helped lift my spirits

April 6th, 2010  |  Published in Stumpblog  |  6 Comments

From the Globe and Mail:

When a couple of guys at the gym suggested last year that I train for a bodybuilding competition, I laughed. I was 48 years old. It was ridiculous. Of course, I had to do it. I couldn’t walk away from such a challenge. To give up without trying would have been self-defeating. I hired a trainer, Vicki, a tough young woman. We talked about a schedule and a diet. “Nutrition is 90 per cent of bodybuilding” is a bodybuilder’s mantra. I kind of liked the diet, so that wasn’t a huge problem.

What really concerned me was my missing left breast, lost to cancer when I was 40. I wear a small, soft prosthesis on the street, but at the gym I am just me. One of the things I love about the gym is that I feel completely at ease there, such as I am. And completely accepted. But to stand on a stage in a minuscule bikini for the bodybuilding competition was a daunting prospect.

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  1. Simma says:

    April 6th, 2010at 9:18 pm(#)

    This article leaves me feeling kind of sad.

    On the one hand, I know that much of the author’s healing process was about displaying her body to the world and to herself as “the body that she made”, and accepting it, being proud of it, etc., with all its imperfections. But this was after a long, energy-intensive process of trying to overcome her flaws, of throwing herself into the quest for an aesthetically acceptable butt, of tanning herself to create the illusion of “balance” as defined by a panel of judges, etc.

    I also think that her trainer sounded a bit nightmarish. Learning to manage/control pain and learning how to produce maximum effort is empowering, but the whole “Pain is weakness leaving the body” BS makes me roll my eyes. And using comparisons to obese clients to negatively motivate someone seems both mean-spirited and rationally unjustified (since you’d expect the average obese gymgoer to outlift a skinny novice, especially a cancer survivor). But perhaps the author needed more of an exorcist for her bad experiences with cancer than a responsible trainer.

    In the end, my impression is that she made her competition day into a shining moment despite bodybuilding, not because of it.

    One thing that is clear is that lifting and getting strong were enjoyable to her and played a huge part in her emotional recovery. I wonder what getting involved with powerlifting or Oly. lifting competition instead would have done for her.

  2. Mr Bicep Workout says:

    April 8th, 2010at 3:01 pm(#)

    I applaud you – We all do things to increase our self esteem, overall confidence and how we look. In fact we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones and the world to present ourselves in the best possible light – its a sign that we are still alive and care about ourselves. Weight training and bodybuilding is one way in which we can do this.
    This woman probably encouraged someone in the audience to take action on something they have been putting of

  3. Chris says:

    April 9th, 2010at 8:25 am(#)


    I don’t see the recognition of flaws within ourselves as inherently negative, nor do I see striving to overcome those flaws inextricably tied to feelings of inadequacy or acceptance seeking. Of course those feelings may be present, but to project them on to someone else is, in a sense, silencing her narrative for one of your own making.

    While I agree that using negative motivation at the expense of others is not a something I’m interested in, using negative motivation itself isn’t always a bad thing. It’s about perception and how the individual relates to different motivation techniques. Some people thrive on positive reinforcement, some on negative, and most on a mix of both.

    In both of the above cases though, I’m aware that my experiences as a male within the greater culture may influence my views.

    While the phrase “pain is weakness leaving the body” may not resonate with you for the author, and many in the bodybuilding world, it serves to reaffirm that the level of hard work and suffering it takes to actually build appreciable muscle mass. Maybe it’s not everyone’s goal, but there are some people in the gym who enjoy the challenge of pushing themselves past their comfort threshold.

    On a personal note, i think our cultures dedication to comfort and the steps we take to avoid any and all suffering is continuing to lead furhter and further away from healthy living; physically, emotionally, and financially.

  4. Simma says:

    April 9th, 2010at 3:39 pm(#)


    As someone who has lifted weights and studied and taught traditional, combat-centric Chinese martial arts for over 10 years, I actually believe strongly in the value of occasionally pushing oneself past one’s actual physical limits, as well as regularly pushing past one’s comfort zone. I am pretty intimately acquainted with training-related pain and discomfort. I’ve had bruises so bad that people thought I’d been in a car accident. I’ve had broken bones. I’ve spent my share of time limping around or having to type with one hand for weeks. I’ve experienced passing out and nausea. And I’ve spent enough time with severe DOMS that I’ve seriously considered installing grab bars next to my toilet.

    So a fear of discomfort or injury is not why I object to the attitude of the trainer, and being female has nothing to do with my attitudes about discomfort or injury.

    Nor did I say anything against all negative reinforcement. If you read what I said, it’s the kind of negative reinforcement that plays on people’s hatred for or need to be “superior” to the obese (the gay, the female, whatever) that I find reprehensible.

    “Pain is weakness leaving the body” is a military slogan. The military has an interest in producing people who will obey orders and complete missions, pushing past pain and discomfort at all costs. For an athlete (or a normal person in the real world, for that matter), there is a point at which the cost is too great, and it’s important to learn to judge when that point is. Responsible trainers motivate a client to understand and respect pain, to weigh the benefits and dangers of pain, not just “triumph” over it. Sure, it’s important to learn how to push past pain in case you have to some day. But encouraging mindless bravado about pain is irresponsible.

    As for overcoming “flaws”, yes, we should all strive to be better people. But a small butt when nature has given you a small butt, even and especially when you deadlift–that is not a flaw. An asymmetry on your chest because you sacrificed a breast in order to live–that is not a flaw. I’m not a fan of anyone, let alone a cancer survivor, spending an iota of energy worrying about such things, let alone spending hours and hours trying to “correct” them.

    As I said, I’m glad that the author found joy in what she was doing. But to me, that’s a testament to her positivity and determination, not to bodybuilding or to her trainer.

  5. chris says:

    April 10th, 2010at 8:30 pm(#)

    Hi Simma,

    I agree with your stance on negative reinforcement.

    Nowhere that I could see in the article did the author state that the trainer was encouraging her to use mindless bravado.

    In fact, she affirms that she enjoyed the DOMS. As she “reshaped the corporeal [her], a greater sense of control and contentment and harmony grew inside [her].”

    And though she recognised that she might not have had the perfect physique for competition, during it, she “had fun, and never once thought about [her] missing breast or [her] other various ‘body flaws.'”

    Any and all competition creates an awareness of our own flaws, be they in technique, strength, experience, or, in the case of bodybuilding, physical development. Without addressing our flaws in our specific (and self-chosen) sports, we could never progress. For those of us who like our sports, this isn’t sad, it’s the challenge and to assume anything other than the truth the author reports is patronizing.

    Of course, in the greater context, I can grant that the focus on physique may come with a lot more baggage than the focus on DL technique, but not everyone must carry that baggage.

  6. Simma says:

    April 11th, 2010at 1:05 pm(#)


    She says that one thing she found hard about cancer was that it redefined her physique in a way that was out of her control, and she claims that bodybuilding helped her feel like she was in control of reshaping her body.

    But listen to how she describes that process:


    “Then, Vicki said I had to develop a butt. At 48, this body part, which was never much, was almost non-existent. I did a million leg lifts, squats, lunges. The glute machine was my sworn enemy. As was the leg press. My thighs hardened and my pants fell loosely to my knees.

    “But my butt shrank. It sagged. I felt like a pachyderm. As I lost weight, the saggy parts got saggier. Vicki told me to start tanning. A good tan can hide many flaws, she reassured me.

    “And so I tanned and I leg-lifted and I glute-pushed. I did everything I could. My posing suit for the competition arrived in the mail, packed in a sandwich-sized bag. It was so small that when I held it up for them to see, my teenaged sons were horrified. I tried it on and swivelled in the mirror to see if it hid the worst parts.

    “It didn’t[…]”


    The language sounds a lot like someone who is struggling to control her body but failing. When she talks about getting strong (i.e., function), she sounds like someone who feels in control of her body. When she talks about appearance (or as you like to call it, “physical development”), she sounds a lot like someone who feels powerless to change what bodybuilding is doing to her, and it doesn’t much different from the way she describes her experience feeling powerless before what her cancer and treatment were doing to her. That same passage could just as easily have come from an article that was about someone’s very negative experience with bodybuilding.

    So this is why, when she says:

    “I had fun, and never once thought about my missing breast or my other various ‘body flaws.'”

    …I see her positivity as something she achieves DESPITE the process of preparing for the bodybuilding contest, not because of it.

    You can interpret the article however you want. If you read it and feel only happiness, I certainly am not going to tell you your feelings are not legitimate. I see that the story inspirational aspects. But it’s not invalid for me to see saddening aspects in this story as well.

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