Confessions of a female bodybuilder
"What do you eat!?” Donnelle Petelo says she’s been asked this so often by men at her gym, she now just laughs at the question. You see Donnelle has guns. Not the kind a military enthusiast collects but the kind a 32-year-old woman gets from pumping weights nearly every day for the last two years. The West Auckland mother of three is among the best female amateur bodybuilders in the country and has just placed fourth at the Natural Classic Auckland Champs on Sunday. In the weeks leading up to the event Donnelle reduced her food intake to a mere 1225 calories per day, while at the same time increasing her already strenuous cardio and weights routine. Donnelle drastically reduced her water intake too. At the start of last week she was drinking up to four litres per day. On Saturday she was down to 250ml with not a drop on Sunday – the day of the big competition.
Depriving the body of water, while physiologically dangerous, has aesthetic advantages in a sport that revolves entirely around body image. Less water in the body causes greater definition of muscles – a vital component to the sport. Female bodybuilding is the obscure women’s sport that no one is quite sure about. It’s the butt of jokes, the scorn of less-ripped women and an ever-present source of male curiosity. So why is the sport a thriving sub-culture even enjoyed by the likes of Leonie Brookhammer, the wife of well-known Wanganui Mayor. "I got so much crap from my family at first for doing it, my mum was like ‘it’s disgusting why do you want to do that to your body’,” says Donnelle. "But no one ever looks at an endurance athlete and thinks ‘oh my god’.”
Donnelle was first drawn to the sport with a goal similar to many women world wide – to lose weight. In 2007 Donnelle weighed 92kg and had never stepped foot inside a gym, let alone harboured life ambitions to become a top female bodybuilder. A friend suggested a bodybuilding fitness trainer and in less than a year Donnelle had lost 37kg, and gained an obsession with the training and strict diet of bodybuilding. Health officials admit that bodybuilding requires an admirable amount of self-discipline but the extreme diet and exercise regime surrounding competitions, such as the Natural Classic, is a worry to many. Surprisingly, bodybuilding is a sport of nutrition more than anything. Jason Marshall, a personal trainer for Body Smart in Auckland, says diet control accounts for 80 percent of the sport. To train, athletes feed their body massive amounts of protein to bulk up and then starve themselves come competition time.
"They’re messing with their body’s equilibrium,” says Jason. "For you to get mass muscle you have to eat a shit load but for you to go on stage you have to eat bugger all – so they are quite polar opposites.” Donnelle is down to an almost unbelievable 3kgs of body fat. The extreme weight loss has caused her to temporarily lose her period. She says it will probably be up to two to three months before it returns. "When you get to about that 15 percent (body fat) there are a couple of weeks there where it is really hard, because as a female your body just doesn’t want to go under there,” she says. The Female Athlete Triad is a common health condition for females competing in top level sports. Women in ballet, gymnastics and figure skating are all at risk, but female bodybuilders are at an extreme risk. The condition is caused by an insufficient daily intake of calories and women not carrying enough fat. It can lead to brittle bones, eating disorders and loss of menstrual cycle. Elaine Rush is a professor of nutrition at Auckland University of Technology. She says the female body is sensitive to extreme exercise and needs at least 10kgs of fat – more than triple what Donnelle is currently carrying. She says excessive exercise and weight loss can cause hormone levels to deplete, causing a sort of premature menopause.
"That extreme loss of fat can be very damaging for a woman, because it’s not just having ovaries that makes you a woman,” she says. Elaine warns of the mental dangers intrinsically linked to the sport, saying the continual desire for a better body can often lead to eating disorders. "That’s where it is a mental disorder, because you can’t separate the body from the mind,” she says. A study by Gary S. Goldfield in his book Body Image, Disordered Eating and Anabolic Steroid Use in Female Bodybuilders found that binge eating was prevalent in the sport due to the deprivation of ‘desired foods’. His study even suggests that females with a history of eating disorders can be drawn to the sport of bodybuilding – attracted to the perceived benefits of control and self discipline.
The physical dangers of bodybuilding are amplified in the days leading up to competitions – with athletes sticking to "pre-comp diets”. But it is "post-comp” where the mental dangers arise. Dramatic weight gain is common as athletes return fluid to their bodies causing them to puff out. Donnelle says she has known people to put on as much as 7kg in the day following a competition. She says the weeks following competitions are full of mind games as your body adjusts to its larger size.
"It does [mess with your mind] as you get leaner and leaner, because it happens quite gradual too. So you begin to like looking like that. So then when you get your butt back and don’t fit your clothes it can be tough,” she says. The words "Nutrition Plus” are all that can be seen from the outside of a pokey shop on Auckland’s Pitt Street. The owner, a short solid man with glasses, happens to be Peter Hardwick – the man who runs the Natural Classic Auckland Champs and is responsible for starting the sport in New Zealand. Peter was the president of the country’s first ever bodybuilding federation back in 1979. Since then he has seen the sport grow from relative obscurity to just plain obscure. Bodybuilding has taken Peter all around the world. He has judged everything from amateur clubhouse competitions to Mr and Mrs Universe – the ultimate title in bodybuilding.
Female bodybuilding followed closely behind the sport’s emergence in New Zealand, gaining popularity in the early 1980s. Peter says initially it was little more than a women’s beauty competition, with few woman required to lift weights. Female bodybuilding would however take a dark turn into the 90s with rampant drug use breeding masculine female physiques. "To counter that, because [drug use] virtually killed the whole sport, they brought in the figure class which is more shape orientated and glamorous. But internationally that is almost getting to where women’s bodybuilding was,” he says. It sounds like a tired joke. Female bodybuilders hepped up on steroids, growing facial hair and male pecs, but Peter says drugs have nearly taken over professional bodybuilding. He’s seen many athletes push themselves to the edge.
"I’ve seen guys just about die on stage,” he says. "…because their electrolyte system is so out of wack.” It was for this very reason that Peter created the drug-tested Natural Classic 19 years ago. He wanted to offer an alternative to the drug-riddled world of professional bodybuilding. "Not to veer them away because I don’t think you’re ever gonna change it. But to give people a choice, because without it they have no choice,” he says. Anabolic steroids are bodybuilding’s elephant in the room – be it an elephant that can bench 400kg. Donnelle says no one talks about them but if you turn professional ("get your pro card”) you basically have to take drugs to be competitive.
Donnelle is drug-free and in her own words "healthy”. She placed fourth at the Natural Classic Auckland Champs, taking the stage with around 30 other women. Even for first place there were no medals, limited prize money and barely any coverage in the press. Men will continue to ask her what she eats, her mum will keep asking why she competes and health professionals will forever question the sanity of the sport. So why does Donnelle bodybuild? In the end she says the sport just keeps pulling her back. "Actually after last year I said I’d never do another…but here I am again,” she says. "I think it’s so addictive, I went back to the gym and said ‘nah I’m not doing another one, I’m just gonna train and maintain a healthy weight’.” But once she steps back in the gym the desire to train, diet and compete starts all over again.