What being a professional bodybuilder taught me about gaining tenure?

Squatting, curling, pressing, sprinting and preparing meals with the ideal combination of fats, carbs and proteins dominate hours of female bodybuilders’ lives. Such women also spend hours perfecting posing routines and give a final few more to spray-tanning and hair and make-up styling for competitions. They may be on the competition stage for 15 minutes, showcasing what they worked a year or more to build. Such dedication to building muscles and sculpting bodies is rarely understood, much less appreciated, by anyone but other (female) bodybuilders. I understand these women.

I also understand women and men for whom caffeine and computer screens are constant companions. This group produces conference papers, articles and monographs that, most often, are appreciated by only a cadre of specialists. This group also spends innumerable hours in classrooms and offices. That time combined with the solitary hours spent on “our own work” steals time that we could spend with friends, family or even interesting strangers. Outsiders often deem such work to be as much a “freak show” as they consider female bodybuilding to be.

I double up on the freak. I am an associate professor of English – working towards becoming a full professor – and I am also a competitive female bodybuilder. While each of these “lives” invites imbalance, bodybuilding is helping me to fight some imbalances I’ve developed in academia.

Paradoxically, my move away from suffering-the-pressures-of-tenure-even-after-achieving-it arose when I saw myself taking a similarly pressure-laden approach to bodybuilding, which had also brought me some success. After two years of competing, I had become “pro-qualified”, which meant that I could enter a professional competition in a United States Bodybuilding Federation contest.

Early on 8 October 2013, I went to the gym to do sprints on the treadmill. I warmed up; I pressed the button to raise the speed, and when my left toes hit the treadmill, I felt a shooting pain around my ankle. I’m not one to stop for pain. I stopped. I intended to walk it off. I couldn’t. I changed shoes, drove home and called the orthopaedist. That morning I learned that I merely had an Achilles pull, but that meant that I had to wear one of those fashion-forward grey boots for at least four weeks. At that point, I was planning to compete in eight weeks.

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