Is a Bikini Competition a Sport? Critical Reflection on Why I Want to Compete

NPC West Coast
Starting training for my first bikini competition, (NPC West Coast)  I’ve come across a number of objections, and good questions for me to ponder.  Below are the things that inspire me to compete in this type of competition, and I included my responses to some of the best objections, including ones that I’ve also been hesitant of myself. First off, I’m consider myself an athlete, and also someone that feminism and equal rights is important to me.  On my bucket list is to do an IronMan, run a 100 mile race, compete in a Crossfit competition, run a sub six minute mile, get to 8 pull-ups, and make it to graduado level in Capoeira.  Why then would I be interested in a beauty pageant esque competition?  Well then.. glad you asked!

The Science Behind Bodybuilding is Fascinating!
This is what I’m so excited about to learn and to start training from a coach who knows their shit.  How you set up a training program for hypertrophy, the nutrition to accompany it, and the not only muscle growth in one areas, but muscle growth through the entire body, including muscles you need to isolate that you have never trained before.   It’s extremely technical.  In addition to a technical program design you need to be highly proficient in the lifts themselves.   Full range of motion and motor neuron activation are needed to increase strength and size of muscles.  A bodybuilder does not need to have the shoulder mobility for an overhead squat, but they will be highly proficient in the squat for example. If you are not doing lifts correctly and with full range of motion, your training is sub par.  There may be some lower level competitors that can get away with poor technique and less optimal nutrition, but high level bodybuilders cannot.  One of the podcasts I was listening to described an exercise he gives his class – if you saw a lineup of people and you could not talk to them, how would you decipher who was the strongest.  Answer.  By how big their muscles are! You don’t have small looking power athletes, and bodybuilders are hella strong.  Large muscles are not a façade of strength.  The training differs of course, but bodybuilding and power lifting are cousins in training, as compared to distant relatives if you were training for other sports.  It’s a very specialized skill, and I don’t understand the comparison to a beauty pageant, which to my understanding does not require advanced level training and preparation. 

Excelling vs Functional:
I hear this one a lot.  That it doesn’t seem like a real sport, and making muscles look bigger isn’t a sport in the same way that powerlifting, gymnastics, running, or other things are.  Lets unpack this a bit.  Is the reason we do sports to make you better at everyday life? Do even any of the sports people typically use as a model for what a real sport is do that?  The answer is no to both of those.  The sports that come the closest to advertising those purpose are Crossfit and MMA style fighting.  Is a broad skill set better than excelling at one sport?    A powerlifter is stronger than a Crossfit athlete, and an Olympic sprinter would kick ass at the Crossfit games for the sprinting category.  Does this make crossfit less than or better than? That is not the point.  They are different.  Both are cool.  Its comparing apples to oranges.  Both serve different purposes, but the intent is that you set up the rules of the sport, and train to excel at the parameters given.  The same is true for MMA fighters.  You must have a  whole arsenal of martial arts skills and cannot just focus on jiu jitsu or boxing.  Is MMA better than boxing?  Does MMA truly prepare you for  ‘real world’? Or would Krav Maga, and weapons disarmament be more useful when there are no refs, and you may have to fight multiple people and someone has a gun.  Is synchronized diving practical?  Is deadlifing 1000lbs functional? Is being a football player healthy?  Which is better – Taekwondo or Capoeira?   Judo or ping pong?  100m sprints or ultra marathons?  Blog article writing versus writing a Dissertation that no one will ever read??  Ok one of the things in this category is not like the other, but my point in bringing up writing a dissertation is that it serves a completely different purpose.  A blog article is more likely to be widely read and reach more people, but it’s just simply different.  The criteria and intent of each is different.  Is the central purpose of any sport designed to make you better at your average everyday life?  If so, what the hell are you doing in your everyday life?!  Sports are designed to go beyond that.   These questions and criticisms are so irrelevant and are not the point of why people do any type of sport.  You train for a purpose.  And I’m willing to bet there is no elite athlete in the entire world who will say they train to be better at their everyday activities.  In fact it’s completely the opposite.  They change their everyday activities to optimize their sport.  You change your nutrition, your stretching and mobility regime, your focus and mindset, even your social life changes, to enhance your training to best excel at your sport of choice.   Better endurance and health certainly contributes to your quality of life.  But that is a side effect, not the main goal, and many sports actually inhibit longterm health like football and boxing.  Many martial arts prioritize self-discipline and body awareness.  Also useful.  Look at the essentials of any sport, and they will have many of the same qualities, and the end goal is always to excel to the best of your genetic abilities within the parameters of the sport. There may be side goals like changing those parameters, which we will get into next.   When people ask, what is the purpose of bodybuilding? The answer is.. the purpose is to get really good at bodybuilding!     To conclude,  I’m excited to compete in bodybuilding to see how advanced I can get in the technical training and nutrition needed to get my body to look a certain way, and for the incredibly high amount of self-discipline required to do things.

Bodybuilding is not Inherently Sexist:
Are there sexist aspects of female bodybuilding? Yes absolutely.  Is the essential idea of what it means to be a bodybuilder – to develop your physique in a symmetrical way and change your body composition to best display that sexist?  I don’t think so.  But I do believe that the accessories and regulations that have been imposed especially on the female categories are.  And this to me is a big difference.  The history of all sports is one of sexism and racism, and its all of the sports. Figure skating, gymnastics, running, cycling, MMA, tennis, soccer!  Every. Single.  Sport.    If we were to dismiss a sport based on sexism within the industry than women would not be competing in anything.  This topic in itself requires an entire dissertation, but to give a few examples:   Wage inequality in US Women’s Soccer – the women’s soccer team gets paid less than the men’s team, despite higher viewership and more wins.  They are forced to play on sub par turf and the treatment of the players and the standards used to judge the actions are different.  Eg Hope Solo getting kicked off the team recently based on her public persona and comments she made during the Olympics.  Running:  Rampant sexism.  Running the NYC Marathon recently, I was reminded how only relatively recently women were allowed onto the course, and running used to be thought to ruin women’s reproductive organs, and they were advised to run less than half a mile.  Theories of ruining women’s baby making capabilities was the number one reason women were barred from most sports.  The women’s marathon was added into the Olympics only in 1976, after much campaigning, and ultra marathons are still being challenged and having to change their criteria for having  different distances for men and women.  Dismantling a legacy and infrastructure of sexism is tough work and it is immense.   Title IX played a huge role in changing the landscape in school and college athletics for women, giving them access to programs and coaches they did not have the opportunity to have before.  Written in 1972, and implemented related to athletics in 1975, this is the beginning of changing widespread lack of opportunity and access for girls and women in sports.  This is only 35 years ago!!  Are soccer and running inherently sexist?  Or do they operate in a sexism environment, that influences the rules of the game, the turf they play on, and their compensation.  And this is in sports traditionally looked at as ‘sports’.  What about sports that are more subjective based on body type, which is the same type of issues that female bodybuilders face.   Misty Copeland, an African American Ballerina discusses many of the challenges she faced not having the ‘traditional’ body type that a ballerina was assumed to have.  ”

[People] hear those words from critics — I’m “too bulky,” I’m “too busty” — and then they meet me in person and they say, “You look like a ballerina, I don’t understand.” And I think it’s just something maybe I will never escape from: those people who are narrow-minded. But my mission, my voice, my story, my message is not for them. I think it’s more important to think of the people I am influencing and helping to see a broader picture of what beauty is. NPR article 2104

Olympic Gymnastics and Figure Skating are sports with a high degree of athleticism but with subjective beauty standards for judging and influenced by geopolitical events.  The code of judging of both was recently changed, and the gymnastics criteria was overhauled as recently as 2006 and placed more of an emphasis on rate of difficulty and criteria in the scoring to make judging more objective.  Only ten years! And even this overhaul is not without its critics.  The criteria and rules will continue to evolve and change with the sport.  Not to even get into the issue of sexism of sponsorships.  Take Maria Sharapova versus Serena Williams.  Is there even any question to who is the better athlete, yet Sharapova makes nearly twice as much in sponsorship money.  Now imagine being a less famous athlete than Serena, and sponsorships can mean the difference between being able to pay for high level coaching and being able to not have a day job, and focus your time on training.  This is connected of course to the prize money for women’s sports and how low it is, but these issues are all intimately connected.

The sexism I see in female bodybuilding is the requirement as new categories began to emerge – bikini, figure, fitness, physique,  (originally there was only one category and that was female bodybuilding)  is that the sport was having an issue with sports enhancement drugs, and the criteria changed to ‘feminize’ the sport, as well as to make it more socially and monetarily appealing. High heels and makeup were added to the criteria for these new categories, but even physique and bodybuilder categories that currently do not wear heels, do often wear makeup and style their hair.  There is also a subjective ‘stage presence’ that is part of the judging criteria, and while it is not explicitly stated, from my reading up it seems like breast implants have become pretty important especially in the bikini competitor category. Like the other sports that used judging based subjective criteria such as figure skating and gymnastics,  things like ‘grace and poise and elegance’ were common elements of judging.  This is part of the massive bias that led to prioritizing certain body types and racial bias into the judgement process.  Like these other sports,  female bodybuilding has extremely problematic criteria that should be reformed.  This includes things like not standing in heels, and making hair and makeup optional.  As well as integrating much more objective criteria for judging.  As a relatively new sport it is evolving constantly I expect we will see a lot of changes over the years.

To wrap this all up: I’m excited about competing in a new sport.  I recognize that in any sport that has a subjective judging criteria that this complicates things and may even differ from what I see as success.   I have images of women of the type of body I’m trying to achieve and I will judge myself closely to those merits rather than judging how I did based on if I place or not.  Success to me will be following my training plan and doing something completely out of my comfort zone and stepping on stage.


About Musings over Coffee

Fitness enthusiast. Love to travel, mess up recipes, ponder random things, get riled up about the news, all of which nearly always coinciding with one of my favorite things in the world: Coffee.
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One Response to Is a Bikini Competition a Sport? Critical Reflection on Why I Want to Compete

  1. I appreciate your in depth analysis on this topic. Personally, I have found such competitions fathomable only with a dose of discomfort in thought. Learning your perspective on it helps me with my own understanding, which can be of assistance if my daughter were ever to ask me questions one day about topics like this. Things are rarely just black and white and usually more nuanced and complex, and learning about differing perspectives is the best way to learn.

    On a side note, I had to laugh when I saw the juxtaposition of Judo and ping pong.

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