Building muscles and community for women bodybuilders – CBC.ca

When Christine Harrison started competing as a bodybuilder four years ago, she wasn’t surprised to enter a male-dominated world.

That didn’t stop the psychotherapist from continuing to pursue her fitness goals, but then she started to think about her daughters, and decided to do something about it.

“I had a really interesting conversation with myself where I thought, if my girls wanted to get into bodybuilding, would I want this?” she said.

“No, I’d want more for them.”

Christine Harrison has competed in several mixed bodybuilding competitions, including this one in Niagara Falls, Ont., last month. (Muscle Insider)

It took Harrison three years and some pandemic downtime, but this past March she launched a new federation dubbed Women’s Community of Bodybuilding.

Harrison says women support women and the emphasis is on the sport and physique over looks. 

The group holds its first competition on Sept. 11 where, unlike other competitions, women’s categories won’t be pushed to the back of the show even when they represent most of the registrants.

Everyone from the master of ceremonies to the sponsors to the judges are women.

“Typically the men’s categories run first. It would not be unusual for women to be sitting backstage for eight hours waiting to go on,” she said, adding male categories seemed to take precedence at these events.

“A more empowering version of this sport was needed.”

Harrison says the best part about competing has been the other women she’s met. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Building muscles and community

As a psychotherapist and bodybuilder, Harrison says she ultimately wants to help women connect and build relationships. With this new federation, she worked to build community at a social distance, holding outdoor boot camps and posing seminars and online meal prep workshops, and helping women connect with each other on social media. 

Harrison says her approach has attracted a range of women, including those new to bodybuilding. 

Members of the foundation met several times this summer for outdoor boot camps and posing seminars ahead of the competition. (Submitted by Christine Harrison)

Gabriella Varga always had an interest in fitness, but struggled to stay on course. Eighteen months ago, the 45-year-old ICU nurse and mom took up bodybuilding, and says the connection with others has helped.

“When I started, I found that it was a very isolating sport. You’re competing against yourself to improve yourself, to get the best physique you can get,” she said.

“[This federation] is women supporting women. It was a way of networking with other people who understand the type of training that I’m doing, the dedication, the commitment.”

Gabriella Varga works as an ICU nurse at The Ottawa Hospital’s Civic campus. (Submitted by Gabriella Varga)

Realistic transformations

Varga begins working out at home at 3:30 a.m. to get two hours of training before heading to the ICU. She does another hour at the end of her 12-hour shift. She plans to compete in the transformation category at the upcoming competition.

“It’s definitely been life-altering,” said Varga, who has lost 100 pounds in what she calls a healthy way, aware of some of the pressures women in bodybuilding face.

Varga says bodybuilding is a way to focus on herself. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

“I struggled with body dysmorphia and this is definitely something that has been a challenge … Is it healthy sometimes? No, it’s not so healthy eating minimal amounts of calories and doing excessive workouts. However, it’s what you do after the competition, which is the most important part.”

Varga prioritizes healthy eating and exercise habits, and understands the way bodybuilders look onstage is not realistic in the long term.

That’s something Harrison hopes the community can help with, as she says she sees clients who experience post-competition depression as they struggle to match their body image in the show with the way it looks afterwards.

“The idea behind the [foundation] is that they’re going to have those relationships to talk about these things together. … It’s very real. It’s important to talk about those feelings,” she said.

Gabriella Varga says she appreciates the support of her family, including daughters Keira Benson, left, and Paige Benson, right, who sometimes train with her. (Submitted by Gabriella Varga)

Never too late

For Gini Pratt, the inclusive nature of the group made her feel the confidence to take up bodybuilding at 61.

The new grandmother recently underwent cancer treatment and learned about the federation through her aesthetics business, which offers spray tans to competitors.

Gini Pratt, 61, took up bodybuilding after a recent brush with cancer. (Submitted by Gini Pratt)

“I was so inspired that I said, ‘You know, this is time for me now. I’m going to give it a go,'” she said.

Pratt set up a mat next to her bed and began working out daily over Zoom. She now plans to compete in 2022 and is optimistic this women’s federation will make her feel comfortable on stage.

“You won’t be defined by the tiniest little bikini bottoms … Every body type can be addressed.”

Pratt will also offer spray tans at the upcoming competition. (Francis Ferland/CBC)