‘I gained 40 pounds after quitting bikini competitions’

I was very aware of weight, size, and calories from a young age.

As a teen, I disliked my body intensely. I wanted that thigh gap and a tiny waist—the opposite of my natural body type—so I started doing crunches every day. I played volleyball year-round, but I also joined a gym, and started counting calories.

Having such strong appearance goals definitely didn’t align with my athletic goals to become the best volleyball player possible. Looking back now, my performance on the court probably suffered because I was fixated on weight loss, not proper nutrition and training for an athlete.

At the end of high school, I discovered bikini competitions on social media and loved that women were celebrating their muscles. It was extremely empowering to see women striving to look strong and athletic. But what I didn't realize was that their diet and training routines were neither sustainable nor healthy.

'I was in the gym 6 to 7 days a week for a minimum of 90 minutes.'

When I started playing college volleyball, I realized I needed to take my nutrition more seriously if I wanted to improve as an athlete. At the same time, I decided to work toward stepping on stage as a bikini competitor.

After lots of research, I learned that I would need to eat more and train differently if I wanted to build the muscle necessary to be competitive. That mindset shift helped change my relationship with food and exercise from focusing on restriction to focusing on eating enough to actually grow—and that was an absolutely game changer.

My body shape is naturally more athletic and muscular, so training for a bikini competition was, in a way, a step toward embracing my natural shape rather than the thigh-gap ideals. But I didn’t realize that a competition-ready look wasn’t sustainable.

Balancing strength and conditioning workouts for volleyball three days a week with bodybuilding workouts two to three times a week was tricky, but I made it work for a couple of years. Once I finished my sophomore season, though, I decided that I didn't want to continue playing volleyball—my heart just wasn't in it anymore—and that meant that I could finally fully pursue bodybuilding.

My focus shifted to getting ready for the stage. My headspace had definitely been trending toward being more positive and performance-focused, but once I committed to prep, it kind of swung back the other way again.

I was in the gym six to seven days per week for a minimum of 90 minutes each workout. Sometimes they would be well over two hours, if I also had to do a longer cardio session and practice posing. My lifting and cardio sessions were always very draining because when you have your sights set on first place, you have to put 100 percent into every rep, every set, every day.

I was tracking my food meticulously. My coach gave me macros to reach and I hit them perfectly every day—when you are competing, every little detail adds up.

After my first competitions in the fall of 2015, I was hooked. I took a short off-season and then jumped into another long prep because I had my sights set on the national stage. The second time was even harder than the first because my body wasn't ready to prep again and fought me every step of the way.

I felt extremely insecure on a regular basis. Sure, I would feel good about myself when I first woke up and could see my eight-pack, but knowing that you're going to step on stage and get compared to other girls messes with your head.

My drive to be lean and look a certain way was masked by a more acceptable obsession—winning shows. Competing can bring out both the best and worst in you: It improves your discipline and mental fortitude, but it can also exacerbate any body-image issues or eating problems you have, and the restrictions put strain on relationships and normal life.

Eventually, it was too much. I competed in six shows, winning multiple classes and an overall, placing top 15 at a national show, and I was satisfied with that.

By the summer of 2016, I lost the fire for competing. I was just so mentally and physically drained. I had gotten stuck in the comparison trap. I wanted to regain confidence, and that could only be done away from competitions.

'Now I cringe when I look at old photos of myself.'

Gaining weight was really hard at first. I was dreading watching my body look more "normal" because I was still in the habit of thinking "leaner is always better."

While I still respect competitors and the sport, I can't help but cringe when I look at old photos of myself—I look frail and exhausted, definitely not healthy and fit. Over time, I've learned to love my natural shape and embrace the extra body fat, because I can now have way more flexibility with my diet, training, and overall lifestyle.

Over a year after giving up competitive bodybuilding, I now weigh 160 pounds. That's far from the 120 pounds I thought was ideal growing up, but it's a weight that has allowed me to restore my menstrual cycle (which I'd lost while bodybuilding), and mentally recover from the years of restriction. It's a weight that lets me actually enjoy life.

Fitness is now a part of my life, but not my entire life. And I enjoy working out so much more because I’m not following a program to the T. I actually have enough energy (and fuel) for it to feel fun again.

'I do workouts I enjoy, instead of things that will make me look a certain way.'

Since I gave up competing, I have tried lots of other approaches to fitness: powerlifting, circuit training, bodyweight workouts, tracking macros, intuitive eating, meal plans—you name it. My focus is now on doing things I enjoy instead of things that will make me look a certain way.

A typical week of workouts for me usually consists of three to four days with weights—I alternate between hypertrophy-style workouts and circuits—and a few cardio sessions, typically interval work on the treadmill or bodyweight/plyo circuits. I also ride horses multiple times per week, and love going to yoga and taking long walks to help with physical and mental recovery.

Chocolate is part of my life again.

After tracking my macros neurotically for competitions, it’s so nice to be able to loosen my grip on food. I track my food occasionally to make sure that I'm fueling my body properly, but I don't feel the need to hit my macro goals to the gram.

I eat mostly unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods, but I also don't deprive myself of things that I love. Chocolate is a non-negotiable for me, and I love trying new restaurants and enjoying myself when I travel.

I now embrace my thicker legs.

Along with giving up competitions, I gave up the extremes. I’ve come to value balance and health above everything. Now, I work out most days, but I don't stress if I don't make it to the gym.

Learning to truly appreciate my body for what it can do rather than what it looks like has allowed me to gain confidence and finally feel happy in my body. I now embrace my thicker legs that I once hated because they allow me to run, jump, squat, and ride horses with ease. I accept that I will never have narrow shoulders or hips and I will never look "dainty" because I'm just not built like that. But I’m happy.

Self-love comes from accepting your natural shape.

Accept the way your body wants to be. The sooner we can accept our natural shape, the sooner we can find true self love. It was a long process, but some things that helped me were intentionally focusing less on my appearance (i.e., not over-analyzing myself in the mirror, not weighing myself every day) as well as setting goals based on performance, such as getting a 300-pound deadlift and being able to run a faster mile.

Follow Marie’s fitness journey @marieewold.


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