Our bodies are an implausibly miraculous and brilliant gift. Operating in perfect harmony, from heartbeat to pulse and cell division to hormone release, the body maintains life without the need for conscious thought. We are all miracles, whatever shape or form we take. But for some women, simply existing under a soft, thick layer of flesh isn't enough.
In the West Midlands, UK, women are developing a new physical aesthetic beyond spray tans, skinny legs, and bodycon dresses. Investing hours in the weights room, they bench, deadlift and squat the same (if not more) as their male counterparts. Some have synthetically enhanced themselves with steroids, while others approach their bodies like a physiological science. Broadly talks to five women who have achieved the impossible through blood, sweat, tears, and sheer muscle mass.
Dawn Shillingford, 38
When did you first start bodybuilding?
September last year. l had never trained before then. I had never even been to a gym before.
How do you maintain your energy levels?
Luckily it hasn't really hit me. l am down to three percent body fat now and l still feel OK.
How do you keep the balance between being too hard on yourself and achieving your goals?
It's very hard for me. l am very body conscious, not in terms of what other people think particularly, but more because of myself. l know when l step on that stage the judges will say, "You are asymmetrical." l used to just walk into a room and not think about my body; now l see every little flaw in myself.
You're an accomplished professional event rider, which is a predominantly female community of equestrians. By going into bodybuilding you've chosen to enter into a more testosterone-fueled environment. Was there any specific reason behind that?
I grew up with brothers and a lot of my friends are male, so l'm not stepping into an alien culture. Oddly enough it's women more than men who congratulate me on my gains. Women always tell me l look amazing—they seem to appreciate the hard work that's gone into my training.
What does a typical day's training look like for you?
In the run-up before a competition l do cardio in the gym in the morning, then l come back in the evening to train weights and different parts of the body depending on what day of the week, then more cardio to finish. I enjoy weights the most.
Heather Cowley, 51
When did you first start weight training?
I was always into sport and that was mainly because l was bullied at school. I loved competing, it got me away from the classroom.
What kind of man do you find attractive?
He has to have muscles. I've been single for a long time. I was with my previous partner for 12 months. When l realised it wasn't working and l tried to leave, he would get angry and smash the place up. It got to the point where l was scared of him. l kept the whole thing away from my son who was only little at them time; l kept it all to myself.
So how did you detach yourself in the end?
He took a knife to me and told me to kill myself because l was worthless. He went to hit me and because l was experienced in martial arts l gave him such a kick, l knocked him across the room and told him to get out of my house and he just went. l threw myself back into the gym and that's the way l dealt with it.
Who are some of the women who have inspired you the most though your life? First and foremost my Mum and [fitness models and bodybuilders] Oksana Grishina, Dana Linn Bailey, Nicole Wilkins, and Larissa Reis.
Donna Gittings, 30
Do you remember how you first felt when you walked into a weights room?
I didn't go into the weights section until l met my boyfriend Tony—he changed things for me. l was obsessed with cardio and abs. I was too skinny. l really restricted my food because l had put on so much weight with my babies. l looked ill.
I think it's attractive to see a woman cultivate a body that she's proud of and not have to bow to stereotypical ideals.
We see more fitness women coming through now. It's an acquired taste. Men don't always like how you look, but they recognize you've obviously got the willpower to achieve such gains. They appreciate your dedication more than thinking you look nice. I have the odd bit of negativity. Internet trolls are the worst.
Is juicing [steroid use] common in your gym?
In our gym, steroids are not frowned upon at all. Eighty-five percent of people think it's fine.
Are you open to taking steroids?
I've taken steroids and l'm very much open about it. l started taking them because l wanted to compete. A lot of women don't admit that they take steroids, they will adamantly deny it but it's very easy to see when someone does—their voice changes and they become a lot more vascular.
Do you inject or take tablets?
How do you sleep before a competition?
Not too well. You are pretty hungry and really thirsty. l cut liquids down at about 6 PM [the night before] and l didn't compete until 2 PM. You elevate your water intake on the run-up to the show. Tony can drink ten to 12 litres a day. You will continue to wash out the overload of water from in the week when you are then dehydrating. I take diuretics as well.
Watch: The Men Behind the Muscles
Do you feel more beautiful now?
No, l wouldn't say that. l wouldn't even say my confidence is better, it's just very different. l did used to go out and drink alcohol and now l don't. l eat a lot more and our lives revolve around the gym. We get slated a lot because of our steroid use. People say, "Why would you do that to your body?" But we don't smoke or drink and we don't eat any crap.
Victoria Brown, 29
Fitness must be important to your identity both as a bikini competitor and personal trainer. Are there certain points you reached physically that gave you a confidence boost?
Definitely. My boyfriend helped. He trains hard. He told me that he hadn't really flirted with girls much until he met me and asked me out on a date. The competitions help but you have to be careful. When the judges ask you if you want feedback, you can choose not to ask. I know they might notice imperfections, so l don't ask.
What are your thoughts on the skinny aesthetic on the other end of the spectrum, like models in the high fashion industry?They have got their unique goal. Their look is totally different from that of a body builder. l know you could get an eating disorder easily from the weight training community's mentality; trying to be slim for the catwalk is as dangerous as getting slim for the stage in bikini competitions. It's the same game. We just look different.
How does the pressure of muscle maintenance at this point affect you?
It would be lovely to abs all year round. I enjoy going out for roast dinners and having a few drinks with my friends. You need that balance. You can get metabolic damage if you don't reintroduce food properly. Your cortisone levels and hormones need to be kept at a safe level.
Tabitha Luke Mcclean, 45
You work as a PT and train to keep yourself in top condition all year round. How do manage fatigue?
Being older now, l read my body better than when l was younger; back then l relied on coffee. The adverse side of that is your body is just no better off, because if you don't have the right food you can't train.
Is there a lot plastic surgery in the body building community?
Yes. The breast jobs are popular. The thing is, it puts a lot of people off because you aren't able to train for two months after the surgery. It depends what you want to do. Do you want breasts or do you want to keep training? If you take time off to heal you lower your strength.
How much does the misconception that women aren't as strong as men (or that being muscular isn't attractive for a women) affect you?
I am female, but l am strong and bloody-minded. l don't want to look like a man. That's why l don't take steroids. l don't want the square jaw women get because of the hormonal changes. I want to be a strong woman, l don't want to be a bloke. We are strong in different ways. It's just about getting fit healthy and strong and motivating each other to do that in the same way.
With thanks to David Lloyd Worcester.