Dubai Muscle Show: inside the world of female bodybuilders

Gruelling routines, extreme mental discipline and severed relationships are part of the game

The fourth Dubai Muscle Show that kickstarts on Thursday, December 5, may not be high up on everyone’s agenda, but for one group of women, it’s an event they’ve long been counting down for. This year marks the first time that the show will host its Women’s Fitness Competition.

“Some of the best female physiques have been honed in Dubai gyms. However, they have never had a platform to showcase their hard work here – until now,” says a Dubai Muscle Show representative, adding: “The huge growth of the fitness sector across the GCC has seen it go from a 3,000-square-metre event to 20,000 square meters in just three years.”

New flex

For those of us on the outside, the world of bodybuilding can seem alien. As bodybuilder Andrea Kidd, 33, puts it: “People see it as extreme, the way we function.” So exactly how does one come to adopt such a perceived lifestyle? The mum-of-two went from tennis player to coach, then onto personal training before being seduced by the sport. While becoming a professional bodybuilder was not something her younger self has dreamt of, being granted a window into the lives of other female fitness competitors through social media enticed her to take the plunge.

Like with Kidd – who will be competing in the Sports Model category at the show – it’s often a natural transition for those already entrenched in the world of fitness. But for Scarlett Harvey, her nine-to-five is a world away from bench presses and bicep curls. The primary school teacher took up working out two years ago, initially in a bid to lose weight. The twists and turns of her journey took her first to compete in (and win) a Muay Thai boxing fight before she turned to weightlifting.

“After [the fight], I spent a few weeks feeling lost and without focus. Then I saw on Instagram that the Dubai Muscle Show was accepting women to compete for the first time. And there it was, my next target,” says Harvey, 30. She will compete in the Sports Model, Wellness Figure and Best Life Transformation categories, having lost 25 kilograms in 22 months.

Mind over muscle

It will come as a surprise to no one that the schedule of a bodybuilder – no less in the run-up to a competition – is gruelling. Early mornings, hours of daily training and macronutrient counting to the gram is simply a way of life. But speaking to four of the women involved in the Dubai Muscle Show this year, there is a clear consensus that it’s as much about the mind as it is muscle.

After 16 years in the fitness industry, personal trainer Jacqueline Melo, 36, is training to compete in her first bodybuilding competition within the Wellness Figure category this December – and she insists that the brain is the most affected part of the body throughout the process. Already paramount to her weight-loss success, her mind is the muscle Harvey knows she needs to flex. “We live in a society of instant gratification. But in order to achieve an outcome, mental discipline [is needed]. For me, this is rewarded both emotionally and physically when I see the results.”

While there are many obstacles in the sport at every stage, even those long in the game concur that so much comes down to mindset. It’s a skill that constantly needs to be worked on, says Sarah Marie Bibo, who has been competing for six years. It’s this attitude that has pushed her through some of the harder times. “It’s challenging because so many people are still not accepting of women with muscle – and then there’s being compared to a man.” The PT-turned-pro bodybuilder now sits in the Women’s Physique category and will be assisting instead of competing at this year’s show.

While the others say they haven’t experienced an avalanche of negative comments from strangers, they acknowledge the negatives that come hand in hand with their lifestyle choice. Melo notes that “the worst thing is not having a social life”. As for Bibo, she has “cut off most people” in order to rid herself of negativity. Having to make huge sacrifices when it comes to relationships is a core commonality within the experience of female bodybuilders.

Making gains

But it isn’t all strict schedules and sacrifices. Each woman sings about the positive outcomes that spill over into the rest of their lives, too, most notably, transforming the way they see themselves. Body insecurities may still crop up, but these are outweighed by new-found confidence.

“After many years, I can say now I am happy and confident in my own skin,” says Bibo. Harvey adds: “Personally, I love the way my body looks in the mirror. I love that my body allows me to swim, surf, dance, run, work and be independent.” Kidd stresses that it’s not only herself who benefits from her radiating confidence, but that her attitude has positive influence on friends and colleagues.

Using this to encourage people both around them and on social media (somewhat completing the circle) has been a key goal for each of the bodybuilders, too – especially through the platform provided by this history-making competition. There is a sense of representing – and encouraging – all women in the country, having finally being granted the chance to show the real strength and capabilities of females in this sport in this region.