Body Image Confessions of a Figure Competitor

I think I was 12 or 13 the first time I heard the term “thunder thighs.” Up until that point I had no body image issues. I hadn’t thought of my shape at all and I definitely didn’t think of myself as fat or skinny.

After that, I realized that I was not thin like some of the other girls.

Calvin-Klein-Mark-Wahlberg-Kate-MossThanks to Calvin Klein, the beautiful pictures of Kate Moss next to my high school crush, Mark Wahlberg, didn’t help. I knew that I did not look like that and I didn’t like it. I was definitely self-conscious about how big my legs were in my dance team uniform.

Fast forward past junior high and high school to the military academy. Thanks to being exposed to a daily caloric intake intended for the average athletic college male (and resorting to emotional eating to deal with my homesickness), I got even more “not-thin.” I was considered overweight by Army standards and had to be taped (which is when you weight too much by Army standards and they take your measurements to determine whether you need to be on a diet or not).

Then I found rock and ice climbing which was an incredible release after a stressful day. Shortly after that, I had to get ready for the obstacle course and regular physical training (PT) at Air Assault School so I started lifting weights. Lifting weights helped my rock climbing so I continued after I passed the school. But, I put on more muscle, lost a little fat, and still had to be taped.

I finally found the answer to my West Point induced “obesity” through the use of a cool new fat-burner and spending hours in the gym every night. I calculated the amount of calories that I had eaten so I could know how long I had to exercise in order to work it off. It didn’t matter that the fat burner gave me the jitters and prevented me from getting to sleep, right? At least I wasn’t getting taped after weigh-ins any more. I was a little closer to being “thin.”

Once I graduated and joined the Army, I wasn’t exposed to as much food. I was happier so I was able to keep my emotional eating at bay. The 82d Airborne Division was a great fit for me. I still worked out hard to meet and exceed the standards of the unit and I even did triathlons in my free time.

None of these things made me “skinny” or got rid of my “thunder thighs.” I didn’t have any love for my body, despite the fact that it had helped me climb mountains of rock and ice, rappel out of helicopters, train for triathlons, and jump out of airplanes.

07 Sports Collage 06 Veteran Collage

Then I got out of the Army and had two kids, while going back to school to get my MBA. I again gave myself no credit for the two humans that I had given birth to or the degree that I had earned between night feedings, potty-training, and the many appointments with specialists that my son had to endure.

That’s when I decided that I would finally get “skinny” by doing a bikini competition. Who wouldn’t love not having a body like that?

So I joined Cathy Savage fitness. And I trained more efficiently than ever, no more cardio training for hours. Just about 30 to 45 mins of weights and about 30 mins of high-intensity interval training.

Here’s my first check-in picture to my coach. I really didn’t want to take this picture and I especially didn’t want to send it to a stranger because I did not like my “mom” body.

Gunst, Jessica Pics 1 Front 15 Aug

Even though cleaning up my eating and training smarter (not harder) had me feeling amazing, when I got to the competition I compared myself to the other women there (even though I knew I was not supposed to). I was more muscular than the other bikini competitors and I didn’t like that either. I still didn’t fit the media’s definition of “skinny.” The picture below shows my journey to my first competition, the top left is my 12-weeks out picture, top-middle is 8 weeks out, bottom left is 4 weeks out, bottom middle is two days before the show and the big picture is me on stage at my first show in April of 2012.

Road to Competition #1

Because I felt great when I had a fitness goal, ate clean, and trained, I continued to compete, hoping that I would somehow gain a love for my new body. I did both bikini and figure categories during the next competition, in August of 2012, even though I knew I was too muscular for bikini. I didn’t want to let it go. I also did a photo shoot to celebrate the accomplishment as well as capture a softer look. The pictures from my second competition and first photo shoot are below.

Competition #2 and Photo Shoot

Over a year later, after much thought and consideration I did my third competition in Ft. Worth, TX in October of 2013. My new healthy body was starting to grow on me, even though some would say it was too muscular. My fourth competition was a month after that, Figure America in Las Vegas, NV and my fifth was 6 months after that in May of 2014 in Galveston, TX. I got first place in my age bracket in that competition and felt amazing.

Competitions 3 4 and 5

Doing 3 competitions in 7 months was tough, but health-wise I felt great. My energy was up, my stomach problems were non-existent, and I was sleeping great. I was starting to notice pattern in my health-when I stuck to my plan I felt great and when I didn’t stick to my plan I felt lousy.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel comfortable in my skin for another reason. I found it very hard to stay looking like I did on-stage. That’s normal, by the way, but it was still hard on me mentally. Again, the world’s definition of what was feminine and masculine got in my head. Not only did I have too much body fat, I had too much muscle- according to what’s considered beautiful in our society.

It’s hard to admit, because I had so many great friends and family members cheering me on. They told me they were inspired by all of my hard work, but I was still just not happy with myself. Most of the comments that I got when I posted this picture from a photo shoot that I had before my competition in Vegas were amazingly supportive. But I still got a few ones that told me I looked “gross.”


I did another competition this June, I wanted to check Figure Universe in Fort Lauderdale, FL off of my bucket list. But I was forcing myself. I could feel it this time. Why was I working so hard for an end-state that I couldn’t keep? But on the other side, how could having a goal, being so healthy, and feeling so much energy while eating the right foods be bad?

Competitions 6

I was torn and it showed in my stage presence, so I didn’t place. Why couldn’t I just be happy with my body whatever stage I’m in? I had a photo shoot on the beach this time as well so I could have some fun and capture some softer images than the ones of me flexing onstage.

I’ve still had people close to me tell me I look too masculine (and angry???) in those photos. Here’s one such picture from that shoot. I mean, I know I’m not a real model and some of my poses are more awkward than natural, but angry and masculine?!?


I guess I can see where they’re coming from, right?!? Just paint me green and I could have been a stand in for Lou Ferrigno if he ever needed to take a sick day while filming the Incredible Hulk. Hmm, maybe not…

Time and time again it happens though. A happy and healthy physique competitor (the category that has a little more muscle than figure) proudly posts her competition pictures and people who have no idea what she’s been through to get to where she is will tear her apart. Guess what? Her body is not about you or me. It’s about her choices and what makes her feel healthy.

We saw it again more recently with Ronda Rousey. She is a beautiful and strong woman and people again make her life and her body about them and criticize her for what she does and the way she looks.

Anyway, I decided to take some time off and get my head right and several points keep coming to mind:

*I love how healthy and strong I feel when I’ve got a goal that I’m working towards.

*I’ve always put on muscle pretty easily (I have never and will never take anything for a competition that would even remotely compromise my health).

*I’ve never been thin. I’m 5’5″ and for my height, I’m supposed to weigh about 125. I don’t think I’ve seen that since I started high school.

*In fact, my only chance of being thin would be if there were to be a zombie apocalypse and I were to have to spend my days running for my life, scarcely eating, and barely sleeping. Probably, in about 2 years, my body would have gone through my fat stores, and eaten through my muscle, and I might be as thin as Kate Moss in that picture I showed above.

*I love all the things that my strong body can do. Like being asked to be a pallbearer at my Grandma’s funeral even though all I had brought was my boots with the 4 inch heels. It was an honor to lay her to rest next to the Grandpa I never met.

*I know too many amazing women through Cathy Savage Fitness and my competitions for this to be a bad thing. They are an amazing mix of beauty and strength, even though some of them were as reluctant as I was to discover their own strength. I have truly found my tribe among these women.

I could go on, but I don’t think I need to.

I’m 37. I think I’ve given myself enough grief about my body- 25 years’ worth to be more precise. I’ve had a not-thin body, a too-overweight-for-the-Army body, a barely-make-weight-because-I-kill-myself-over-exercising body, a “mom” body, and now apparently I have a man’s body. What I’ve never had, until now, is a body that I love. I think it’s time that I be happy with the healthy and strong body that I was given. My body is the only place that I have to live for the rest of my life and I’m tired of trying to force it into someone else’s definition of beauty.

I’ve got my own story and my own path to where I am right now, and I’m trying to be okay with that. I hope that you can too.

I also hope that even if you do think I look more like my high school crush in the top picture than the beautiful and thin model next to him, you’ll still be happy for me and where I’ve come from to get there.

I’m going to crawl out of my rut now and get on with my life. It’s about time. I’ll probably compete again in the Spring, probably in a local show. Right now I’m just going to focus on loving the body that I’m in right now and trying to keep it strong and healthy.

I hope you can learn to love your body too. Don’t try to force it to fit someone else’s definition of beauty. Just know that you’re already beautiful.

Questions? Comments? Please let me know.