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- On Being A Woman
It is not easy to explain to (ordinary) people why you would want to undergo a 3-4 month diet just for a T-shirt and a trophy. That’s a really long time to spend on physical fitness, and only a few individuals can understand and respect your decision. It is difficult for most people to imagine being involved in an endeavor that takes you away from food and often distances you from the company of friends. No one wants to eat with a person who is weighing their piece of chicken as they gorge on steak. (Though I can never understand why they even care.) I can’t speak for all, but I can tell you what is true for me. During the life of a woman, we have so little control of our bodies. In adolescence, our body decides when we will start to bleed, for how long, and how strong. Years after those first drops, it finally gets a regular pattern, and we believe we have tamed it. The sudden crop of acne tells you it is weeks away. The unexpected rush of tearful emotion tells you it is days away. The fullness in your pelvis tells you it is hours away. We all know our patterns. We can predict it. Until the day we can’t. The day it comes two weeks early or one week late or lasts only for one day and then goes away. And that brings a disturbing feeling of unease. Is it pregnancy? Miscarriage? Nothing at all? During pregnancy, we give our body away to the process of creating a being. We learn to expect the unexpected. Nausea. The swollen ankles. That weird (and incredibly wonderful) feeling of an alien thing moving under our skin. And, of course, the physical shock of labor. After delivery, we delude ourselves to get back our bodies and regain at least some of the control. Instead, we get a body with a slower metabolism and a thicker waistline, and maybe even bigger shoe size. Unexpected changes to which we now have to become accustomed. And it happens with each and every pregnancy. And then there’s menopause. Unpredictable and cruel, just like the rest. Throwing us back to adolescence when we didn’t know when the bleeding will start, for how long, or how strong. But during prep (the word we use for the months spent preparing for a competition), we gain back some of that control. For years we have toiled to build up muscle, but it is striking what can be found when the layers that obscure them have chipped away. It is as miraculous as seeing a stone of marble become the statue of David. We whittle away the waist, the shoulders and arms become defined, and the stomach flattens. Every week another positive body change to discover. Our personal work of art is created from sacrifice and sweat. This is what drives me each year through all the months of dieting, hour-long cardio, and saying no to social events. That (temporary) control is amazing. And that (temporary) control is addictive. Ask any bodybuilder why they do it, and their answer might be very different. But for me, this is it. I am a woman bodybuilder because I love to uncover the physique that is hidden the rest of the year. Because I get to be my own sculptor. Because, for a little while, I get to control the uncontrollable. And that makes it so worth it.
- Bird in a Cage
We have a parakeet named Treetop (Don’t judge. I didn’t pick the name.) We have managed to keep it alive for now over five years. That is an accomplishment in a house that has had a menagerie of low-maintenance pets (non-tropical fish, dwarf hamsters, a turtle) that we could not keep alive. And Treetop is no pushover. In the past five years, he has had 2 prior roommates which tried their best to befriend him. You would them skootching closer to him on the pole they shared until Treetop chided them with a sudden flurry of feathers. It wasn’t long before each of them was found at the bottom of the cage - feet up. I was sure the first one was just a tragic accident. But the second one? That’s homicide. But that’s just my theory. After the death of his second roommate, I decided that maybe Treetop was meant to be a bachelor. You can put him in a cage, but he’ll be damned if you can make him share it. So, it came as a surprise to me that this anti-social potentially homicidal sociopath of a bird would turn out to be so tame. Let me explain. At some point I heard the rumor that other people let their parakeets out of their cage. That they fly freely around the house and eventually return to their cage because that’s where the food is. (Again, don’t judge me. I didn’t know.) To me it was a revolutionary thought that had never occurred to me. It never would have. Let a bird free to fly? Can they be potty trained? Or will they just leave their birdie droppings wherever they wish? So yesterday we decided to liberate that rugged individual bird of ours. (I know I have attributed way too many character traits to a supposedly small-brained creature, but I believe them all to be true.) We opened the door to his cage. But he didn’t move. So, we unroofed his entire cage, giving him an unimpeded skylight of the world. And we waited. And waited. He knew something wasn’t quite right. He clung to the vertical rails of his cage, hilariously sliding down to the bottom. He blew feather out of his cage with his constant ruffling. He moved from post to post. But not once did he leave his cage. Until finally it was night and his window of opportunity closed. We placed back his roof and covered him for the night. I know. The analogy of a bird in a cage is so overdone. But when you see it in real life it all seems so sad. Which bring me to my oh-so-very-obvious point. As I look at his cage I ponder: In which way have I remained in a cage of my own making? What have I not allowed myself to see? What unknown have I been too scared to explore? And how much more is there to experience? Today, we will again unroof Treetop’s birdcage. And today I challenge myself (and you) to step out of any self-imposed imprisonment. To be brave. To venture out. To fly.
- Control Over Chaos
I am sure that there are many compelling reasons why someone decides to train for a bodybuilding competition. But I can only tell you what made me decide to return after a 19 years of absence from the sport. At that time, I was going through an exceedingly stressful time in my life. It was the recession and I was barely making payroll in my business. My husband’s job ended when his boss filed for bankruptcy. I was eternally three months behind in the mortgage payments and in the office I dodged angry phone calls from the auto dealership. It was a rough time and I had the stress of small children and trying to keep a strained marriage from falling apart. I felt like everything was on my shoulders and the load was crushing. And then one night, I jumped up from bed and took out the VHS video of my first competition when I was 26 years old. During the almost two decades of absence from the sport, I had done a lot of aerobics and just a spattering of lifting. I had had two children and my waist size was not what it was in my mid-20s. But I had a friend who had offered to train me, so I decided - why not? Over the next twelve weeks, I put all my energy into training. During the hour I was in the gym, there were no bills and no creditors. It was just me and the weights. I lifted what my trainer told me to lift and I lifted it as many times as she told me to. I followed the diet she gave me to the law. During a workout, I didn’t have to think. I just had to do it. It was an emotional vacation that stopped me from feeling despair about my reality. And with each week, I saw my body change into something unrecognizably wonderful. Years passed and in Summer 2020, I helped run a bodybuilding competition held under the strictest COVID restrictions. Everyone was awed by these athletes who had managed to continue training in the midst of a pandemic. But I understood why they continued to train and why they might have found solace in the midst of so much uncertainty. Here was something they could have dominion over. Something onto which they could direct their anxieties and effect actual change. They had discovered the same thing I had when I restarted competing. That lifting can drain you of all worry. It is meditative. It centers you. Rep one. Rep two. Set one. Set two. Push. Pull. Sweat. The world is chaotic but bodybuilding can be cathartic.
- Coffee Addict
There are few more acceptable addictions in this world than to be addicted to coffee. The lines at any Starbucks attest to our desire to spend extravagant amounts on a cup of flavored water. And we have not a bit of embarrassment about it. In addition, we have made one of the few, cheap, no-calorie drinks into an expensive and calorie-laden daily extravagance. (I mean, Dunkin Donuts Brown Sugar Oat Iced Latte at 310 calories? Really?) I refuse to spend Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks money but, I still spend way too much time in the pursuit of coffee. I make at least two pots of coffee at the office and one at home each day. I have four different methods of making coffee (espresso machine, French press, mini Keurig, and the lowly coffee machine) – both at home and in the office. There was once a time when I would drink a cup of coffee before even brushing my teeth. I have an auto-delivery of Skinny Syrups French Vanilla coffee flavoring delivered every month. My weekend purse always carries an envelope of instant coffee and Splenda (just in case). I once went on a fast with no coffee and by the second day, I was headachy and was throwing up. I thought I was pregnant. But no, it all went away when I drank a Diet Coke. I am well trained in defining addiction. I know all the signs and all the ways to verify the diagnosis. So here we go . . . My name is Lorraine and I am a coffee addict. Now, where do I find a support group for that!
- Pressure Valve
I’m a family practice doctor in solo practice. That means that I have the responsibilities of being a doctor and the responsibilities of being a business owner. And that can be stressful. Every medical magazine I get for the past few years have had at least one article about physician burnout. What it is. What causes it. How you can get past it. And I can’t say I haven’t been burnt out before. When my sympathy for my patients is overridden by irritation, I know I’m burning out. But as a solo doc I can decide to take a vacation. Or shorten my day. Or anything else I need to get my perspective back. But burnout is certainly not restricted to the medical field and I see it more in my female patients. They work at one job and go home to the second job – taking care of kids, cooking, cleaning and trying to please their spouse. It’s tiring. Especially when kids are small and dependent and you have parents and other family that are also dependent on you. These women come to the office depressed and anxious and all-around overwhelmed. So I ask them what their “pressure valve release” is. What do they do that is solely for them? I am always surprised how few women have an outside interest beyond work and family. Obviously, for me my “valve release” is all things bodybuilding. Lifting is akin to meditation for me. In the gym, I need only concentrate on the weight moving up and down, my breathing going in and out and my muscles flexing and relaxing. I am in my own space and in my own head. I like deciding what exercise to do next depending on what feels best with no real set plan. It’s me and my body and the music in my ears and nothing else. It relaxes me and sets me up for the rest of the day. At a bodybuilding show, they call me “doc” but the work is as far from my IRL job as possible. It’s a long and tiring day regardless of whether I am promoter, judge or tabulator, but it is also infinitely satisfying. Again, it’s something just for me. Something that is not part of me being a doctor or a mother or a wife or even a daughter. Just me. You may love your work (like I do) but it is still work. You may love being a mother (like I do) but children are also work. And this does not account for all the other people that women regularly care for. I know that going to a nail and hair salon are socially acceptable reasons for a woman to get out of the house but you can’t do hair and nails every week, can you? Which means a woman needs to think beyond the salon to find reasons to get out of the house, socially acceptable or not. Music lessons. Swimming. Adult education classes. Hiking. Book clubs. There is something for every woman. You don’t need to be a family doctor to have burnout. In our society, you just have to be a woman. But finding something that helps release that pressure – whatever that something is – makes for an emotionally healthier person overall. It’s the mini vacation we all need. It’s what helps to get us through yet another demanding week of work, of kids, of family, of ...
Full disclosure. I will admit that I smoked marijuana twice, a fact that shames me to this day. Prior to that first time, I was proud to say that I had never used any drugs. I had made it all through my New York City public high school without one puff or pill. I got called all kinds of names by so-called friends. I just wasn’t interested in trying drugs. Yet, in college, my boyfriend somehow convinced me into it – twice. And, yes, I inhaled – twice. I consider it a smudge in an otherwise perfect record. (Oh, well.) I say all this to say that being “drug free” has always been important to me. When I started lifting in the 80s I was often asked what drugs I did. It’s not that my muscles were so big by today’s standards, it was just that it was so unusual to see them on a girl. It was more acceptable to have flabby arms than well-defined deltoids. The stares you got in and out of the gym for having biceps were not always appreciative. Nowadays, they think you’re a personal trainer. Then, they thought you were a freak. But I loved the muscles I developed in the gym. I loved the whole aesthetics of it. As far as I was concerned, muscles only enhanced my femininity. So popular or not, stares or not, I continued lifting. I brought the weights up and I brought the weight down. Again and again. I packed on as much muscle as my body allowed. That is, the amount allowed naturally. And when asked what drugs I took, I replied truthfully: caffeine and alcohol. Mostly caffeine. I had some wonderful early role models of female bodybuilders. Gladys Portuguese and Carla Dunlap were some of my favorites. You look at their pictures now and they don’t seem so big. They probably were just a shade bigger than Jane Fonda was in the 80s. Still, they were revolutionary. Those early female bodybuilders were my aspirational role models. As the sport evolved, though, subsequent female bodybuilders became more and more and more muscular. Suddenly, when asked why I had so much muscle, I had to explain that I was a bodybuilder AND that I was natural. And proudly natural I have remained. It is human nature for an athlete to push the envelope. That’s what makes them an athlete. And I kinda understand the desire of an athlete to reach for drugs to “fine-tune” their hard work. I just don’t agree with it. Regardless of the sport, it’s a cheat. Plain and simple. To me, the beauty of bodybuilding is seeing how much you can push your body. How close you can get to the ideal. What you can create. Your creation. Yours alone. Solely through your arduous effort. What accomplishment is there if you use drugs to achieve it? How do you celebrate a goal that you know isn’t all yours? I don’t get it. Never will. Natty till I die.
- The Tyranny of the Scale
It’s Monday morning and the alarm goes off. My eyes squeeze shut as I realize it’s time for the weekly weigh-in. So tempting to sink back into oblivion. Pretend it’s still Sunday and I can lay under the duvet a little longer. I turn my head over to the cool side of the pillow. I try to force back into my last pleasant dream but the alarm won’t shut up. It’s time to wake up and the day can’t be avoided. My eyelids flutter and I wake up but stay laying on my back. My fingers press in to define my stomach muscles. I pinch the fat around the sides. Am I pinching more or less than last week? Can’t tell. I pull the covers away and lift my thighs to the half-light. Is there more or less definition than last week? Can’t tell. I push myself to a sitting position at the edge of the bed stretching my muscles. Trying to see if I am properly sore from yesterday’s workout or if I should have gone harder. I’m taking my time and I know it. I'm delaying the time when I’ll have to step on the scale. I stumble into the bathroom and pee first (just in case it makes a difference). I stare at the white bathroom scale laying in the corner. Will you be friend or will you be foe? I hesitate because I know it determines not only my mood but also my week. I lose weight, I get to keep my workout and food the same. But if I don’t lose weight … ughhh. I am in for more cardio and more restricted foods. I pass by the scale without a look and wash my face. Wretched scale. I gargle with mouthwash and brush my teeth while giving it a sideways glance. Detestable scale. I put on eyeliner. I brush on mascara. Accursed scale. That damn white scale with the non-slip surface. (Why non-slip? Do people actually slip while getting on a scale? Or do they just faint away when they look at the number?) No use waiting. It’s got to be done. So I step gingerly on the scale, thinking of butterflies, balloons, anything light and airy. I plant my feet flat, say a prayer and gaze down. The digital bar dances around the display screen and I’m still holding my breath. (Maybe I should stop holding my breath? Does holding my breath increase or decrease my weight? Every ounce counts.) Finally, the bar stops its dance and settles in. An error message? Really? Off the scale again. And back on again. In the seconds before the final revelation, I visualize my future. The joy of the “Yes!” When the number is good. The deflation of my very soul when the number is bad. The digital bar does its interminable dance all over again. Good week? Bad week? Come on. Don’t tease me. Will you be friend or will you be foe?
- Trimester of Training
Having been pregnant twice, I am well versed in the three trimesters of pregnancy. And having entered 30+ competitions in the past 30+ years, I am also quite knowledgeable in the three trimesters of training. Because believe me or not, they are highly correlated. The only difference? In pregnancy, each trimester involves 3 months; in training, each trimester is a mere 3 weeks. [Note: I usually start thinking I can do a 12-week prep for competition then need to extend the time when I realize there is no way I’ll be ready in 12 weeks. But for the ease of comparison, I’m gonna say 12 weeks.] First Trimester Pregnancy: The stick turns blue and all of a sudden, you need to change into a different person. No drinking. No partying late into the night. No hanging out with your smoker friends. And a hypervigilance about everything you put into your body. Prep: You pick a competition date and all of a sudden you need to change into a different person. No drinking. No partying late into the night. No hanging out with your smoker friends. And a hypervigilance about everything you put into your body. Pregnancy: You only tell your closest friends about the pregnancy. Just in case. Prep: You only tell your closest friends about the competition. Just in case. Second Trimester The best trimester ever. Pregnancy: Your body is changing and you can no longer hide the changes of your body. The deprivations of the first semester are now second nature. People admire your round belly. Life is good. Prep: Your body is changing and you no longer hide the changes of your body. The deprivations of the first semester are now second nature. People admire your flat belly. Life is good. Pregnancy: Strangers stop to ask how far along you are. Prep: Strangers stop to ask you if you’re a personal trainer. Third Trimester Pregnancy: Things are becoming a grind. Your world has been consumed by the same thing day after day. The joyful flush of the second trimester is gone. You obsessively count down to your due date. It can’t come soon enough. Prep: Things are becoming a grind. Your world has been consumed by the same thing day after day. The joyful flush of the second trimester is gone. You obsessively count down to your competition date. It can’t come soon enough. Pregnancy: You’re looking forward to getting back to your usual weight. Everything you wear is tight in all the wrong places. Prep: You’re looking forward to getting back to your usual weight. Everything you wear is loose in all the wrong places. Pregnancy: Bras don’t fit. Prep: Bras don’t fit. Finally, the Day is Here! Pregnancy: The day is finally here. You are so excited at the same time as you are so spent. You want it over with and yet you don’t. Prep: The day is finally here. You are so excited at the same time as you are so spent. You want it over with and yet you don’t. Pregnancy: At the end of all your arduous efforts, you get a gift (a baby). Prep: At the end of all your arduous efforts, you get a gift (a trophy). See? Same thing, right?
- No Weigh-In Required
Competition prep can be hard for a female athlete because the changes to the body are so incrementally small. It is hard to remain focused and motivated when each day is composed of 16-18 hours awake hoping to see even a small bit of progress. You need something – anything - to keep you going. But no worries. There are many ways to tell that you’re getting close to your competition weight. Things that tell you that all the deprivation is actually working. That your body really is changing. And none of them require stepping on that cold unforgiving scale. Here are just a few: Butt Dents If the song “Baby Got Back” was written about you, seeing indentations on the sides of the buttocks tells you you’re on the right track. On the flip side, you know when you’re back to your post-competition body when your butt “pops” back into Bootylicious mode. Boob Scales Breasts are made of fat so they quickly deflate when fat goes down which makes the “boob scale” a great measure of progress. Here’s how it work: If you can hold a pencil under each boob and bounce up and down without it falling, you are reaching your goal. If you can hold a magic marker under them, you’ve hit the mark! Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword. The flatter your boobs, the less of a girl you feel. Thank goodness for padded bras – and plastic surgery! Bye Bye Bleed The normal body fat for a non-athletic female is between 22-28 percent. But with intense training and dieting, when you reach a body fat of less than 12 percent, there goes your period. No period. No problem. You’re not pregnant; you’re competing! Now don’t crumble on the bathroom floor in tears if your period comes after 2 months of dieting (like I’ve done in the past). Just keep plugging away and soon it will be long gone. Man Veins You don’t need a pump to see the veins on your forearms. They trail down your arm ripe and plump at all times- no gym required. They remind you of the freeway map of Florida. They are a phlebotomist’s dream and a vampire’s ecstasy. Clown Pants At first your pants swoosh around your thinning thighs. The material swims around your legs with every step. The pants fit – but barely. But as your size decreases, the more the pants start to balloon and your hips can no longer keep them up. Suddenly you’re wearing “Clown Pants”. Your pants hang low like a hip-hop wannabe. This is not the time to be cheap. Don’t go to Walmart in search for suspenders to keep your pants up. It’s futile. Nobody wears suspenders anymore. Time to get another wardrobe for your diminishing size - or learn to love stretchy pants. Skeleton Face Your cheeks are sunken. Your face is drawn. Acquaintances believe you’re under medical treatment for a chronic condition. Yay. You’re ready for the stage! Yes, the stage is calling. And it’ll be here before you expect it. So smile and enjoy the experience. Every torturous minute of it!