I got married in 1999 at the age of 19. My first son came soon after in 2000 and my second in 2006. Naturally, I gained some weight. My husband (now ex) made sarcastic remarks about how I couldn’t lose weight even if 10 dogs were to chase after me. Though it may have been a joke, his remarks made me determined to lose weight.
“I joined a gym in 2008 and began doing aerobics. As I progressed, my exercise routine became excessive. My relationship with food also took a turn – the more weight I lost the more I restricted my food. I was also drinking heavily. My need to control my body turned into a disorder – I became anorexic. My family would force me to eat but I would force it all out.
I was also depressed, and seeing a psychiatrist. I went to rehab three times but each time, I would come back and slip into the same self-destructive pattern.
“I started seeing another psychiatrist who, as opposed to the previous one who preferred medication, encouraged me to talk. I began to get better. He didn’t stop me from exercising; he simply made me realise that I had been using exercise as a weapon as opposed to as a source of strength.
EXERCISE IS MY MEDICINE
“Then my father passed away and all the improvement I had made went downhill. I was in such emotional turmoil. One day my brother came to see me and he brought me a burger.
He said, ‘Eat, be strong!’
About a week or two later, he also died in a tragic road accident. I was sad. I was angry. But instead of spiraling out of control, I kept on remembering him saying
‘Be strong!’ I went to a new gym and when they asked me what my goal was I told them ‘I am here to be strong’.
“In the meantime, I realised if I were to get better, I needed to end my marriage. I wasn’t happy and I couldn’t turn it around. I knew it wouldn’t be easy – I had two kids and no job. But I had a power I couldn’t explain and I was ready for it. I applied for a job, got it and sometime in 2011, I left the marriage.
“In 2012, I started weight training. I started off channeling my anger into the lifting, going for the weights that women shy away from. They started calling me ‘Sheetal Strong’. Then the magic started happening – here were people who accepted and believed in me. Gradually, even my attitude towards food changed; I started regarding it as fuel. I started smiling and became sociable. I felt alive and good for the first time in a long time.
“In 2013, I saw an ad for Muscle Mania – Africa, a competition to be held in Uganda. My trainer and I decided to try it out for fun. I won in all the categories I competed in. In 2014, Muscle Mania came to Nairobi and I won again. 2015 was a great year as well.
“In 2016 my mum was diagnosed with cancer and that really affected my training. I decided to compete for Miss Kenya anyway. I lost my title that year. In 2017, I came back determined to take it back. By this time my mum was doing better. I took back my title four weeks ago.
“It took some time, especially in the conservative circles of the Asian community, for some to come around to the idea that this is a sport like any other. I ignored the critics – I used was to being some kind of an outcast. But now many are proud of me. My mum has given me her blessings. Even the Asian Weekly has featured me and nominated me severally as the sports person of the year.
“I don’t always look the way I look on competition day. Hours before going on stage I manipulate my body with food, water and sodium to look dry and defined and show muscle. None of the athletes you see on stage are exactly ‘healthy’ because they are extremely low on body fat and dehydrated for competition purposes.
“I met my fiancé at the gym; he approached me while I was training and said he wanted to help me tie my straps so I wouldn’t injure myself. He’s into rally cars so a few days later, he asked if my boys would be interested in racing sometime. Later he asked if I had some plans that might include him. We’ve been together five years now and will get married soon.
He is not a body builder but he ‘gets’ my life; during competitions he carries my bags, oils me up, shouts the loudest from the audience. When I don’t feel like training he’s always there to push me, sometimes with a remark like ‘Okay, continue sleeping, let’s see how number two feels’. My 17 and 11 year old sons are my biggest fans. They keep asking me how they can get a six-pack like me and we are always competing doing push-ups at home.
“Exercise is my medicine. This sport has built my character. Even if you don’t get a trophy, the process of training – the pain, the discipline, the commitment – shapes you.
Coming from a place of such dysfunction and low self-esteem, body building has made me stronger, healthier and confident. If not for it I would probably be dead by now.”