The Art of Bodybuilding

Vineyard women power up.

Allison Cameron Parry does barbell leg squats at the YMCA.

Two weeks after giving birth to a 7-pound, 3-ounce baby boy, 29-year-old Allison Cameron Parry resumed weightlifting in her Chilmark home. Six months later she was at the YMCA gym in Oak Bluffs lifting heavier weights. Ten months to the day after her postpartum she competed in her first amateur bodybuilding competition, and in another eight months she won first place in an all-natural, drug-free contest sanctioned by the Organization of Competitive Bodybuilders. Now 31, she will make her pro debut in the fall.

Allison is effusive about the benefits of weightlifting and bodybuilding, especially as a way to aid healthy childbirth and to maintain fitness after pregnancy. “The great thing about this sport,” she told me, “is you have the ability to transform your body any way you choose. It’s so empowering and rewarding. It’s an art form, and your body’s the medium. And when you have a baby inside you, everything you do is being ingrained in the child’s life and health. I continued training during my pregnancy as a way to ensure a healthy baby and easier delivery.”

Like a lot of women who take up weight training and bodybuilding, Allison feels she had to overcome many societal barriers. “In our society,” she says, “once you have a baby you often hear you lose your body, you can’t do this or that, or you can’t be looking good. There’s a stigma against women becoming their best after having a child.”

A surprising irony of Allison’s goal to become her best after childbirth was that she put on weight. “I’ve always struggled with body image,” she said. “I always wanted to be smaller or thinner or skinnier, but now I’m putting on muscle mass to compete. It’s okay that I don’t have six-pack abs or no cellulite all the time.” In recent months she put on 19 pounds. “It’s not about the number on the scale, it’s about how you feel about your body.”

Allison started lifting weights when she was 15 as part of her training as a competitive swimmer during her high school and college years. As a summer lifeguard at Lucy Vincent Beach and later as a computer tech in marketing at the Vineyard Y, she made lifting weights part of her weekly schedule. “I ramped up my training for my wedding three years ago. If you’re pregnant you shouldn’t be doing something you haven’t been doing — that’s what all the doctors say — so when I became pregnant I continued my workouts.” One of her concerns was to build up endurance and strength to reduce the risk of a cesarean. “I had an easy labor and an all-natural birth with no anesthetic.”

The idea to compete as a bodybuilder didn’t arise until she was a nursing mother. “When I put my boy down for a nap, I would watch a YouTube video of women competitors to get amped up for my own workout. I hadn’t thought of competing myself but was becoming influenced.” At first, she resisted that influence. “There’s a big stigma about bodybuilding because you see these girls online in bikinis and they’re tan and shredded, and people look down on them. I definitely had my own stigma about bodybuilding. I didn’t tell a single person about what I was thinking of doing because I didn’t want to hear people’s opinions, and I wasn’t sure about it myself.” After six months of working out and a 90-day body-transformation challenge she found in Oxygen magazine, she told herself, “I can do this.” With the encouragement of her husband, she decided: “I’m going pro, no question about it.”

In March 2016, Allison entered a pro-qualifier Green Mountain Thaw amateur competition in Brattleboro, Vt. “I did not place in that show,” she said. “I had a goal and a timeline and a regimen, but I was doing everything myself. I didn’t have a coach and I really wasn’t on track with my nutrition. I had never even gone to a show and didn’t know how I would compare with the other girls. I had no frigging clue what I was doing.” The promoter of the contest told her she’d done a really good job training herself, and if she got a coach she would definitely become a pro.

She started training six days a week with an online coach and competed twice last fall, placing second in both classes she entered in the first show in Hyannis. “I messed up some things,” she said, “but I learned.” The next month in Providence she won both the overall and pro-qualifying classes in the Battle of the Godz, sponsored by the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation. She’ll make her pro debut over Columbus Day Weekend and then enter the Pro American competition in Worcester in November. ”Depending how well I do in these shows,” she said, “there’s a WNBF world championship in Boston.”

Allison feels gratified to have inspired other women to take up weightlifting and bodybuilding. To those who resist because they don’t want to become “manly,” she says: “Well, you’re not going to become manly unless you’re taking steroids or hormones. There’s only a limited amount of body mass you’re going to build naturally, and you’re not going to look like a man because you’re not a man.” Polygraph and urinalysis testing of winners for diuretics and drugs occurs at all WNBF competitions.

Allison combined weightlifting with prenatal yoga and now teaches Qigong and plays on an Island women’s soccer team. “The point is to combine weightlifting with other things like cardio and good nutrition,” she says, “to set goals for yourself to feel comfortable and look good in a healthy body. There’s no perfection. There’s just progress.”

Allison and several trainers are encouraging Islander Jennifer Marcus to enter bodybuilding competitions. Jen, as she’s known in the gym, is a criminal defense lawyer with three children ages 10, 12, and 13. An athlete all her life, she engaged in weight training through high school and college for track and field hockey, and afterward for skiing and triathlons.

A turning point for her came after a Vineyard triathlon six years ago. “I want to show you this picture,” she told me, “because it’s very important to me.” An action photo popped up on her iPhone showing a tired Jennifer at the finish of an Island triathlon. “For me it was a pivotal moment in fitness when I saw significant striations in my thighs I didn’t realize I had. Literally my hair was falling out after multiple triathlons because of excessive wear and tear of cardio-vascular training — running, biking, swimming. I was overtaxing my adrenal glands. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s intense.’ It was noticeably too much. I knew something had to give. I decided to let endurance training go and to focus more on yoga and weight training as a healthier balance for me. My body really responded.”

At CrossFit, then in Edgartown, she learned Olympic weightlifting and after a year became certified to teach. “I had always done dumbbells, presses, lunges, and squats, but CrossFit training was the first time in my life I actually lifted a straight barbell overhead,” she said. “I noticed a major change in my muscle development.”

She went on to work out with data from various online programs and also attended group classes led by YMCA trainers Asil Cash and Amy Crawford. “I loved the classes and the group atmosphere,” she said, “but ultimately realized that real progress comes when I focus on my own. When I met Allison I was impressed with what she was doing. Three months ago I hooked up with an online trainer I love. I think I’m stronger now than I’ve ever been in my whole life.”

Jen is still debating whether to compete as a bodybuilder but has no hesitancy about the benefits of weightlifting. “It brings me such joy,” she said. “I’ll do anything to encourage other people.” She works out for an hour and a half six days a week. “I’m 47 years old and have a lot on my plate with work, my husband, and kids, but you just have to fit it in. It’s so empowering. It’s a gift to yourself, not to sound corny, but it really is.”

Joseli Schoenherr, whose nickname is Juh, feels that weightlifting changed her life. Five years ago she came to the Island from Mato Grosso in central Brazil to join her husband, who worked here as a mechanic. Her 6-year-old daughter remained in Brazil. “I had a really hard time adapting to the United States, and felt that I was falling into a depression,” she said. Things came to a head three years ago when she bought a dress and a friend told her, “You don’t look good in that dress at all.” Juh decided: “I’m going to change my life.”

The next day she joined the Mansion House gym in Vineyard Haven and tried to exercise and lose weight, but it wasn’t working. She hired a personal trainer and nutritionist, a competitive bodybuilder himself, who told her she had a natural body for weight training. He subsequently moved to Miami but continues to coach Juh long distance. They call each other, she sends photos of herself, and he advises her about training and eating. Juh is 37 years old, five feet tall, and weighs 130 pounds. With someone spotting her she can do leg squats with a 200-pound barbell. She is preparing to enter an amateur bodybuilding competition in the fall.

In early July, I sat with Juh on the porch of The Larder on State Road as she talked about how she balances her business with training. MV Times Brazilian columnist Juliana Germani joined us as a translator. Juh rents kitchen space in The Larder, and from 8:30 am to noon she prepares nutritious meals for 40 diet-conscious customers. After working out at the Mansion House for two and a half hours, she delivers the meals to her customers in plastic containers for the next day’s lunch and dinner. She then returns home to meet her husband.

For her the hardest physical part of working out are exercises for her legs, but certain psychological aspects are more stressful. She knows some people in the Brazilian community criticize her intense schedule. “Not that people are harsh or cruel,” Juh said, “but they make comments about how I’m obsessed with working out and always aware of what I’m eating. They don’t seem to understand I choose to do what I do because it makes me feel good. It helped me bounce back from a deep depression and keeps me from falling into one.”

Like Allison, she thinks about bodybuilding as an art form. “You make a decision of how you’re going to look and have total control of how you’re going to sculpt your body, and therefore it’s an art.”

I asked if she had anything to tell women on the Island. “I have a saying: You should eat for the body you want to have, not for the body you currently have.” She went on, “You should exercise not because you want other people to look at you and be like ‘Oh, wow, look at her. She just gave birth and she’s already on her feet and looking great.’ Women should exercise so they feel healthy and strong, so they feel good about where they are. They should exercise for how they feel about themselves, or even for their husbands, but it should never be for how other people see them.”