Protein, Power-lifting and Push-up Bras: Weight lifting and the Modern Woman

The Gryphon caught up with local Leeds athlete Karina Nielsen, who has recently competed in the UK bodybuilding and Fitness Federation’s British Championships after obtaining an impressive first-place victory in the East England regional qualifiers. We spoke to her about her experiences competing in a sport that is still sometimes viewed as an unconventional choice for women.

How did you first get into competitive bodybuilding?

I watched a competition last year and I was quite intrigued – I thought ‘I wanna do that! I want to get on stage, I want to show off my hard work’ because I really enjoy my training, but I thought [bodybuilding] would be a really nice way to really show off that hard work.

Do you think perceptions about female bodybuilders have changed?

It seems to be more popular, I think. I come from a dance background, so we still had to train quite hard, but not lifting weights as such. It was quite new to me when I first started, about a year ago but I think [female bodybuilding] is a lot more popular now. Definitely.

Have you encountered any kind of negativity, either online or in real life? How did you respond?

I think it depends. Obviously during contest prep [the diet] is very strict, so you will find that your mood changes, you can almost get a little bit depressed. You get into this zone where you just have to eat, train, sleep and then repeat again. It’s not a joke. You literally get in that kind of zone. So I suppose you can feel a bit grumpy and you can feel like people are thinking ‘ah, she’s just moody all the time!’ Other than that I think it depends how you choose to approach it, sometimes people lose track of what’s inappropriate. So it all sort of depends on how you’re doing it. If you’re doing it for yourself I’ve found it’s fine. Sometimes though, there’s a fine line between not making it sexual. I mean, in fitness modeling and things like that. It is a fine line.

Jodie MarshDo you think that female bodybuilders do tend to be more sexualized than their male counterparts?

I think so, yeah. I think it has something to with wanting to show off your hard work, and the problems sometimes come with how you’re doing that. As a woman, it’s about how you pose, it’s what you wear and maybe even what kind of posts and statuses you put on social media. So in that sense you feel you have to be careful about portraying the right image. Whereas men, they can take their top off and look muscly and that’s all good. It’s mostly still females who feel they have to be careful about how they portray themselves. I find that I prefer to train when it’s really quiet in the gym, because that way I avoid the attention. That’s the only thing I find uncomfortable, being looked at. Even if I’m not wearing any particularly revealing clothing – I think it’s something new to some people and they’ll look at you, and I find that sometimes quite disturbing.

When it comes to being judged in a competition, do you still think men and women are treated differently?

I think it depends what class you’re competing in. I’m in the lightest bodybuilding class, which is bikini fitness – and then you have body fitness and then you’ve got bodybuilding for women. So in bikini fitness you’re being judged on your appearance; your hair, your make-up, your stage presence and all that kind of stuff. I find that when it comes to male bodybuilding, they can get away with just being really muscly – there’s no pressure on them to perform as much. So, I think for females it’s a lot about your presentation, although it does depend on what class you’re doing because when women get up to bodybuilding then it does change and you will be judged more on just the muscle. Though I definitely feel like, in the lighter category, it’s more about other things.

So do you find there is a temptation towards extreme dieting and drugs, or is that over-exaggerated?

Yeah, to be honest there is a lot of that going on. Especially when you’re in the competitive world, because if one person is into that sort of thing others will be like ‘Oh, I need to do that as well otherwise they’re going to win!’ In competitive bodybuilding there can be a fine line between supplements and drugs – what’s legal and what’s not legal. Everyone is taking supplements, which are legal, so you end up taking all these things that in the long term can be quite harmful for your body.

Female body builderIs there anything you’d like to see change about your sport?

 I’d just love to see more girls using weights. It seems to me that some girls are still quite hesitant about them. It’s partly about confidence, and partly a fear about not knowing how to do it, and that’s fine! As a personal trainer my job lets me teach people and introduce them and I love hearing women say ‘oh, I can lift so much now!’, I think it would be nice to see more girls just go for it. I’ve been in Denmark and in their gyms where there’s quite a few girls training – together or on their own – lifting weights, doing squats, doing lunges. It was so nice to see.

So, what for you have been the benefits of taking up strength training?

Well, obviously I feel a lot stronger. I feel a lot more confident in my body as well. I used to be a dancer, and I’d look at myself in the mirror and think ‘I’m a little bit chubby there, I don’t like that’, but now I can sculpt my body. It helps you see your body in a different way. You won’t be skinny but you’ll be strong and defined, and that’s something that I really like. I used to always want to be the skinniest and the lightest, but now that focus has shifted and I want to be strong, I want to be fit.

Do you think the popularity of female bodybuilding is going to bring this strong, muscular look more into the mainstream?

Yeah, I think so. Then again, I work within this kind of environment where that’s the look I see a lot. But I do have more and more clients coming to me wanting that look. I look at them and think ‘oh, you’re nice and slim’ and they’ll say ‘yeah, but I want to build more, I want a bigger bum’ and things like that. So I think, generally speaking, more people are going for that look.

So, what can bodybuilding offer women that other sports don’t?

I think confidence – body confidence. Knowing that you can change your body and have some control. It’s not so much about being faster than somebody else, or winning something, it’s more about doing your personal best. When I was younger I didn’t enjoy sports because I didn’t like that competitive aspect, but now it’s just about pushing myself and competing with myself.

Are there any final comments you’d like to add?

I will say there’s a big difference between general bodybuilding to keep fit, compared to preparing for a competition. I speak a lot to my clients about health and fitness as being two different things. If you are looking to get on stage you will have to workout almost every day and be on a restricted diet – so it’s not healthy in the long term. I was really quite poorly during the last few weeks, just because I was so run down. That showed to me that it is really hard on your body and it isn’t something everyone should aim for. My bodyfat dropped to about 10% – which is quite low for a woman, you really want to stay at about 20%. You should find a balance where you’re feeling healthy.

Anna Turner

Photographs and Media: Karina Nielsen, EastLabs.RU – Youtube and Jodi Marsh on Steroids – TLC.

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