Written by Jen Offord

Health

Brawn to win

When Anna Reich quit her PR job to be a personal trainer, the rise in her own physical strength surprised and excited her – so she entered a bodybuilding competition. Jen Offord chats to her ahead of next month’s contest.

Anna Reich shows off the results of her training.

Anna Reich shows off the results of her training.

Anyone who’s been paying attention to my scribblings will by now have some familiarity with my wide-ranging interests. These include (but are not limited to): unnecessary references to Beyoncé and, to a lesser degree, Mick Hucknall; votes for women and modern-day variations of that, such as equal pay, health and pockets sewn into our goddamn clothes; peculiar sporty challenges; bad-ass women.

It is particularly awesome to combine these wonderful things (with the exception of Mick Hucknall who probably won’t feature again in this article) by way of the story of Anna Reich.

A few years back, disillusioned by her day job and spending an increasing amount of time in the gym, Anna decided she was going to wave goodbye to PR and become a personal trainer. She trained and qualified, then took to spending her days making people like me get off our arses and move around more.

Anna found that the gradual rise in her physical strength was what excited her the most, particularly as a smaller statured person. “I like feeling strong but I didn’t expect to fall in love with the feeling of getting stronger or how much that would excite me.” she says.

“It’s not that I feel particularly bothered by it [being smaller-statured], but I’m sure I’ve been patted on the head or called cute or something. But then I was being told I had an impressive strength to size ratio and that made me think twice about my size and my capability and what I could do with it.”

With this increasing level of awareness of her own strength, Anna took another leap of faith and decided to train to compete in the World Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation Bikini Fitness Diva competition, to be held in May this year.

“Bikini” might be in the title, but muscle gain is still very much something less associated with women than men, says Anna – not that it puts her off. “Seeking physical strength is not seen as a woman’s rite of passage, which is why when a woman discovers strength training, the ripple effects of that are amazing.

“You hold yourself taller: you can’t believe you’re actually that strong,” she continues, explaining the buzz she gets from training.

“It’s something new to the female psyche: feeling physically capable and it really is genuinely exciting. It kind of awakens something that’s in us – the whole fierce thing. It’s true, it’s lying dormant and it’s oppressed.”

“Society tells guys strength is their domain so I can understand why some might feel insecure if women are impressing in the arena. But I’ve had a few women shake their head at my body and make disparaging comments and that’s gutting.”

This was very much in keeping with my own experience of taking up cycling and getting my bike, Beyoncé – so named for her symbolism of my empowerment. In fact, even the actual Beyoncé feels empowered via the medium of sport, if we’re to believe the hype around the launch of her new sportswear range Ivy Park, this week.

“True beauty is in the health of our minds, hearts and bodies. I know that when I feel physically strong, I am mentally strong, and I wanted to create a brand that made other women feel the same way,” says Yoncé.

And it’s not just me, Anna and Beyoncé either: there’s a real trend towards women seeing exercise as a means of strengthening, with the motto “strong is the new skinny” stamped firmly alongside the Instagram snaps of unmistakably muscular female PTs the world over.

“Muscle development is tangible proof that you’re doing something, that you’re changing,” says Anna. “And it’s all you – you made that muscle.”

However, Anna notes that while many of her clients want to be strong, they don’t want to look strong. “Women can be scared they’re going to over-inflate like Johnny Bravo or something, but it’s not the case – you don’t build muscles overnight.” (It’s true you couldn’t get abs like Anna’s by accident.)

Anna“It takes four to five months of bulking before cutting your calories intake back down, then carving the muscle out – the diet is gruelling.”

One thing Anna has found throughout her journey is that there’s something of a paradox in the women around her. While her competitors understand the massive sacrifices and hard work that goes into a competition like this, and go out of their way to be supportive, there has also been some negativity towards an aesthetic perceived as ‘unfeminine’, whatever that means.

“There’s a lot of support among the other women who are competing – no withholding of information,” she says, nodding to a commonly acknowledged female trait of working collaboratively for the good of the team. The same cannot be said of some people outside the competition, though.

Bemoaning the ‘it’s unfeminine’ reaction of some, she says, “I just think that’s such a dated attitude.”

More often than not, it’s women rather than men who pass judgement on Anna’s physique. “It doesn’t bother me, to be honest, I’m so happy I found this,” she says. “But I am really disappointed when it comes from a woman. I expect it to a certain degree from guys; society tells them strength is their domain so I can understand why some might feel insecure if women are impressing in the arena. But I’ve had a few women shake their head at my body and make disparaging comments and that’s gutting.

“Where’s the solidarity?! I know those women may have body complexes of their own and we’re all still subject to daily commentary on how to look, so why knock a woman who is taking control and paving the way for greater choice? It’s kind of laughable from a guy, but depressing from a woman.”

And there you have it. I don’t necessarily agree with the old adage that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women – after all, some women, like some men, are simply arseholes. I also don’t believe in hell, but if I did, I would feel very strongly that there should be a special place in it for women who deliberately or even thoughtlessly bring down other women.

The fact that launching a women’s sportswear range is even a viable business opportunity – let alone a lucrative one – for Brand Beyoncé shows us how far we have come and how far we will go in terms of women’s participation in sport. In this particular instance, Anna admits there are elements of this competition that aren’t actually all that helpful to women – the bikini and high heels, for example, but, as Anna points out, “Ultimately it’s encouraging people to admire strong women.”

Here’s hoping that one day we won’t need any encouragement.

Anna regularly blogs about her experience training for the competition. Follow her journey here.

@inspireajen

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Written by Jen Offord

Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen