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Exploring the beauty rituals of a bodybuilder

Photographed by Hazel Gaskin, British bodybuilder Dawn Shillingford shares with us her competition beauty routine

Rituals is a monthly column that looks at the obscure beauty routines and sacred acts of self self-care different professionals practice as they prepare for a typical event. Born and raised in the Worcestershire area, 40-year-old Dawn Shillingford has been participating in bodybuilding competitions for just over three years. From training preparation and her gruelling tanning process to how bodybuilding makes her feel and the reactions she receives with regard to her look, here she shares her experiences.

I’ve been bodybuilding for just over three years now. Originally I joined the gym for something to do in the evening rather than going out and then just got the bug as soon as my body started to change. I thought I’d quite like to do a competition and from then on it became an absolute passion. What I find exciting about bodybuilding is just how dynamic your body is and how it reacts to the slightest little tweaks to the diet or training. It’s really addictive to see the changes in your body.

Preparation for a competition begins either 12 or 16 weeks prior, starting with a low-carb diet given to you by the prep coach that you stick to religiously, right up to the competition. I train really hard during this time and will spend four hours a day in the gym. In the last couple of weeks of training, you cut down to lower weights than normal because your body fat is very, very low – around 3-4 per cent body fat. This means you're susceptible to injuries because your body hasn’t got the nutrition to fix itself. Two or three days before competition day you start water loading where you drink seven to eight litres of water a day to flush your body out and then 24 hours before you go onstage, you cut all water out. This dehydrates you and gives you that tightness to your look. Also, your body holds more fluids if it’s stressed so the day of the competition, I just try to relax and stay calm.

In terms of appearance, you start exfoliating a few days before the competition to prepare your body for the tan. The reason bodybuilders tan is to show off muscle definition. If you are too pale you can’t really see any definition but the minute you’ve got a good tan everything shows up. Both men and women also shave every bit of hair off their body for the same reason – so you can see all the definition to their muscles. I love the tan although nobody else seems to! The day before the competition you put on a thick base-coat, and then the day itself you put another coat on. The tan is not just like normal, spray on tan. It’s called Liquid Sunrayz and they don’t water it down so it’s really thick and really dark. Then just before you go on stage, they glaze you with an oil so you’re all shiny.

When it comes to my make-up and nails I like to match with the bikini I’m wearing. It’s normally quite sparkly. I’m not very good with make-up and I don’t wear much but I do put it on myself. My main thing is false eyelashes, I live in false eyelashes. I’ve got really short hair at the moment which takes quite a lot of taming so I do use quite a lot of hairspray and wax and I always have my nails done because I get acrylics. I also use a sparkly spray which I love from Claire’s Accessories, it’s like a silver spray so you’re all glittery. Once I’m all glazed I put it on as a little extra that nobody else has.

How I feel about myself during a competition depends on my condition on the day. If I’m really happy with my condition, then I do feel really proud. I wouldn’t say I feel beautiful but I feel proud. I know the graft that went into it.

That said, I get really insecure about my body. Really paranoid. I always think I’ve got too much fat on my body or I’m too small or I’m too big. I always feel like I could be better than what I am. My body is my biggest insecurity, which is bizarre because before I started training I was really super confident. But now I’m so conscious of it especially if I’m just out doing normal stuff. In the winter, when you’re a little bit fluffy it’s not so bad but the last two weeks before competitions, I have very low body fat and look quite masculine and harsh because there’s nothing in the tissues. So I always cover up as much as possible when I’m out because it draws attention to you. I’ve never really had any bad things said to me, although they probably say it behind my back. People do come up to me and say ‘oh could you help us with the diet plan?’ Or ‘how do you get like that?’ On the whole, it’s normally positive but I know some of the guys sometimes get abuse when they’re out. I’ve been quite lucky thankfully.

Since I’ve become a bodybuilder, my perception of beauty has changed because I do see quite a lot of people who train hard and look good but they wouldn’t be the nicest characters. So I very much think that your beauty is inside, it doesn’t matter how you good you look if you’re black inside it’s not going to change it by looking good outside. I do very much think that it’s inner beauty more so than outer.