Muscles Pop On Darker Skin: One Black Woman's Bodybuilding Journey
How were you introduced to the concept of bodybuilding?
I went to the Arnold Classics two years ago and experienced a bodybuilding competition for the first time. I saw women doing different fitness categories: bikini, figure and physique.
Bikini is sassy, lean and about muscle tone. Figure is all about the quarter turn and muscle definition. Physique is about presentation flow and even fuller, defined muscles.
When I saw these women perform I thought to myself, ‘Those women look crazy’, (in a good way), ‘but I could never do that.’ Immediately following those thoughts I realized ‘Uhh crap, now I gotta try this.’
Then I made a plan. Deciding how I was going to approach this task that I barely knew anything about was a little daunting so I simplified it into two main parts: training and nutrition.
Since I’ve trained as a gymnast, I felt comfortable with working out. I decided not to put a ton of money into fitness training other than getting a gym membership.
Then there’s nutrition, which I had no clue about so I did research and one of my mentors recommended Stephaney Theobald from Natty Nutrition in Cincinnati, Ohio. I have really enjoyed working with Stephaney, she changed my whole diet and was an instrumental part of my competition prep.
I decided that I wanted to compete in the figure category and I started my 16-week prep in March 2016. Really strict meal plan. No additional sugar, no regular table salt. Only 1/8 tablespoon of iodized sea salt with two meals a day up until peak week, (then no salt at all). I worked out one to two times a day.
I know there are not a lot of Black women in bodybuilding.
Yes. I would find inspiration from women that I had an affinity for like Nicole Wilkins, Latorya Watts and Candice Lewis. They are some of the top women in the field. Nicole Wilkins won the Figure Olympia four times and Latorya won the Figure Olympia twice. This year Cyndney Gillon won the 2017 Figure Olympia which took place September 14-17 in Las Vegas, NV.
When Nicole Wilkins won the Olympia she was on the cover of Oxygen magazine. And then the following year Latorya Watts, who’s Black, won and was not on the cover of anything that I’m aware of. It did not seem like Latorya got the same type of sponsorship.
As I connected with different people in the field (e.g. coached and trainers) I would ask ‘Why is that Latorya wasn’t featured in more things?’ and the response I got is that it’s a predominantly White sport and the business wants to appeal to people who pay their money.
This was kind of annoying to me because the skin tone of a black women’s physique naturally shows muscle tone. Why not post the current winner on the front cover of a magazine?
So, you see the definition more on darker skin?
Yes. That’s why basically all of the women who compete get spray tans. If you don’t get a tan, people say you look washed out. It is hard to see muscle definition on lighter skin because the stage lights make it harder to see the muscle tone.
So had you already quit your job by the time you decided to do the competition?
No, no, no. I was still working. Quitting my job was not the plan. Quitting my job was spiritual, I felt God asking me ‘Why don’t you think I can give you purpose?’ I decided to trust Him and left my job earlier than I expected.
Quitting was kind of perfect though because it was two weeks before my peak week [the final 5-7 days leading up to an actual bodybuilding competition]. And peak week is when everything is cut. I was at my highest caloric deficit so I was literally eating for fuel. I needed the food for energy to stay awake and workout. The timing of leaving my job was serendipitous but it was a blessing during my competition prep.
Tell me about your diet.
I ate six times a day.
They’re not really all meals. Some of them are snacks.
Were you hungry or did you feel sustained?
You start out with more calories and then you chop off calories as you go. I would literally measure out all my food. I wasn’t hungry at first, but towards the end I was super hungry.
Originally, I was disappointed because I didn’t find the meals to be tasty, but about a month and half in I liked my meals because I started experimenting with different seasonings.
For example, I used Mrs. Dash seasonings along with many other spices like cumin, ginger, garlic, pepper, rosemary and basil. I love basil! At one point, I ended up mixing all of my breakfast items to make muffins. I realized that I could make different things, I just had to get creative. Now, I’d say I like my meals.
You ended up doing really well in the competition, (Racquel got 1st in her height class and second in the novice overall.) How did you feel like you were going to do when you first started?
When I was going in to my competition prep I had two goals:
1. Train to be competitive - I wanted to train to the best of my ability so that I would have no regrets and feel comfortable and confident on stage) and
2. Have a support team along the way - I wanted to share my journey with others.
I wasn’t there for an award, I just wanted to do my very best. When I was backstage with all the other competitors I felt confident about the 16 weeks of work I had put in. I believed I was competitive so that gave me the confidence to do what I practiced.
As far as support, several people supported me throughout my fitness journey. I remember knowing just about everybody in the lobby when I finished competing which was awesome!
So how is the competition structured?
There’s pre-judging first, you get a break, and then you have the night show. Usually people invite their family and friends to the night show.
During prejudging, they move you around. It’s called “call-outs”. If you get first call-outs that’s typically a good thing. The judges rearrange the competitors to compare physiques. If you’re moved to the middle, that’s also usually a good thing.
For my call-outs, I was dead in the center, so I thought to myself ‘Ok, you’re probably going to do well.’ This gave me more confidence going into the final show where I was going to be performing for my friends and family.
What would you say was the biggest change, mentally and physically?
I would say the biggest change for me mentally is that I want to continue to eat nutritious foods. I have continued eating six meals a day as I’ve transitioned into the Stanford Biodesign Fellowship Program. I carry a lunchbox almost every day so that I can ensure that I’m making good food choices.
Another change, but not for the good is that I’ve experienced some body Dysmorphia. I didn’t think anything was wrong with my body starting out; but now, after taking on this challenge, I’ve noticed that I’m more sensitive to my fat gain.
The biggest change for me physically was noticing my progress. During the process, I actually didn’t notice the changes in my body. People would comment on my progress, but I didn’t pay much attention. It was not until the last two weeks, that’s when I definitely noticed changes. I thought ‘Wow, my abs, regardless if I just ate or not, are still there.’
Did anything surprise you during the process?
During this process, I barely had a period. I think the first time I was supposed to have one, it kind of skipped over. Then the next time, I was literally supposed to have my period the day of the competition, but it didn’t come.
Don’t you have endometriosis?
Yes, exactly, (self-diagnosed). So the fact that I wasn’t in pain and could actually walk is huge. It makes me think I need to keep doing this. No pain is awesome.
That’s a huge incentive to stay on the diet.
Prior to this, menstrual cycle leave was something I was looking into.
Do they offer that?
No, not that I know of, but I think it is a valid need. When my cramps occur, I have a hard time walking and the pain is intense. Independent of bodybuilding, I was considering menstrual leave, but with my competition prep I haven’t had these issues.
That’s crazy. That’s insane.
It’s amazing. I love it.
How long have your periods been that traumatic?
I would say ever since high school. One time I was rushed to the emergency room when I was a co-op at GE. I passed out so they didn’t know what to do with me. It was bad. But maybe fitness is a way to reduce the intensity of my periods.
You know, Tia Mowry had endometriosis and she has this cookbook and I don’t know if she’s full time vegan or partially vegan but she said her diet helped all of that.
I believe it.
And that speaks to what you were saying about having control over your body. Some afflictions you just don’t have to do through. It’s just a matter of education. I lot of people just don’t know.
And that’s the thing. The lessons I’ve gained from bodybuilding are helpful for me in my career as a biomedical engineer because it inspires me to explore ways to empower people to proactively take control of their health. Health benefits don’t always come in the form of a gadget, drugs or surgery. It’s possible that awareness/education could be just as impactful. What comes to mind is a mixture of Western and Eastern medicine. I think it could be really powerful.
Was the journey hard for you initially or were you so focused that it wasn’t an issue?
I would say it go easier as time went on.
Working within Corporate America, there are always donuts on Fridays. I was invited to luncheons and I would literally bring my lunch box with my food everywhere I went.
I figured out the locations of all the convenient microwaves. I could stop at gas stations to use their microwaves to warm up my meals. They also have microwaves in many grocery stores.
It was challenging at the beginning, but, in time, my journey became a conversation starter. People that were having weight problems or fitness concerns would start asking me questions. Since it was inspirational to them, it became motivating to me because I had an organic accountability system that formed. My fitness journey becomes a social thing because other people started taking interest in what I was doing. I started to share my journey on my Snapchat (@rokcmahworlde), Instagram (@rokcmahworlde) and on Facebook (@RokcFit) because it because was fun and motivational for me.
Did you have a fear--because a lot of women have a fear--of getting too big or too muscular?
Yes, I think in certain areas. I didn’t want to have big shoulders and a big neck. But as I worked out I realized that you have to work really hard to get large muscles. In most cases, people who do have well defined muscles wanted them and worked really hard to get them.
In the opposite direction, I knew that I would be losing weight. My breasts got smaller and I didn’t necessarily want that.
How much smaller?
I was a DD and now I’m probably a C.
[Laughs.] I feel like I’m a C.
So you had to buy new bras.
Well, I didn’t buy new bras. I’m hoping they’ll come back. I didn’t realize how much of a financial challenge prep would be. My pants don’t fit either, I went from a size 4 to a size 0.
What were the financial costs? Was the food expensive?
Food was about $600 a month. Overall, it’s comparable to eating out every day. Unfortunately, store meal prep options are typically the most expensive option on the shelf. For example, my dozen eggs went from $1.89 to $4.00.
What other costs?
Cost of my nutritionist, gym membership, posing classes, supplements, competition suit, competition fees, competitor fees and the cost of the tan.
You were saying that you didn’t want to tan.
I didn’t really want to tan but I wanted to be competitive so it wasn’t a big deal. I gained inspiration from competitors with my complexion and they were tanning so I wanted to put my best self out there.
What about the cost of your suit?
The suits are super expensive. Suits are typically $400+. I networked to get my suit for less than $100. So that was awesome. Praise God! That worked out really well.
Were you planning on spending that money on the competition suit?
I was going to cough up the money, yes. I was going to cry about it but I was going to do it.
What about posing on stage?
I took posing classes. Posing looks really easy when you’re not well versed in the sport, but you’re contorting your body and you’re squeezing all of your muscles the whole time you’re on stage. I had to spend lots of time in the mirror. I’ve grown to appreciate posing. Posing is an art form.
How many posing classes did you go to?
I went to four or five posing classes and I also posed on my own. One of the first things I did was buy 5-inch clear plastic heels and started practicing in front of the mirror. At first my lats were kind of lopsided, so I was nervous about that in the beginning. I wondered, ‘Am I even going to be able to get my lats out?’ And then when I finally got the hang of it, that was a pivotal moment because I knew I was ready for the stage.
What was the workout routine like? Is it just lifting?
No, it’s more than lifting. One of the things I was not aware of was LISS (Low intensity steady state) training, which is basically fasted walking every morning. I would wake up in the morning to walk before eating breakfast.
For my lifting workouts, I aimed to isolate each of my muscles groups typically training two different muscle groups in a given session. I found a lot of good workout routines on BodyBuilding.com.
During my workouts, I tried to focus on having a mind muscle-connection and good form.
Another thing I paid attention to during my workouts was pain or aching. I did not want to get hurt. Some precautions I took include: a) I started wearing mild knee braces when I was doing my leg workouts. b) I wore Vibrams during leg workouts for better plantar position and grip. c) I bought an additional pair of running shoes to ensure they didn’t wear out.
I didn’t get hurt during the prep process because when I did feel aching I made adjustments to make the pain go away.
A lot of people feel like there’s no pain, no gain. So, that’s not necessarily true.
I’m sure it happens. But I was intentional. But I guess that adds to the cost. If you have to get the knee braces. I think they were $12. And the Vibram shoes were $64. But for me, instead of a medical bill…[she spent the money on products to prevent that.]
You kept mentioning that you wanted support, why was it so important for you to have that?
That was huge. I started this journey because I didn’t think I could do it. I’ve taken on plenty of journeys in my life that I haven’t shared with others openly, but I have benefited when others have shared their journeys with me- so I wanted people to see and experience my fitness journey with me.
My family, who does not understand bodybuilding at all, decided to drive from Jersey to Ohio to support me. They cheered for me like they were at a Football game. Yelling ‘Tighten up!’ ‘Suck it up!’ ‘Smile!’ They were so into it!
I think it was important for people to see the journey.
And I think sometimes as an engineer I don’t know if I think it’s always practical. So that’s why I think it’s so cool with you and NoSugarNoCream, sharing stories.
I got a text message from one of my neighborhood friends and she’s just like, ‘Racquel, I was climbing this mountain and I just thought about you. I was like, I gotta keep going.’ Of course it touched my heart.
A ripple effect.
I like to tell people to #dosomethingawesome. This includes sharing your story. People inspire us by sharing their thoughts, dreams, beliefs and visions. We should each do the same because different variations of stories impact people in unique ways. Your story may uncover something for someone else.