This Is Why All Your Facebook Friends Are Body Builders Now

Spray tans. Bedazzled bikinis. Platform heels. Sinewy muscles. Power poses. If you google photos of "bikini competitions," this is usually what you come across, along with detailed training plans for how you, too, can become a competitor — or at least work out like one.

If you're not familiar with the concept, a bikini competition is essentially a bodybuilding contest that's tailored specifically to women. Unlike traditional bodybuilding competitions, bikini and women's physique competitions are meant to "give a platform for women who enjoy weight training, competing, contest preparation," according to the National Physique Committee (NPC), the organization that hosts and judges the competitions. Participants perform a series of poses that include flexing certain muscle groups in a regulation two-piece suit, and are judged accordingly.

There's a pretty good chance that someone you know, either in real life or on social media, participates in bikini competitions and shares their journey from gym to stage online. Amateurs are encouraged to participate. A training plan, and typically a professional trainer or coach, is all it takes to compete. In a way, it's like signing up for a 5K or triathlon, except instead of having your endurance tested, it's your muscles (in a bikini).

The thought of judging women solely on the look of their muscles or bodies sounds, at first, pretty icky. Indeed, many competitors are athletes, but to think about diluting their abilities and focusing on just what they look like is a bummer. It just doesn't seem very healthy — but the bikini competitors we spoke to say this is a misconception they'd like to change. As with other sports or beauty competitions, when we assume we know anything about people's lives or habits, simply based on how they look, nobody wins.

The photos that you see on social media or from a Google search only tell part of the story. So, we spoke to six women who participate in bikini competitions about what motivates, bothers, and challenges them about their sport.

Casei, 31

How did you get into bikini competitions?
"I had lost 30 pounds in a really unhealthy way, and I decided that I wanted to do something different. I was checking out workouts online and came across the NPC. I asked a family friend who is part of the industry about it, and he gave me a little bit more information about what to expect — both in-season and off-season. I did my first competition October at the San Antonio Classic, three years after talking to him. I wanted to make sure that I was mentally, physically, and financially prepared to compete."

What's the most rewarding part and most challenging part about competing?
"With this being my first show, [the hardest part] was knowing that I could do it. For me, this was a huge step outside my comfort zone. It was hard, but walking across the stage to show others what you achieved was extremely satisfying."

What's the biggest misconception people have about bikini competitions? How would you change that?
"That we are all starving ourselves. The night before competing a gentleman asked me, Is it true you don’t eat 24 hours before a show? For me, no; I had cravings for certain foods, but my coach kept me well fed throughout the process. I answered my coworkers' and parents' questions about food and the prep process from the beginning to the end. Sometimes I would over-share but it helped them understand [my meal plan]."
Tina, 27

How did you get into bikini competitions?
"I was already training with my coach, just as a way to keep healthy, and he was training several other girls who were working towards the stage. Watching their journeys was very inspiring. I just thought to myself, Hey what have I got to lose? I am also very goal-driven, and my training at the time didn't have particular goals aligned with it, so this was pretty perfect for me."

What's the most rewarding part and most challenging part about competing?
"The most rewarding part is finding out what your body and mind are capable of — and getting to the end. For me, building confidence in myself and learning to appreciate and love my body was the best part. After having my daughter, I had postpartum depression, and I cried every time I looked in the mirror because of my stretch marks and all the other bits, bumps, and sags that came along with being pregnant.

"I was so scared [my daughter] would grow up thinking that it is normal to be ashamed of your body, and I was determined to not be that type of influence on her. I am proud and happy with all my lumps and bumps now and I know this wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t push my body and mind to extremes to find what I was capable of.

"I think every goal in life is challenging, is it not? It's just finding the strength to push through whatever it is that gets you upset on any day: whether it be tiredness, temptations, grumpiness. Surround yourself with people who support you and your goals, that’s what made it easier for me."

What's the biggest misconception people have about bikini competitions? How would you change that?
"I think the biggest misconception is that you are either starving yourself, or that you are being incredibly risky or doing unhealthy things to get stage-ready. This is in no way true for my journey or many others I know. When I first began, I was eating more than I normally would, but just clean, healthy foods, which were much better for my body than all the junk I was feeding it before.

"I just think people should understand that we are not punishing ourselves: These girls are athletes, and for a short period of time they are at the extreme level, and then they go back to a healthy balance. Find yourself a coach that genuinely knows what they are doing when it comes to nutrition and training, and make sure to do your own research, too."
Leigh, 21

How did you get into bikini competitions?
"I was on Instagram, and I noticed this girl I went to high school with looked so good, and I always wanted to know why and how. So, I went on her profile and started looking at all of her photos, and looking at who she followed, and realized what competing was. I started following all of those people and got obsessed with bodybuilding.com.

"At the time, all I knew was the treadmill, so I was like, Okay, I’m going to start lifting, and always had competing at the back of my mind as the end goal. I was in an extremely emotionally abusive relationship at the time, and subconsciously this was something to give me my own sense of autonomy and self-worth. It gave me enough confidence and clarity to break up with the asshole."

What's the most rewarding part and most challenging part about competing?
"Honestly for me, the most rewarding part is being able to help others who have never realized that so many others go through the same [challenges], too. There's also a huge problem with body dysmorphia in the industry. Now, my DMs are flooded with people who let me know how much I help them, and how they always thought they were the only ones. I truly did feel so stinking happy on that stage, and felt like all of my hard work meant so much in that moment."

What's the biggest misconception people have about bikini competitions? How would you change that?
"The biggest misconception is that competing is just show day. All I saw before I competed were stage shots, and the glittery bikinis, and the jewelry. No one shows you the behind the scenes of the endless hours of training, given-up friend time, going to bed at 9 p.m. nightly, missed events, taking tupperware with you wherever you go, the ridiculous amounts of money it costs for coaching and posing coaching — and clean food, gym memberships, NPC memberships, show day, and everything else.

"You have to want this. If I stopped after my first season, I would have hated it no doubt — but because I am so stubborn I kept it up. I’m thankful now, even though it caused me a lot of mental pain initially."
Mary Ann, 28

What's the most rewarding part and most challenging part about competing?
"Winning and earning money from competitions would be great, but one of the most rewarding parts about competing is achieving something really hard that you have set your mind to. It gives me great satisfaction to have this underlying sense of drive and motivation to get things done that carries into other aspects of my life. I also get to meet a lot of beautiful souls along my fitness journey.

"Competing is mostly mental. Getting over your self-doubt and your anxiety about pleasing your coaches, peers, and judges can really get to you. Another difficult factor is having to prepare all your meals — all five a day. As a mom, I usually cook something different for my daughter than I would eat myself. Also, it's hard to be social, because we are not allowed to drink too much or eat anything that's not on the meal plan."

What's the biggest misconception people have about bikini competitions? How would you change that?
"I think that one of the biggest misconceptions about bikini competing is that it's not healthy. It's a sport and it can be a job. I wish people would look at it like they look at any other Olympic or popular sport — because we are athletes. Some people think that we are starving ourselves, when in fact we are eating four to six complete meals a day. Also, if you're doing it right and want to do well, you will have hired a coach who is a certified trainer and has experience. They will make sure you are not hurting yourself."
May, 35

How did you get into bikini competitions?
"I was never athletic my entire life. I tried a lot of home workout videos but that never lasted, and I injured myself a couple of times. Three years ago, I stumbled upon bodybuilding.com and started following some training program, and I fell in love with lifting. One day I saw a girl on Instagram posting her competition-prep progress photos, and I was amazed by her transformation. I decided to set the goal to compete. Like many competitors, I fell in love with the sport after my first show."

What's the most rewarding part and most challenging part about competing?
"Growing up, I felt insecure and not athletic, so competition prep really pushes me outside my comfort zone and teaches me that we can do whatever we put our mind to. My confidence has skyrocketed, which helps me with my personal life and my career. I've also met a lot of people who compete and share the same passion — I love the camaraderie of these people and the friendships I've made along the way.

"Towards the end of a competition prep, the training can be very tiring and draining, but I still have to push through even when I do not feel like it. There are many moments of me sitting in my car outside the gym parking lot for over 15 minutes, and not wanting to go in."

What do you think the biggest misconception is about bikini competitions? How would you like to change that belief?
"I think for a non-competitor, people think that to compete in bodybuilding competition, you need to look like a female bodybuilder — that's not the case. Bikini competitors are the least muscular among all other bodybuilding competition divisions. The physique of a bikini competitor is actually very attainable."