Chicken. Chicken and broccoli. Chicken, broccoli and rice. A tortuous cycle of bland food and a lot of pain for such little gain. The glamour of the stage sucks in hundreds of girls each year, and millions of others watch it all unfold on their social media feeds. Yet as I stand there, five shades darker than my natural skin colour, in PVC heels and a Swarovski studded bikini, I wonder if the past sixteen weeks have really paid off. Surrounded by an army of fit nation’s finest pumping up backstage, the reality of the bikini fitness industry becomes all too clear.
Okay I admit it, I was totally wrapped up in the whole idea of being ‘in the best shape of my life’. As a bikini competitor myself, I was slipping into a whole new wardrobe and my friends were showering me with compliments – whenever they actually saw me that is. See, the six days a week, often twice a day training regime left me hardly enough time to prep, let alone have a social life. Swept up in the magic of it all, I gave blood, sweat and what felt like years to the stage, but looking back, was it worth it?
It’s clear why a growing surge of girls are rushing to get in front of a panel of judges. With the omnipresent nature of girls on social media snapping six pack abs, cellulite-free thighs and rear end even Kim K would kill for, the pressure to be perfect is inescapable. In a recent survey by Girlguiding, 69% of girls aged 17-21 feel they are not good enough and their overall happiness level is dropping as young women worldwide face more pressures affecting their body confidence levels than ever before.
young women aged 12-20 are the most likely category to develop an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia or binge eating disorder (BED)
“Social media is creating an environment which is less to do with health, and more geared towards fashionable aesthetics,” explains sports nutritionist Danielle Davies, “many bikini competitors partake in controlled malnutrition in order to achieve the lean, but not too muscular look.” As an extension of this, the United Kingdom Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation (UKBFF), which hosts many of these competitions, provide a bikini girl’s handbook to the desired physique on their website. It states that: ‘body tone and a healthy overall physical appearance is essential’, as well as ‘balance of the upper and lower body’ and ‘the face and hair’.
On average, a healthy adult female will function at around 27% body fat, a percentage much higher than the average male due to our reproductive makeup. As an extension of this, our metabolisms are naturally slower which makes it harder to lose fat. Yet bikini girls are sometimes expected to achieve less than 10% on average whilst still advocating a happy, healthy lifestyle. The intense stress on the body brought on by this unnatural body fat percentage can lead to severe hormonal imbalances, osteoporosis and possible fertility problems in the future.
Seven weeks out from her next show, Phoebe Hagen, online training coach, personal trainer and bikini athlete, admits the mental battle she faced last year nearly caused her to not compete this year. “I was mentally exhausted after doing seven back to back shows last year,” she says, “it was endless yoyo dieting.”
Unfortunately, this case is not unique. Although most girls are advised to partake in ‘reverse dieting’ post-show to re-establish their metabolism, months of restriction can lead to excessive binging. “In that state, everything is deregulated and unless it is very controlled over a few weeks, you can pile the weight back on very fast,” explains Davis.
What is more, bikini preps can vary from four to 40 weeks and being deprived of something for any period of time is a mental ticking time bomb. Mental health charity Mind state that young women aged 12-20 are the most likely category to develop an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia or binge eating disorder (BED). According to eating disorder awareness charity Endangered Bodies, ‘by the age of 7, 70% of girls in the UK want to be thinner. By the age of 9, half have been on a diet. For girls aged between 11 and 17, it’s their number one wish in life.’
Brittany Lesser, nationally qualified bikini competitor and sponsored athlete, has spoken openly about her struggle with extreme dieting and the bikini world. “In January 2016, I lost my period one month into prep, I had to get really low on calories and push harder than I ever have,” she confesses. “I asked myself if all the time, money and sacrifice was worth getting on stage for five minutes.” Her answer? No.
“It’s an unregulated industry that needs to do more to protect young male and female athletes”
“My mind certainly played games with me,” she confides, “I remember being one day out and thinking I wasn’t lean enough when I was the leanest and smallest I had ever been in my life. I won first place.” This follows seeing images of fitness stars Jamie Eason and Amanda Latona online, and deciding that she wanted to be like them – thus starting the bikini prep. Describing herself as ‘a slave to the scale’, she reflects on the obsessive habits and inflexible routine I myself can relate to. Unable to go out for dinner, have friends over or celebrate birthdays and weddings; I felt like I had missed out on too much.
“Two weeks out from my show, I was on around 1000 calories,” says Hagen, “I didn’t really know what I was doing.” Although not unique to the bikini fitness category, the stage draws girls who have dealt with body dysmorphia and disordered eating in the past. The extreme dieting protocols and physical regime is often undermined in the bikini class: “It’s an unregulated industry that needs to do more to protect young male and female athletes” adds Davies.
Yet for others, it is the intense process that keeps them hooked. Constantly driven towards a goal, there’s a self-satisfied pride attached to taking to the stage. This I understand; walking on stage after spending hours on your hair, posing routine and body, it’s the glamour that entices girls into the spotlight. On feeling a sense of achievement, adrenaline and ultimate self-belief, Phoebe comments: “You ignore the weaknesses, the hunger and the thirst. Two years ago, I would never have had the confidence to do this.”
“When you compete, you’re expected to be at your healthiest and best shape, but in fact, it’s possibly the worst state you’ve ever been in”
Towards the end of a typical bikini prep, some girls dehydrate their bodies down to as little as 250ml of water a day and add in extra carbohydrates to their diets as a way of implementing ‘muscle fullness’. “When you compete, you’re expected to be at your healthiest and best shape, but in fact, it’s possibly the worst state you’ve ever been in,” says Davies, “you’re depleted, your immune system is extremely low and for many competitions, steroid use is unregulated.”
Aware of the dangers, Hagen doesn’t want to risk her health. Admitting some of her friends have been placed on drips in the past and countless girls drop out halfway through the prep, she is lucky to have a coach that supports her from start to finish. “There’s a lot of dishonesty surrounding (bikini fitness),” she says, “Instagram girls say they’re having ‘the best prep ever’ or that they’re ‘feeling amazing’, but I don’t know if I completely believe that.”
The overwhelming pressure to be perfect comes at an actual price too. Girls can easily spend thousands of pounds on gym membership, event registration, diet supplements, coaches… did I mention the £650 bikinis? Made to measure, often unique to the competitor, many girls go overseas to have bespoke bikinis created often just for the one show.
There are benefits to the world of the bikini girl as Hagen is quick to point out: “I wanted to push outside my comfort zone and I have never looked back,” she says. Brittany adds that “competing showed me I could really do anything I set my mind to. Being healthy and fit now has improved my life in all aspects.”
Followers, subscribers and sometimes even friends do not want to see the struggle. But being backstage in the same warship as everyone else, makes the illusion a reality. Sacrificing relationships while building new ones, the Instagram hashtag #fitfam has been used over 64 million times in an attempt to meet more likeminded people. Looking back, I was naive to think I could go at it alone, but the adrenaline of winning and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment in such a close knit community hooked me in. Caught in a comparison trap, it’s time to let go, perfection is unachievable, but happiness is.