Once I started uploading my pictures (in sportswear) on social media and started talking about it, there was a section of people...hardcore Hindus…who objected to it because of the attire that I had worn. But, I believe I have been fortunate. It has been 5-6 years, and things have changed...people have started accepting me as I am. There are people who think, ‘Muscle is not for any woman’! A few said, ‘You have turned into a man, you should stay away from it’. But the resistance came from a very small section of people. By that, I don’t just mean men but women, too. There are women I know who don’t appreciate it. They think that it’s not feminine.
But, I’m glad that most of them do understand and appreciate my efforts. It is not definitely easy to maintain such a body. If it was easy, everybody would have had six-pack abs. It is not easy when you’re in your late 30s to have such kind of a body.
There are definitely people who like to pass sexist statements at female bodybuilders because we are judged by the attire we wear. If you are really working hard on something, you want to show that, right? At times when you are competing in a bikini, it’s not that you wear a bikini 24x7, you wear it only when you are around poles or at the beach. You’ve worked hard and you’re in great shape, your pictures are mostly in shorts or sportswear.
People don’t accept women bodybuilders when they have crossed a certain age limit. (Image: Instagram / Sonali Swami)
You should be proud that you’re working super hard and it should be showing. People say, ‘Kuch toh pehen lo, kapde bhul gaye kya?’...there are judgemental people around. As to why would a 44-year-old mother want to show her body to others, 'ki yeh nahi pehenna chahiye tha...yeh bhi nikal dena chahiye tha’! I get those comments. I try not to respond instead, I look at the other 98% of people who admire my efforts. The only thing that I can do is talk about the sport, hoping that someday they would realise...that what is most important, is it my clothes or my work?
I have a 13-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter. The fact that they appreciate all the little things in life is what I really love about them. At this age, they understand the importance of working hard for something that they want to achieve.
We, women, always think twice before taking up anything unconventional. ‘Yeh mere liye nahi hain’, or ‘it’s too late now’, ‘pehle karna chahiye tha’...I have always told this, and I’ll tell this again. It is never too late. If you want to do something, just go ahead and do it. Being fit and healthy is for everyone, whether you are an 8-year-old, or a 30-year-old, or an 80-year-old. That is the best advice I would give.
You should be proud that you’re working super hard and it should be showing. (Image: Instagram / Sonali Swami)
Weight training was quite alien to me. Like for many other women. Like 99% of women, I felt that this was not for me and that I need to stay away from it. I only realised its importance after starting to train. How and why it is needed!
It was phenomenal at how I was slowly transforming myself not just physically but mentally as well. I did not have any idol as such, I started just on my own. I did not look up to anyone as such because there was hardly any woman who was weight training during that time. Hence, there was no point in competing as well.
When I started training in 2013, I became aware of a physique competition for females happening in India for the very first time. I thought, why not give it a try, what’s the worst that can happen! My major worry was being a married woman, then being a mom in late 30s, would people accept me as I am? Honestly, people don’t accept women, especially when they have crossed a certain age limit and pursuing an unconventional sport called bodybuilding.
If you do your best and your body responds, it means your hard work has really paid off. (Image: Instagram / Sonali Swami)
Bodybuilding is a sport which not many people accept and they definitely don’t accept the fact that women should be training or lifting weights or competing. Because when you are competing, you have to wear certain attire and you are judged. Right? Wearing short clothes, or bikinis and sports bras...at that point of time, I did have the option of wearing a bikini, but I avoided it.
Because I wasn’t comfortable myself, and I wasn’t sure how my immediate family would react...of course, my husband is very supportive and he has been there with me since day one. He was the one who pushed me into fitness. But talking about the family, when you have your in-laws and parents as well, I was a little skeptical about that. So, I purposely avoided that and instead wore a sports bra and shorts.
Eventually, I went ahead and competed in that bodybuilding show. This bodybuilding event was a huge platform for female bodybuilders. When I assessed other competitors, there were girls half my age. I thought to myself, I should at least try and give my best. Well, I did just that and won the competition. I believe that was the turning point. When I realised that it is not just the looks...if you do your best and your body responds, it means your hard work has really paid off. That’s when I knew it was all in my own hand and that I could do it. I realised that I can mould my body into whichever shape I want to, it’s not a miracle. You feed your body well, you train hard, then your body gives you the results. That’s where my journey started, in 2014, after I won that competition.
It is not always about bodybuilding, it is about taking care of your health. (Image: Instagram / Sonali Swami)
Shortly after, I took a break because I had two teenagers at home. My daughter had her board exams and I didn’t really want to compromise on that when it comes to family. But my main agenda was to educate women. When I won in 2014 is when I joined Instagram, because there were so many women who came up to me and said, ‘we can’t believe you’ve done this! You have given us hope that it’s not over for married women! That we need to take care of our health.’ It is not always about bodybuilding, it is about taking care of your health. Women should live by their passion, be it painting, singing or dancing. Or if you want to go into an unconventional sport, go ahead and do it. Women wanted me to talk and write about it. Women should have good health at the top of their priority list, it’s only then that you will be able to give your 100% to people who love you or look up to you. You have to realise that your body can achieve so much once you shut out the doubts and focus.
There are hormonal issues with married women, too. ‘That I had a C-section, and I can’t be doing this’, or maybe, ‘I have had menopause, and I’m not sure what to do’. Mostly what happens is that a lot of women go through body shaming and it doesn’t come from outside but from their families. In fact, women after marriage tend to put on a lot of weight and they are depressed. So, that’s what I do...lending a helping hand to such women. I’m doing my best to appear for Indian team trials this year. That would happen in July.
We’re conditioned to only look at the weighing scale perhaps, but building muscle is essential. And, muscle is for women as it is for men!