The Bodice Builders

Personal trainer Yashmeen Manak at her gym in Gurgaon
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A large number of women are now showing off their rippled abs and spectacular biceps

IN THE YEARS that Chetan Pathare frequented Pathare Gym, an establishment in Mumbai’s Parel that was set up sometime in the 1960s, first as a child visiting his father who ran it, and later as its proprietor, the world outside underwent a dramatic demographic transformation. With every passing year, more and more women were joining the workforce, studying in schools and colleges, going out for various activities—but not to gyms. To him, it looked as if bodybuilding would always remain a male domain.

His opinion has changed now. “Women are into bodybuilding,” he says, enunciating each word for emphasis. Pathare is the general secretary of the Indian Body Building Federation (IBBF) and was recently appointed the joint secretary of the World Body Building and Physique Sports Federation.

In the last few years, there has been a revolution in this male- dominated discipline. Among brawny bronze men in tights taking part in bodybuilding competitions in places as distant as Roha in Maharashtra or cities like Delhi and Mumbai, are an equally large number of women showing off their rippled abs and spectacular biceps.

Shweta Rathore, a 26-year-old electronics and communication engineer and a former marketing professional in a real estate firm, first started hitting the gym when she was around 13 years old. She had to use the ruse of tuition lessons to hide her daily visits to the gym from her father. “After about a year, it was impossible to hide it anymore. I was looking far too tough and strong,” she says. Since then, she has taken her father into confidence and pursued bodybuilding along with her education and later career. Rathore competes in the fitness physique category within bodybuilding, and has won several competitions, from a Miss India contest earlier this year, to a bronze at Miss World 2014 and silver in Miss Asia 2015.

A few years ago, Rathore resigned her job to start an optical fibre business with her brother, which would also allow her more time to focus on her passion.

Till a few years ago, the few female bodybuilders who were around, according to Pathare, came from east India—usually from Assam, West Bengal and Manipur. The big change, with women from other places started turning up in large numbers, occurred around three years ago because the IBBF introduced physique categories. In these classifications, which include sub- categories like model, fitness and athletic physiques, athletes are not judged on their muscle build, but on their overall fitness and build. “There are women, we’ve come to know, who are not interested in building huge muscles like some men, but who would rather work towards a fitter, muscular core. As competitions for these categories became more frequent, more and more began to sign up for them,” says Pathare. In the last Miss India competition, according to him, there were over 40 female bodybuilders.

Bodybuilding is a big challenge for women. Testosterone, which men have in abundance, is essential in building muscles and losing fat quickly. The IBBF allows women contestants to wear sports bras and cycling shorts, instead of bikinis, which is the international norm. This is to encourage even those from conservative backgrounds to compete and also because of the fear of how local audiences might react. “We used to be very afraid in the beginning when women began to compete. Initially, we asked women to wear shorts and sports bras. Now we allow them to wear bikinis if they so wish,” Pathare says. “So far it’s been great. The audiences have been well-behaved. But we’re always worried, since our first priority is their security.”

The most frequent offensive comments, the women say, are directed at their appearance and supposed resemblance to men, or how they are pursuing a man’s sport. “Usually, men can’t swallow the fact that we can lift more weights than them,” Rathore says.

To Yashmeen Manak, a 36-year-old female bodybuilder in Gurgaon who has been running a gym for around 13 years, and who commutes on an Enfield bike, such comments have become far too common to even matter. “She started working out because she used to be ridiculed for her weight,” Yashmeen’s husband, Amit Manak explains. But as she lost weight through sessions at the gym, she also began to appreciate the art of building one’s body.

As their exposure and fame grow, many female bodybuilders have also begun to build a large following. On Instagram, for instance, Rathore has over 129,000 followers, and Manak, who is less frequent online, has over 25,000 followers. Deepika Chowdhury, a molecular biologist at the National Institute of Virology, Pune, who moonlights as a bodybuilder, has 10,000 followers.

While people like Pathare worry about the security of female bodybuilders during competitions, to the likes of Amit, such fears are unfounded. “She is stronger than me. She lifts more than 150 kg. That would be twice my weight,” he says. “I don’t even get into an argument with her.”