By Chatura Rao
“People who call me too muscular… are jealous,” says Karuna Waghmare (41), one of India’s first international women bodybuilders, her gaze humorous and challenging. She’s dead serious though, repeating the line to make sure I’ve heard her correctly.
Waghmare’s chest and calf muscles are ripped even when she’s simply sitting across from me in the ladies’ locker room of 4&Fitness, a high-end gym in Andheri, Mumbai. She looks different from the fair-skinned delicately-built models and television actors milling around. Waghmare trains here twice a day—cardio in the morning and weights in the evening. I’m here to meet the stocky husky-voiced Waghmare, to ask her about her idea of feminine beauty.
Sportswomen who are superbly fit are often considered too manly-looking to be deemed ‘desirable’. They have toned, hard bodies and renounce passivity (and those wilting vine adaas or mannerisms) for confidence. Sounds perfect? Not exactly. Most people in and outside the fitness community are uncomfortable with the way these women’s physicality seem to blur the boundaries between what is perceived as ”male” and ”female” .
“In 2009, a friend brought me an issue of Oxygen magazine from abroad, which had on its cover, a body builder—a mother of six with a six pack. It blew my mind,’’ Waghmare’s eyes darken. ”I thought, I’ve been into fitness for 15 years, and what have I achieved? I want to look like her.”
People tried to stop her with arguments like women can’t build muscle, if you try you’ll grow a moustache and a beard, you won’t be feminine anymore. They advised her to ”do women’s work” and leave bodybuilding to men. She ignored them and found Kaizad Kapadia, a fitness expert who guided her training. Today Waghmare has several international titles and is the first Indian female physique athlete to win a pro medal of Olympia. ”In the ladies changing room I still hear sarcastic comments – we don’t want so much muscle; we just want to stay fit! I smile and walk away because I have important things to achieve for my country.” The iron she pumps is visible in the flint of her eye. Is grit a form of beauty? I’m about to discover another definition.
For Deepika Chowdhury (33), five-time winner of the international Figure Championships in the US, the shape of the human anatomy is essentially beautiful. Any muscle, whether on a man or a woman, when visible, appears splendid. Of course, she says, it has to be presented in an artistic way.
Artistic or graceful is Chowdhury’s idea of beauty, but relatives from her parents’ generation wouldn’t agree. She explains with an affectionate laugh that many don’t know that she’s a bodybuilder, and she makes sure to protect them from it. If she has to wear a sari at a family get-together, she opts for a full-sleeved blouse to cover her rippling pecs. ”The older people are used to seeing soft flesh on a woman. Why shock them?”
But for the stage, a bikini it is, and there is certainly no shame in it, both Waghmare and Chowdhury feel. Waghmare mentions that although saffron political parties in Maharashtra try to stop women body builders from going on stage in a bikini, “people love to see us. In Pandharpur and Satara [in interior Maharashtra] at the State competitions I participated in, thousands of people came just to see women body builders. Nobody behaved in a cheap or crude way. And as soon as our part of the performance was done, over half the audience disappeared!”
“Aesthetics, like colour, are a matter of taste,”Chowdhury tries to explain. “One may prefer black and another, white. Similarly, while many people might like softness in a woman’s form, others prefer the toned, athletic look. So why the debate?”she says. “It’s all beauty!” But Chowdhury’s idea of beauty, I discover, is more complex than that. It’s about strength and skill.
At about 5 feet 4”, with spectacles on an angular face, and fine straight hair in a long ponytail, she seems like a college girl with an enviable taut lightness to her stride. I touch her arm in greeting when we meet and feel the warm firm muscles that compose it. We sit on the steps of the weight-training arena in Balewadi Commonwealth Stadium in Pune till Omkar Otari, Commonwealth 2014 weightlifting champion (bronze), arrives on his scooter to train her to lift weights.
She warms up to the adrenalin-pumping beat of a pop number, while Otari adds weights to the bar. Responding to his muttered instructions, Chowdhury lifts, quickly and gracefully, finishing the last and heaviest lift with a howl of effort. “Lovely,” Otari claps and Chowdhury does a short victory jig.
Why add learning a new skill to an already gruelling schedule, I ask her later. Chowdhury’s day, after all, begins at 4 am. After her cardio workout, she attends her 9 to 5 job as a molecular biologist at the National Institute of Virology, Pune, and then her weights session takes up the evening. She barely sleeps for four hours at night.
“I’m learning two techniques: Snatch, and Clean and Jerk,” she explains. “These exercises help me use not just all my muscle groups but also improve mental focus and explosive strength. Aesthetics and grace come along anyway with this kind of training,”she shrugs. ”One should not just ‘look’ strong but should be functionally and multi-dimensionally strong.”
Her ethic inspires admiration—not less than a tonne of it—but I can’t help sensing it wouldn’t be easy to be a muscular woman. “Female bodybuilders get a lot of hate,” writes Cassie Smith in her essay Five Reasons You Should Support Women’s Bodybuilding, “Because [they] have more muscle than most men who don’t train, they’re laughed at. Instead of being celebrated for their hard work and intense dedication to a difficult lifestyle, they’re regarded as ‘unattractive,’ ‘unnatural’…”
It does indeed take hard work and dedication to build muscle. For reproductive reasons, women are designed to hold six to 11 percent more body fat than men. Then, the lower levels of testosterone ensure that even if women work as hard as men do, they cannot build mass to the same degree. Aside of gruelling workouts, they must take protein supplements, fat burners, caffeine-like uppers, and in some cases even the dreaded S-word—steroids.
As Waghmare speaks, I can’t help stealing glances at her hands, whose skin is darkened in colour. “I spend thousands of rupees on grooming my skin,” she explains, following my gaze. I get acne and my once thick beautiful hair has thinned out. Face and body hair have to be removed with regular laser treatment. But the pain and expense of this is part and parcel of the sport. I accept it.”
Funnily enough, in women’s bodybuilding, a sport which is about developing a manly physique, the rules expect prettiness and grace from participants. So while the women in bikinis have their hair beautifully set and wear makeup, the men just have to be big and bulked up. According to the International Federation of Body Building (IFBB), women have to present a “muscular, yet feminine shape.” They must step along the edges of masculinity with a feminine gait. A tightrope walk.
Yet, interestingly, their numbers are growing. From approximately three professional women bodybuilders in 15 years, in just the last two years, numbers have climbed up to 36. The Indian Body Building and Fitness Federation holds several competitions a year, encouraging the sport. But the glamour aspect is also on the rise. Waghmare says the reach of social media is popularising a hitherto niche sport. She has four fan pages on Facebook, and a fifth one coming up.
Among the top 12 fitness-inspiring Instagrammers to follow, according to an India Today , are six body builders. Among them, glamorous to boot with liquid eyes and an attractive pout, is Ankita Singh (26), a fitness model and bodybuilder in the fitness-and-athletic category. The Miss India Fitness 2014, she’s been featured in the Men’s Health magazine’s anniversary edition, among the 5 fittest women in India and on the cover of the Fitness Guru magazine. She was a semi-finalist at the MTV India’s Ultimate Fitness Fan challenge.
Singh works full-time as a software engineer in an IT company in Bangalore. She hails, however, from Mirzapur, a small town in Uttar Pradesh from a well-off, politically-connected Rajput family, “where women are supposed to cover their heads in front of elders, and showing skin is a big no-no.” She confesses that “it has been very difficult to get my family’s approval, as we have to go onstage in bikinis. They saw I had potential when I competed on the world stage, and have started supporting me ever since.” But the larger community, she adds ruefully, “will not approve, so getting complete support eludes me”.
Singh started up the fitness trail to parry off poor self-image. “During my engineering college days in Bangalore, I faced many health issues and was suffering from low self-esteem. At a dungeon gym close to my college, I was introduced to the world of fitness and body building. I fell in love with iron and became addicted to working out. I read about different exercises and diets, and began experimenting.”
The others echo Singh’s views—they began their tryst with fitness as a defence against being dismissed. “I used to be called ‘weak’ and ‘not good-looking’ because I was skinny and dark-skinned, and my boyfriend was handsome,” Chowdhury says. Many men hit the gym for the same reason.
Perhaps it’s more about choosing to be in complete control of your body. Waghmare relates with pride that when she was a weak child, she made a point to eat better and train herself to be strong, in order to be a better athlete. As a college student she worked out to achieve a voluptuous shape—“a big bum and boobs”, as she puts it. It was what she wanted then. Once she became an aerobics instructor, she acquired a lean, toned build. And when she decided to become an international body builder, she built herself a body to reckon with.
“Strong is the new sexy,” Singh grins. “Who wouldn’t find a woman with no extra fat hanging off her, desirable? That aside, a woman who works out will look healthy and fit her entire life. Personally, I worked towards beauty in body building to gain both confidence and mental strength.”
Each of these women gleefully admit that their bodies have allowed them to do things they never dreamt they would have. Waghmare learnt how to execute cartwheels and handstands for an international competition. Singh explains that she can do things she had only watched on TV when she was a child. “I can carry out some of the toughest moves that a gymnast does, and lift weights which I thought could only be lifted by men. Some find it embarrassing to work out alongside me!”
Speaking of iron, when I asked Chowdhury on FB Messenger how much she’d managed to lift in her training session with Omkar Otari, she wrote back: “That was just learning…the weights I lifted must have been about 40 kg… kuch bhi nahi hai ye! I bench press 65 kg and deadlift 140 kg, squats 103kg. Uske aage ye beginner weight kitta chillar hai. Ask me the same after one year :-D. Woh kuch sunne layak hoga.”
The confidence that strength brings is beautiful!