Inside the world of female bodybuilding, where women push themselves to the limits
The first thing you notice is the smell of fake tan and that every surface — walls, floors, basins and even toilets — are covered in protective plastic.
Backstage at the Cairns Convention Centre, the room is steamy and full of near-naked women in tiny, sparkly bikinis, teetering on impossibly high stilettos.
Some women are pumping heavy weights. Others are doing lunges, while one woman is smiling at the floor-to-ceiling mirror, perfecting her poses.
There is a lawyer, a police officer, and several stay-at-home mums, including Kathryn Bailey, from the Cairns suburb of Brinsmead.
Ms Bailey’s husband is busy perfecting her tan, applying a thick, brown cream called “muscle mud” to her torso with a sponge — the reason for the wall-to-wall plastic.
She has also had two spray-tans in the lead-up to the event, and had her hair and make-up done — after six months of strict dieting and exercise.
“Today is all about having fun, after months of hard work,” she said, smiling at the mirror.
It is noon on Saturday and hundreds of people — mainly family, friends and supporters — are seated, ready for the show to begin.
‘Putting my 20-year-old self to shame’
Senior Constable Heidi Marek is getting ready for her turn on the stage.
Normally, she is head-to-toe in a blue Queensland Police uniform, but today she is wearing a $700 bikini, hand-sewn with Swarovski crystals.
The mother-of-two has always been fit, and saw bodybuilding competitions as the next step.
“I’ve done triathlons, long-distance swims, but I really wanted to do something to push my mental and physical capabilities to the limit, and I found it,” Ms Marek said.
“I’m about to turn 40 and my goal was to be in the best shape I have ever been. I’m pretty sure I put my 20-year-old self to shame.”
This is the third competition Ms Marek has done in a year, and she said the strict dieting had initially been a big shock.
“I’ve said goodbye to alcohol, sugary food and dirty carbs, as we like to call it, and I’ve never felt better,” she said.
Food is weighed and consists of turkey and chicken, salads and vegetables with tuna, egg whites and the occasional piece of fruit — but only apples and bananas.
“As the comp draws closer, usually about five weeks out, I start to drop all fruit and dairy and most fats like avocado and almonds,” Ms Marek said.
Building bodies the natural way
The Cairns Tropix competition takes place under the iCompeteNatural banner, one of two natural bodybuilding federations in Australia.
About 20 women are competing in the event. There are several categories, including fitness and the “mumma” section.
Organiser Scott Piper is on the microphone and introduces the women as they enter the stage, with thumping music in the background.
The light is unforgiving, highlighting every tiny “imperfection”, as he instructs the women to do quarter turns.
It is exhausting work holding the various poses — muscles are tensed, and balancing on sky-high heels is not easy.
There is a panel of female judges who are busy taking notes at the front of the stage.
They examine the women’s physiques from every angle and are looking for muscular proportion and symmetry.
Ms Marek places second and the three placegetters are led to an Olympic-style podium, where they receive a giant medallion.
Her children and husband wave excitedly from the crowd.
The rise and rise of female bodybuilding
iCompete Natural Queensland president Jason Woodforth said the number of women entering bodybuilding competitions now outnumbered men.
And the women are also entering bodybuilding competitions later in life.
“We never used to have a plus-30 competition but we do now, and that’s because so many women are entering in their late 30s,” Mr Woodforth said.
“I think a lot of people are using it [the competition] as a goal, women wanting to enter their 40s looking and feeling fit.”
Mr Woodforth said the rising rate of obesity in Australia was also pushing people to become more proactive about their appearance and overall health.
“This is a lifestyle choice and when you make the wrong choices, you end up obese,” he said.
“There’s so much pressure on our hospital systems because of what we put in our bodies because we have to have alcohol, we have to have chips, the Tim Tams, the soft drinks.”
Ms Marek said she could not do the competition without the support of her family, especially her husband, Adrian Marek, who was also a police officer.
The family was off to get celebratory burgers after the competition, something that had been off limits for months.
Ms Marek said she was going to have a rest from competition, but hoped to compete again next April.
“The best part about the event is seeing how proud the kids are of me on competition day,” she said.