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Hanging Up The Bikini: Why I Quit Fitness Competitions
by Victoria Stockwell on August 7th, 2020

By Victoria Stockwell - The Hungry Girl Podcast

In October 2014, I achieved the award that marked the pinnacle of my fitness competition career: the coveted Bikini Model Pro Card. Onstage, smiling for the winner’s photographs, I appeared the epitome of health and fitness. But, in reality, I was suffering from serious physical and mental damage.

I have had a disordered relationship with food since the age of 11 when I developed anorexia. Over the years, I have also suffered from bulimia, body dysmorphia and binge eating. When I was in my late 20s, entering the world of physique competitions triggered a major relapse into these destructive patterns of eating.
 
Fitness competitions are a misnomer. The irony of these events lies in the very title itself: fitness is not necessarily synonymous with health. I was a fitness model, yet I was far from fit. I ignored my body’s appeals for food and rest, instead rigidly adhering to a punishing diet and training regime that I hoped would make me muscular and lean.

This strict plan means that most competitors become disconnected from their bodies and what they truly need. Unsurprisingly, therefore, in the fitness world disordered eating is extremely common. Female athletes have the same risk factors as women in the general population, supplemented by the additional risk factor of reducing their body fat to dangerously low levels.

Body fat is decreased during the final stage of competition preparation, which is masochistically known as ‘cutting’. This typically begins eight to twelve weeks prior to a show, depending on the amount of fat that must be lost in order to create a winning physique.

This process increases the female competitor’s susceptibility to three inter-related disorders, known as the Female Athlete Triad. The components of the triad are osteoporosis, amenorrhea and disordered eating.

Osteoporosis occurs because limiting calorie intake leads to a decreased production of the hormone oestrogen. Since oestrogen plays a crucial role in calcium resorption and bone growth, reduced levels can lead to brittle bones. Even though I was following an extremely restrictive diet, I naively thought that any damage would be offset by my strength training which typically increases bone density. After competing, however, I was sent for a DEXA scan, which revealed my bone density to be borderline abnormal.

Not only does a low level of oestrogen lead to weak bones, it also causes menstrual dysfunction where the cycle can be delayed, or can stop altogether (amenorrhea). Owing to my restrictive eating habit, I have lost my period on numerous occasions over the years. When I experienced amenorrhea during competition preparation, however, this was the last occasion before I learned that I was infertile. Three very costly and emotionally traumatic IVF cycles later, and I am still waiting for my miracle baby.

While osteoporosis and amenorrhea are widely experienced by female athletes, the most common aspect of the triad is disordered eating. This includes extreme calorie restriction, binge eating, and purging via excessive exercise or self-induced vomiting. These abnormal patterns of behaviour are caused by the competitor’s strict diet.
 
My own insubstantial food plan exacerbated my pre-existing patterns of disorderly eating. I was so hungry that I couldn’t keep any ‘forbidden’ food items in the house since I had moments of ‘weakness’, where I would ‘give in’ and binge. A teaspoon of peanut butter could easily become a whole jar.

I unsuccessfully attempted to alleviate my troublesome appetite by drinking litres cherry Pepsi max and chewing sugar free gum. The Pepsi, however, gave me headaches and heart palpitations; and I chewed so much gum that I eventually wore away my teeth and had to have the bottom ones filled.

Hunger increases during the final weeks of preparation, when carbohydrates are drastically decreased in order to boost fat loss. Reducing carbohydrates to less than 20g per day releases ketones which the body can then use as fuel. This process produces various side effects, however, including nausea, headaches and fatigue.

In order to avoid these undesirable symptoms, competitors typically cycle carbohydrates. This involves enduring several consecutive low carbohydrate days, followed by a high carbohydrate ‘refeed’ day to aid metabolism and ensure continual fat loss. I didn’t know at the time, but this established a pattern of eating which would later turn into a vicious cycle of binging and restriction.

In the end, all my hard work paid off. I won. And I got my pro card. But was it worth it? On show day, the audience admire and applaud your physique. But they don’t see behind the curtain. They don’t see what it takes to be that woman holding the trophy. And they don’t see what happens afterwards.

Stepping off stage was the beginning of a relapse into my most serious and dangerous anorexic phase to date.

I was so terrified of losing my stage physique that I continued to restrict my calorie intake over the next couple of years. I lost body fat, and I also lost the muscle that I worked so hard to gain. My body literally ate itself. My glutes, the prize aspect of every bikini competitor, became saggy and deflated. My coccyx was so bony that I had to sit on a cushion. I was constantly cold from the inside out and handfuls of my hair fell out in the shower. I couldn’t go to the gym; I couldn’t even walk 10 minutes to the shop without feeling faint.

Eventually, my internal organs began to shut down and my hormones stopped functioning. I developed bradycardia because the muscles in my heart had shrunk.

I lost over 2 stone before I was admitted into an eating disorders hospital, where I spent 18 months as an outpatient. I was emaciated and mentally broken, a shadow of the woman who triumphantly raised the winning trophy.

In my experience, having your dream body does not make your life better. For me, it did exactly the opposite.

Whether you are preparing for a fitness competition, or just trying to manipulate your body through diet and exercise, I hope this has brought attention to the physical and emotional damage that can be caused by valuing aesthetics over your mental health.

I am now working towards food freedom and body acceptance. I still have my competition bikini as a memento, but its time in the spotlight is over and it is resolutely HUNG UP.


Posted in Bikini body, Binge Eating Disorder, Bingeing, Body building, compulsive exercise, Dieting, Eating disorder, Exercise, fitspo, orthorexia    Tagged with victoria stockwell, bikini competitor, bikini body, disorderedeating, body building


2 Comments

Amy - August 10th, 2020 at 3:39 PM
Thank you for sharing. People need to know about the long-term effects on a person%u2019s body after competing. Bodybuilding is not healthy, physically or mentally! I%u2019ve dealt with my own ED for most of my adult life and wouldn%u2019t wish it on my worst enemy! Hugs to you Victoria. I hope you%u2019re able to overcome ED and be happy with life!
Harriet Frew - August 11th, 2020 at 12:02 AM
Thanks Amy for sharing. Victoria's account is so helpful and honest about the reality of this world. Hope you are finding your own peace with food. I have passed your message onto Victoria. :)
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