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Clara Engel

Hamburg, Germany

Clara Engel and a Six Year Career in Bodybuilding: It’s Complicated.

It’s easy to view the sport of bodybuilding as nothing more than a spectacle; an almost freakish display of oiled biceps, self tanner and superhuman strength. But like any preconceived notion—formed from afar, and reduced to its simplest form—it misses the full picture. Such naivety (on our part) was in full effect when we sat down with Clara Engel, a Hamburg-based barista who spent over six years in the world of bodybuilding.

Photos courtesy of Clara Engel.

Over the course of an hour conversation, conducted over video chat, Clara reflected on her very complicated relationship with the sport she recently left. Her experience, coupled with her candor and introspection, paints a nuanced picture of the bodybuilding world. Though the below conversation only represents one particular view, it’s enough to make anyone realize the sport is a lot more than “oiled biceps, self tanner and superhuman strength.” 

The below interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Photos courtesy of Clara Engel.

Hey Barista

Before the call, a lot of our exchanges were about your interest in bodybuilding. Take me back to how that all started.

Clara

Back when I was [living] in Canada, around 2013, I experienced a lot of new stuff that I hadn’t experienced before. I was so overwhelmed with the opportunities, especially in sport. That’s where I got into [bodybuilding]. Then I came back [to Germany] and I couldn’t stop; nothing was enough.

Hey Barista

What was the goal at that time?

Clara

With bodybuilding, it takes a long time to reach your goal and your physique. It doesn’t happen just like that. But I knew I wanted to go on stage one day. I think the first competition I did was three years ago.

Photos courtesy of Clara Engel.

Hey Barista

How strict is the regimen, both in terms of physical training and managing your diet?

Clara

There’s a difference between off-season and prep. In the off-season, you’re not as restricted. You’re allowed to have cheat meals and do less cardio. When you start your prep, it’s usually three to six months, working out thirteen times a week, depending on your physique. The closer it got to the competition,  the harder it got. You’re just … I can’t even explain it. I was very happy when the day would end.

Hey Barista

It doesn’t sound like a sustainable lifestyle.

Clara

It wasn’t fun at all. You just don’t live anymore. You’re in your tunnel and you don’t see anything besides your bodybuilding. Your social life is non-existent. You don’t see the good stuff in life because you’re just so straight ahead into bodybuilding. 

I wasn’t very happy and the people around me noticed. It was very hard for my family and for my friends to see me suffer. It took a long time to figure out what my body really needs and what I want. I’m still processing, but I’m doing better everyday.

Hey Barista

When did you officially stop?

Clara

I didn’t decide to stop on one particular day. My last competitions were in May of 2019. After that, I was at the bottom of my life.

Photos courtesy of Clara Engel.

Hey Barista

It obviously took an extreme mental and physical toll, but given how long you spent in the sport, there must have been some redeeming qualities.

Clara

One of the aspects that gave me positive thoughts was the idea that I had control over myself and my life. And to be honest, other people gave me some positive reinforcement as well. It felt good to be seen, to have a body and not to be just another someone. People looked at me.  I wasn’t the normal girl being normal, like every other girl out there. In hindsight, I can say it was very toxic, but back then, it gave me very positive feelings.

Hey Barista

What about the larger bodybuilding community? Was that a big part of your life?

Clara

I think here in Germany, it’s a little bit different than it is in the US. What I’ve seen in the US is that [bodybuilders] are more supportive of each other. They compliment each other, even though they’re competitors. Here it’s a little different, especially for women. For example, people might start to hate you if you have better shoulders than they do. In Germany, the sport isn’t made for being together and supporting each other.

Hey Barista

You mentioned the Olympia–the premiere bodybuilding competition–was on this week. Will you watch?

Clara

Actually, I peeked a few hours ago just to see some of the athletes. But if you asked me that question eight months ago, I would have said, ‘No. I can’t look at [bodybuilding] without feeling guilty that I’m not doing it anymore.’

Photos courtesy of Clara Engel.

Hey Barista

Which statement would you agree with: “Bodybuilding is a great sport, but it’s not for me.” or “Bodybuilding is a categorically toxic sport and it shouldn’t be for anyone.”

Clara

I don’t want to generalize like that, but I do feel a lot of people in bodybuilding are trying to run away from something in their life. Maybe it’s just small. Maybe it’s a little bit bigger. But with all the restrictions, and all the pain, it’s like you’re actually running away from yourself or using it as a coping mechanism much like I did.

Hey Barista

So much of bodybuilding, from my limited exposure, is about the performative nature of the competitions. You’re very much on display. How’d you feel about that aspect of it?

Clara

It wasn’t a big problem for me because I’m a very extroverted person. I didn’t struggle with being in the middle of it all. It was only three minutes, and you had the chance to step on the stage and present what you’ve worked on for the last year. I had to get my form, my physique and my smile on point.

Hey Barista

Can you make a living in bodybuilding?

Clara

No, not at all. That’s one of the main reasons why I knew I couldn’t do it my whole life; you just give so much financially as well. My prep was around 3,500 euros. Imagine how expensive the sport is for just six months.

Photos courtesy of Clara Engel.

Hey Barista

I’d imagine the public perception of bodybuilding is much different for women than it is for men.

Clara

For women in bodybuilding, we’re trying to achieve something that’s not the typical “woman’s standard” or norm. When you have a non-conforming behavior as a woman, you get punished. We live in patriarchy, unfortunately. But it’s harder for women than men, because we always have to explain to people why we’re doing this. Reading comments on the internet was also very hard because there were comments like, “you look like a man and your muscles are not even attractive”. I’m not on the planet to look attractive to you.

Hey Barista

You seem very comfortable reflecting on your time in the bodybuilding world. How does it make you feel, knowing this is something we’re going to publish on our site?

Clara

A year ago or so, there’s not a chance I’d talk about this. But right now, I know that the choice I made is right and I feel comfortable with it; it doesn’t bother me to talk about the past. Now I can look at my body and I enjoy myself. It wasn’t like that a few months ago.

Hey Barista

If someone came to you, and said they were considering getting into bodybuilding, how would you respond?

Clara

I think I would tell them about my experience if they wanted to hear it. Then I would just tell them to think about it…a lot. Once you’re in there, you just can’t get enough.  I don’t even think you realize what you’re doing because you’re in your tunnel. The dangerous things that can happen, happen very fast, even though you don’t notice it.