Photograph by Ty Wright for BuzzFeed News
“Bodybuilder” is not the first word that comes to mind when you see Ashley Kaltwasser. She has a sprinter’s body and a pageant girl’s good looks. Her teeth are bleach-white, nails French-manicured, hair dyed black and Keratin-treated so it falls in a glossy curtain down her back. When we meet in her fifth-floor room at The Orleans Hotel in Las Vegas, she’s in her stage makeup — fake lashes, heavy powder. It’s a late September afternoon, the day before the 2014 Bikini Olympia competition, and Kaltwasser is already dark from her first layer of spray tan. She’ll get another layer before bed and one more the next morning. The contest rules call for “a natural and healthy tan,” but Kaltwasser always goes for Boehner orange because it looks better onstage. The table, the bed, and the bathroom are strewn with what can best be described as product: bottles of serums, sprays, powders, glosses, and scrubs.
The Orleans is about a mile from the Strip, near a Déjà Vu adult emporium and a Budget car rental. This weekend it’s the site of Joe Weider’s Olympia, the biggest bodybuilding event of the year. The place teems with thousands of bodybuilding fans: men with arms like vine-choked tree trunks, women whose skirts reveal remarkable quads. They come from Southern California and Florida, the coastal epicenters of the sport, but also from Sydney, Seoul, Oslo, and all across the midsection of America. To them, Kaltwasser is something of a celebrity. Whenever she walks through the lobby, at least three people ask to take her picture. Sometimes it’s gawking men who smell like Axe body spray, but more often it’s those guys’ girlfriends. “My coach says I have the same body type as you,” says one starry-eyed woman. The elevators are decorated with life-size photos of the top competitors. Kaltwasser is thrilled when she discovers this. For the rest of the weekend, she takes “her” elevator almost every time.
Photograph by Isaac Hinds / Via hardbodynews.com
Kaltwasser is quickly becoming the LeBron James of the bikini division, a new, more accessible and relatable category of bodybuilding. Long the provenance of MTV Spring Breakers and a close relative of the wet T-shirt contest, these competitions are gaining legitimacy as a sport and attracting legions of participants and fans. The number of professional competitions has more than doubled since 2010, when the professional arm of the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness added bikini to its roster of female divisions. (Those divisions, in order from most to least jacked: bodybuilding, physique, fitness, figure, and now bikini).
The addition is part of the IFBB’s effort to change bodybuilding’s image from freakishly strapped ectomorphs to something sleeker, more modern, and, well, sexier. On a broader scale, bikini competition culture is changing the conversation about what health and fitness should look like. It’s a conversation that’s taking place largely on Instagram, where women like Kaltwasser — and women who want to be like Kaltwasser — get advice, give support, and pose in their underwear.
Advocates of this “bikini body” say it’s opening up the world of weightlifting to women who wouldn’t otherwise think of approaching a squat rack. “They’ll come and they don’t even know how to pick up a weight,” says Shannon Dey, who goes by Momma Bombshell. Her company, Bombshell Fitness, is one of the largest professional fitness coaching businesses in the country, and 80% of her competing clients are in the bikini division. “This type of body is gorgeous and fit, yet it’s attainable,” she says.
That word “attainable” comes up a lot when people in the industry talk about the bikini fitness trend. It’s being offered up as an antidote to thinspo culture — instead of thigh gaps, it’s “strong not skinny”; instead of pro-ana, it’s “eat to grow.” Kaltwasser, a former all-state athlete who professes her love for steak and pizza, is the poster woman for this trend.
But another story is playing out on social media. A search for #BikiniCompetitor on Instagram brings up endless reels of selfies at the gym, food weighed to the gram, quotes like “fail to plan, plan to fail,” and memes about not being able to walk after “leg day.” They chant their mantras in hashtags: #BeastMode, #NoExcuses, #RiseAndGrind. In profile after profile, women describe themselves as “recovered” from disorders like bulimia and compulsive exercising. All of it raises the question: Is the lifestyle that Kaltwasser literally embodies really a new and healthier attitude toward the female body, or is it a new expression of sexist old ideas and dangerous standards of beauty?
Photograph by Ty Wright for BuzzFeed News
Bikini competitors are quick to say that they aren’t just girls who go to the gym; they’re athletes who train. Or, as Kaltwasser says on more than one occasion, “This isn’t just some bar contest. It’s a sport.” The 26-year-old from Akron, Ohio, has always competed in sports that were about individual performance — gymnastics, swimming, running. In high school they called her AK-47; she broke six track and cross-country records and qualified for state championships in both sports. Another thing she likes to say to reporters: “I worked for this body my whole life.”
Photograph by Ty Wright for BuzzFeed News
She started training for the brand-new bikini division in 2010 after deciding that college wasn’t for her. She found Summer Montabone, a personal trainer and the owner of a local gym who runs Team VIP (Very Impressive Physique), a coaching group for bikini competitors. “You knew she was an athlete,” says Montabone, who is still Kaltwasser’s competition coach. These days Kaltwasser works out six days a week, doing an hour of weightlifting and a half-hour on a cardio machine when she’s preparing for a show. Sometimes she’ll do another session of cardio in the evenings.
Kaltwasser doesn’t have a boyfriend. In high school, boys were intimidated by her. “You could just feel the atmosphere change when she was around,” her former running coach tells me. “She’s so hardworking and so dominant in whatever she does.” This is the part of Kaltwasser that made her a track star, and it’s what makes her a bikini competitor now.
Even on the amateur level, a lot of competitors are like Kaltwasser. They have the mind-sets of CEOs; they push themselves to extremes in all aspects of their lives. Bikini competitions are seductive to these kinds of women: They seem to promise that perfection is possible if you put in the work. As Liz Ortiz, an Army soldier, bikini competitor, and mother of three told me, “I set my standards so high, and [competing] is just part of that.”
Kaltwasser’s competitive drive has propelled her to the top in very little time. She was a rookie when she won last year’s Olympia, an event that has grown from a three-man competition at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1965 to become the fitness industry’s Super Bowl, a four-day event in Las Vegas that draws more than 55,000 fans. Since last year’s Olympia, Kaltwasser has entered six shows and won five. She estimates that she’s earned over $100,000 in prize money, along with endorsement deals, modeling gigs, and paid appearances. She has the forgivable egotism of a small-town girl who’s still a little starstruck by her own life. “Winning the Olympia changed everything for me,” she says. “Who goes to seven countries in a year?” She liked Sweden the most because there were no “trashy areas, no homeless people.” She’s still learning how to talk to the press. “When I don’t know what else to do, I smile,” she says.
This year she’s trying for something that no bikini competitor has done yet: win the Olympia twice. Her biggest threat is Yeshaira Robles, another relative newcomer. On paper, the two women couldn’t be more different. Kaltwasser curls her eyelashes and wears matching workout clothes. She loves cats and calls her father “Daddy.” She doesn’t curse and she only likes the kind of rap that plays on the radio. Robles is a 35-year-old Puerto Rican from the Bronx. She’s got a husband and a daughter and a smoldering gaze that makes her opponents look like they’re posing for elementary school portraits. If Kaltwasser is Hannah Montana, Robles is Miley with a sledgehammer in hand.
Kaltwasser (@ashleykfit) is starting the weekend with 80,000 followers on Instagram, the majority of whom came after last year’s Olympia. She’s hoping to break 100,000 this time, which will likely only happen if she wins. Many bikini competitors use Instagram like a high school cafeteria, chatting, bragging, stirring up drama, gushing about their “swolemates,” all with plenty of emojis and exclamation points. But Kaltwasser and her fellow Olympia competitors are pros. They’re building brands, not making friends. Their images are more polished, the self-promotion more blatant. They have endorsement deals that require them to post about their sponsors. Kaltwasser, for example, has agreements with Gaspari supplements, Muscle Egg liquid egg whites, Liquid Sun Rayz spray tanning, FitnessRx for Women magazine, and Better Bodies fitness apparel.
Kaltwasser checks her Instagram while at the gym.
Photograph by Ty Wright for BuzzFeed News
For Kaltwasser, social media outlets like Instagram have brought exposure, but they’ve brought critics too. Those followers can determine whether she gets a sponsorship or modeling gig; they can determine the future of her career. “I try not to go out in public without my makeup on because you never know when someone’s going to ask for a picture, and then it’ll be on Instagram,” she says. Her Instagram has plenty of beauty shots, most of which feature her prominent glutes. Recently she’s been hard-selling Fuel Meals, a food service that ships premade meals tailored to bodybuilders’ diets. Still she tries not to come across as an adbot in a bikini. Her account also features dogs in sweaters and a photo of herself in a pepperoni-pizza-print onesie.
It makes sense that bikini competitors and wannabes would flock to Instagram, a female-dominated social media platform where image matters most. Their presence there is hard to ignore; it’s turned the site into a 24-7 forum for tips and tricks. Competitors’ accounts are littered with questions, some from girls as young as 14: “How many calories and carbs do you eat and stay this lean?” “How can you get veins on your abs?” “What does your typical diet consist of?” “What moves are you doing to get all that hammie definition?” “How do you dry ure stomache out like that????” “What sorts of things do you eat? And how many meals a day?” “What are your butt workouts??”
In her hotel room that afternoon, Kaltwasser opens the mini-fridge and plucks a doggie bag of mush from a mound of other bags. She brought enough meals for the whole trip, divided and frozen. There’s little variation: chicken, sweet potato, asparagus, broccoli. Ground oats and egg whites cooked into patties. She often eats things cold right out of the bag. “I like the taste of simple food,” she says. “I never really want to eat crap.”
“Abs are made in the kitchen” is another much-repeated Instagram line. Bikini competitors’ feeds showcase elaborate meal preps, and debates rage on about the etiquette of taking your food scale to a restaurant. Some competitors stick to strict quantities of protein, fats, and carbohydrates, which they tweak obsessively in the weeks leading up to a show. Kaltwasser doesn’t track her calories or grams. She follows a meal plan that she writes herself with Montabone’s help. She eats six or seven small meals a day and drinks two gallons of water. She cuts out sodium the week before her shows and drinks cups of dandelion root tea, a natural diuretic. She “eats clean” but doesn’t worry about things like pesticides or artificial sweeteners. She likes the blue packets more than the pink. The yellow ones are just OK. Real sugar is not a concept she knows. After every show, she allows herself to have a cheat meal. Right now she’s craving salad, one with the works: apples, cranberries, walnuts, and blue cheese dressing. “A real salad,” she says.
Photograph Ty Wright for BuzzFeed News
Kaltwasser doesn’t measure her body-fat percentage, but she estimates that it’s between 10 and 12% — well below the 21 to 32% that experts recommend for women her age, though not unheard of for a competitive athlete. She gains a few pounds in the off-season but emphasizes that the bikini body is supposed to be maintainable. “It’s a livable lifestyle,” she likes to say.
Not everyone agrees. “People see photos of competitors and think that’s how they look year-round,” says Layne Norton, a bodybuilding coach in Florida. Norton has a Ph.D. in nutritional sciences and considers himself a renegade for his less restrictive approach to dieting. According to him, “stage-lean” is a fleeting state, one that women peak for just like any athlete peaks for a competition. The idea that anyone can maintain that kind of physique has created a black market of sorts in the coaching industry. It can seem like every bikini competitor on Instagram sells a “bikini body” diet and workout plan. Some of these women have certifications but most probably don’t. “It’s gotten really terrible,” says Norton. “A girl goes and wins a show and has abs and so now she’s a coach to make money.”
These coaches can wreak havoc on their clients’ lives. Ruthie Harrison is 5-foot-10, blonde-haired and blue-eyed with a disturbingly symmetrical face. She looks like a fitness model because she is. For nearly a year and a half, she was also a client of Momma Bombshell, aka Shannon Dey of Bombshell Fitness. Harrison, who is 25 now and works as a mechanical engineer, signed up with Team Bombshell in 2011. “I saw all these photos of women in bikinis on her website and thought, Wow, if I could be a part of that, that would be really cool.”
The meal plan took some getting used to — she had never measured cups of rice or counted asparagus spears before, and she didn’t understand why salt and seasonings were forbidden (spices cause cravings, she was later told). “[Dey] would always tell everyone, ‘Follow the plan, stick to the plan,’ and if you asked why she’d say, ‘Why are you asking why; just do it. Your mind’s in the wrong place if you’re asking why.'”
Harrison’s training plan had her doing an hour and a half of cardio six days a week on top of weight training five days a week. All told, each day she was spending three to five hours at the gym and eating an estimated 1,500 calories. Sometimes she’d fall asleep at the table in front of her last meal of the night — a tiny steak and salad greens.
Harrison says Dey had her clients wear rubber corsets called Squeems, meant to narrow women’s waists. “We wore them all day,” she says.
Dey says that if Harrison was spending that much time in the gym, it was “due to her own physical limitations, not our recommended plans.” (The Bombshell website refers to a workout program of one and a half to three hours a day of gym time, five to six days per week.) Dey doesn't recall Harrison’s meal plan, but says that a 1,500-calorie-a-day diet was not uncommon during prep. She recommends Squeems to clients, she says, because “they have proven very effective in creating the hourglass shape competitors desire.”
Harrison went pro within a year of joining Dey’s team. She lived for the trophies and for Dey’s positive feedback week after week. But she also developed a secret habit of binging and purging, which only got worse the better she performed. After one show, she spent a week in total isolation, eating and throwing up seven times a day. When Harrison qualified for the Olympia in 2012, she realized she couldn’t survive another prep. She confessed everything to Dey, who told her she was having a reaction to “a self-imagined stress.” Harrison competed in the 2012 Olympia in the midst of a full-blown eating disorder and didn’t place.
Layne Norton, the coach from Florida, says he’s seen “an enormous amount of women who had normal relationships with food before fitness start to have eating disorders.”