I recently lost an important business contract based upon on the way I look, or more accurately stated, the way I looked.
Beginning in 2013, and through 2014, I trained for, and competed in a couple of fitness competitions (aka bodybuilding shows). I did the weight training and cardio, ate the “clean” foods, and took the gym selfies. I had my skin painted brown before hitting the stage in my stripper heels to show off the highly-provocative poses I had been practicing for months (in the bikini division), and the musculature I had worked hard to build (figure division). I played the role of a fitness competitor and it cost me a job.
Now before anyone offers their legal advice or services for a case of wrongful termination, I must explain the situation which led me to loosing this contract.
I was hired and briefly employed with a nutrition and psychological counseling practice that specializes in the treatment of eating disorders. As a Registered Dietitian, I was hired to provide nutritional counseling and therapy for clients of the clinic. This was an opportunity I was very excited about for personal and career development reasons. As some who has struggled and recovered from disordered eating, I felt a sense of calling to help and guide others through the recovery process. I whole-heartedly believe in the power of body positivity and saw this job as a chance to share my message . Career-wise, it was an opportunity to begin gaining experience in an area of dietetics I had little formal training in. I had often thought about pursing eating disorder treatment as a specialty practice niche.
Background checks are nothing new to the hiring process, and thankfully nothing I’ve ever had an issue in getting through in the past. But this time, red flags were raised. As I later found out, a quick Google search of my name bestowed images from my fitness competition days. These photos were stage shots, captured by the official photographer of each competition, with the intent of being sold to competitors as keepsakes. For anyone who’s ever run an organized race, whether it be a 5k or marathon, you’ve likely familiar with “action” shots taken by race photographers who never seem to miss a face of desperation or a wonky stride. Well, my stage shots were the equivalent of bad race photos.
I met with the clinic director who explained that the images of me strutting across stage in a red bikini and lean physique were not ones that they wanted their clinic associated with. He explained that its very common for patients with eating disorders to do their own fact checking on their therapists and nutritionists, scoping out the provider’s background, lifestyle habits and dietary practices. In many cases, those working with eating disorder clients fulfill a role-model role whether intentional or not. Clients will look up to their therapist or nutritionist for reassurance of healthy messages.
The clinic director was familiar enough with the bodybuilding lifestyle and what it entails. He knew of the emphasis placed on appearance and the intentional altering of ones’ physique to meet judging criteria. He was aware of how competitors drastically restrict their food intake and monitor it with razor-sharp focus, often comparable to the level of control that eating disorder patients seek to maintain with their food habits. He didn’t want a member of his staff to promote, nor let alone, be affiliated with the highly quantitative food, exercise, and body composition tendencies of the bodybuilding culture. And I respect his opinion.
While losing this contract was certainly disappointing, the most disheartening component of this experience was recognizing myself as someone being labeled with the negative stigma attached with bodybuilding and fitness competitions. And while I realize that it’s not uncommon for individuals within the sport to engage in extreme & unhealthy practices, its not a case for all.
I began training for fitness competitions as a way to stay in shape and maintain motivation for exercise. It was also a way for me to spend time with my husband, a seasoned competitor. Throughout the process I learned more competition nutrition, physical training, and about myself. I worked hard and did what I need to do to take fourth place in a local show. Nothing significant in the world of bodybuilding, but that’s as far as I could, and wanted to take it. Bodybuilding requires a strong commitment from oneself, and my lifestyle had significantly changed to accommodate this, but my end goal was still health. Fortunately my food and training journals revealed that I never dropped my calorie intake below 1800, weight-trained 4 days per week, and did cardiovascular exercise 3 days per week for 30 minutes each session. Those were my numbers. Nothing extreme. Not a cc of silicon or an mL of chemical enhancement.
While it took some time, I have returned to a “normal” lifestyle in which I no longer weigh myself nor my food daily. My time is the gym is much less regimented. I’m not focused on the next show or comparing myself to other competitors. As could have been the case for someone who has struggled in the past, I have not allowed the bodybuilding lifestyle to mask an underlying eating disorder or case of body dysmorphia. I moved on and resumed dieting abstinence. My experience in fitness competitions was more-or-less a trial of bodybuilding, a check off of life’s ‘bucket-list’.
I fully understand the reason behind the clinic’s decision to terminate my contract. One’s image portrays powerful messages, but it can also be deceiving. My image portrayed someone who micro-managed their appearance through diet and training, but as you’ve read, there was more to the story that what meets the eye. I may have not been the right fit for this particular clinic, but because of my experiences with the bodybuilding lifestyle, I feel I am better equipped to help current, prior, and future competitors ensure good health aligns with their fitness goals. And with the recent boom in fitness competitions, I expect this kind of help will be needed.