VELLORE: Biceps of S Sangeetha do not waver as she loads 50 kgs of skins, de-haired and processed, onto trucks lining Vainyambadi’s tanneries. The 35-year-old woman loader is off carrying 50-kg drums of various chemicals around the industry. She is also no stranger to uncharacteristically silent markets at midnight, her muscles don’t get a fraction of rest as she unloads vegetables at Vellore.
It is almost dawn when Sangeetha heads home with Rs 200 after a long day of lifting heavy goods. But this experience and hard work have come handy as she is now the first woman bodybuilding champion in her area.
On January 11, Sangeetha bagged a gold medal at the South Indian Bodybuilding competition at Tenkasi, conducted by Indian Fitness Federation (IFF). She was among nine women contestants from the southern States to participate in the sport, usually dominated by men.
Sangeetha juggles the roles of a daily-wage labourer, a resilient mother, and now, a seasoned bodybuilder. Donning an unconventional hat for women, she encourages many other women to overcome social stigma and economic hardship.
As a child, after seeing actor Sarathkumar on screen, she knew she wanted to become a bodybuilder one day. Life took its course, leaving no openings for Sangeetha to follow her dream. Around 10 years ago, after her husband left her and their two children, Sangeetha took on daily-wage jobs to make ends meet. A surprising new rocky path to her dream opened up.
Sangeetha took the plunge and began watching workout videos on YouTube to grasp the rules of the game. After realising the importance of formal training, she joined a gym. But, her soon-to-be gym master M Kumaravel, a former district-level bodybuilder champion, was skeptical.
“Initially, Kumaravel didn’t take me seriously as there are very few women in the bodybuilding arena. After seeing my dedication, the gym master enquired about my goals and family background,” Sangeetha says. He then started to train her specifically for bodybuilding competitions.
She was hit by yet another roadblock – lack of funds for training and a healthy diet. On a daily basis, she required at least Rs 2,000 to get nutrition-rich food, but with just Rs 500, she tried to get a sufficient amount of protein and calories. While her diet consists of daily spoonfuls of rigour, it removes salt and oil. Instead, chicken, oats, eggs, and fruits are an integral part of her meal.
It has not been an easy path, she admits. “You have to sacrifice everything like a saint. You can’t even eat what you like. But for me, I lost everything and I only have an indomitable spirit to succeed in life,” she tells TNIE. Even during the lockdown, she continued her training with determination: “I would work out at home with firewood and bricks as I don’t have dumbbells or other equipment.”
Sangeetha explains both the muscle and mind must be strong to build the body. “Women generally go to the gym to lose weight. Since bodybuilding has many restrictions on foods and lifestyle habits, many women hesitate to pursue this.”
Apart from the difficulty in the workout, Sangeetha has been facing the brunt of social stigma. “Many residents look down on me and comment that I’m wearing a shirt and pants like men. Some ask why I’m doing this and why can’t I be like other women?” the bodybuilder says.
She refuses to dignify those questions with a response but instead, proves them wrong in the arena. “I didn’t go on the wrong path or do something immoral. Women shine in cricket, basketball, and tennis. Then why can’t they shine in bodybuilding?”
After Sangeetha won a gold medal in a competition, the same people who doubted her, began to congratulate her. “This brought me indescribable happiness,” she stated. Her story even inspired another woman at her gym to pursue bodybuilding. Sangeetha said the woman is also now being trained for competitions. Sangeetha hopes this as a bright beginning for more women to take up bodybuilding in the future.
Kumaravel bears some of Sangeetha’s food and travel expenses. “But I can’t do more, I have also topped attending competitions to take care of my family’s expenditures,” he said. Hence, Vellore’s only woman bodybuilder now seeks the State government’s support to meet training expenses.
“I can assure you that all the help will not go down the drain. I will succeed on a much larger level and bring fame to the State,” she asserts.