She Decided to Become a Bodybuilder at 40. It Changed Not Only Her Body, but Her Life

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Israeli bodybuilder Hagit Seindlis. 'I was always the youngest and shortest in the class.'
Israeli bodybuilder Hagit Seindlis. 'I was always the youngest and shortest in the class.'Credit: Yariv Fein
Mae Palty
Mae Palty
Mae Palty
Mae Palty

Many young people struggle and ponder issues of identity, independence versus dependence, me versus the world. Hagit Seindlis, 44, has never been one of them.

“From a very young age I felt the need to express myself, to prove myself, to be heard and seen,” she says. “I was born in November and I was always the youngest and shortest in the class. I was also the little girl at home – 10 and 12 years younger than my brothers – and always fighting for my place. I wanted to prove I was physically strong, strong like them. Then it became my thing as a woman. I wanted to be independent and strong and not be dependent on any man. So that no one would tell me what to do. I had to prove to myself and to my surroundings that I could do everything on my own, that I’m exceptional, that I can be the best in anything I do, whether it's in the classroom or being the fastest sprinter, the strongest. This motif motivates me in life.”

That is also the sort of attitude that leads one to medals at worldwide sporting events and to succeed in politics, in corporate realms and in the world of finance.

Seindlis did not immediately get into bodybuilding. That happened one night four years ago, when she was on Facebook by chance and got sucked in

Seindlis, an accountant by training, is a financial officer at a high-tech company. But when you meet her you understand those are not the realms in which she wants to be “the strongest.” Seindlis is simply, literally, strong: At a height of 1.68 meters, with abs that look like they’d bounce back an arrow if it were aimed at them, broad solid shoulders and bulging muscles in her thighs – this is a woman, well dressed and well heeled, who can lift 160 kilograms without showing stress and almost without blinking an eye. And she’s stronger than just about anyone who crosses her path.

Seindlis is one of the few Israelis, and indeed the leader among them, in the field of women’s bodybuilding. Someone who lives her life according to the strict regimen demanded by this sport, who competes in Israel and abroad – and wins. She has competed so far in seven competitions and in 2019 won the European championship at a competition run by an amateur association. Since then she has been competing solely under the auspices of the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness, and is hoping to win the largest and most prestigious sports competition of all, and win the title "Ms. Olympia."

Hagit Seindlis: 'Yes, I’ve become a fetish. It’s awful.'Credit: Yariv Fein

Seindlis was born a year before the first-ever official women’s bodybuilding competition, which took place in Canton, Ohio. Growing up, she pursued various sports in Israel, including tennis and swimming, and during her military service she was a Krav Maga instructor. She has always been a determined and successful athlete, becoming the Israeli triathlon champion for her age group from the years 2014 to 2017, with one small deviation: In 2015, she was deemed triathlon “champion of champions” – meaning she topped all the age categories.

“I always leaned toward more extreme sports,” she tells Haaretz. “A little after the teenage years, when kids generally split up between ‘boys’ and ‘girls,’ I always had a lot more fun with the boys. Motorcycles, sports, action. As a child I also loved to sculpt; once I took a Barbie doll and sculpted her muscles from Fimo. My mother tells me that I insisted I wanted to pee standing up, and told me, ‘You’re a girl, you’re supposed to sit!’ And I would say: ‘No. I’m going to be like my brothers.’”

Like her brothers, Seindlis would leaf through bodybuilding magazines.

“As a girl in the 1980s, when my brothers would bring home those magazines, I would look at them and I was mesmerized,” she recalls. “I looked at the bodybuilders’ profiles and was terribly intrigued. I found a picture of a girl flexing her muscles – today she’s half my size, yes? – and I said: Wow, I also want to do that.”

Despite her natural qualities and physical abilities, Seindlis did not immediately get into bodybuilding. That happened one night four years ago, when she was on Facebook by chance and got sucked in. Unlike most of us who find ourselves transfixed by cat videos, one-pot recipes and cute babies, Seindlis was exposed that night to the wonders of bodybuilding. And this time the fascination did not fade.

And that’s it? That’s how you got started in bodybuilding?

“I found a trainer and we got started. It later turned out that he wasn’t so suited to me – he was used to working with women in the ‘bikini’ category of bodybuilding, meaning less muscle mass, women who are very thin and more delicate. The regime consisted of starving me to death and training in specific exercises that focused on the butt and legs. In any event, I always set goals for myself, otherwise I don’t get motivated to really delve into a field. I realized that I wanted to enter a competition.”

Wait, before we get to the competitions, what attracted you to this?

Hagit Seindlis. 'I love being a woman, I don’t want to change my gender or become a man.'Credit: Yariv Fein

“That was one of the main questions asked during the psychological treatment I underwent. The answer starts with a little girl who always wanted to express herself, prove herself, who wanted to be seen and heard. There’s the thing about wanting to stand out … Well, today you certainly can’t miss me,” she says, laughing.

“When I entered this field, I wanted to be the most beautiful and the strongest; it wasn’t enough for me to remain in some middling category. I wanted to be the most impressive. I’m a pioneer in Israel, because I’m the first to reach a category that competes under the formal auspices of the international federation. I only want to keep on raising the bar for myself.”

With heels, and without

'I haven’t gotten my period for two or three years now. Truthfully, I don’t miss it'

The sport of women's bodybuilding is divided into four distinctive categories. In the bikini field, muscle mass is relatively lower and there is an emphasis on toning. In the figure category, women are slightly more athletic, with higher muscle mass. Both demand that contestants display their muscles while wearing a bikini and even an evening gown, complete with high heels.

The third category, also defined by specific parameters relating to muscle mass and weight, is “physique” – involving larger women, and an even higher degree of toning. And above all is the “bodybuilding” category, in which even more solidly built women compete by weight class.

In her first competition, with her first trainer, Seindlis competed in the bikini category. The event was held in 2017 by the Israeli branch of the National Association of Amateur Bodybuilders, established in the 1950s. For a moment it seemed to Seindlis that her first competition would be her last: “I was traumatized by the initial preparations. I was shaken; I weighed every grain that went into my mouth, I was nervous and depressed. It affected my functioning in all areas. I thought that’s what this world looked like. I said to myself, fine, I’ll go to the competition, and then the hell with it. But then I won it.”

You won your first competition.

Seindlis before she started bodybuilding.Credit: Family album

“Yes, and then I stopped because it was awful. I started gorging on everything I got my hands on, I needed to compensate. It was really extreme. But something still stuck in my mind. I kept observing people in the field and felt I hadn’t really gone all the way with it. I found a different trainer, who is with me to this day. An amazing professional, a walking encyclopedia who understands all the hormonal and physiological processes. He also prefers the higher women’s categories, with more muscles, not the bikini category. It’s more interesting and there are more challenges. It's less ‘eat lettuce and do this with your butt.’ I started to get bigger and bigger.”

So today you compete in the bodybuilding category. What kind of training regimen is involved?

“I’m like a baby. I have to eat something every two to three hours, which means five or six meals a day. A lot of protein. Preparation for competitions itself is divided into stages. You invest three-four months in the stage called mass, where you work hard to build muscle mass, fix things that are disproportionate and work on weak spots. You eat a lot; you almost don’t keep track of diet. And the training is indeed exhausting.

'I remember a time when I was more feminine, more conventional, and also probably had an easier time in the world in terms of relationships with men. And I ask myself: Will I change for a man? Absolutely not'

“Then comes the toning stage, in which you start a diet along with the exercises. This is done carefully because it's hard to make strides on a calorie deficit, but you have to preserve the mass you’ve built while watching your fat intake. In the days before the competition there’s tanning [the day before the competition all the contestants are spray-tanned, and at the competition itself they get another layer of spray, along with oil] and loading up on carbs.

"If beforehand one undergoes something called carbohydrate dilution – you basically don’t ingest carbs – then the last three days you use them to recharge your muscles. Then just before the competition there’s makeup and hairstyling, which takes a couple of minutes on stage.”

It sounds like a disaster for the body. Not to mention all the rumors about food additives, steroids and other dangerous substances that contestants in such sports use.

“Look, there are things that are taboo, but it’s hard to achieve these dimensions naturally – certainly for women. That’s also one of the reasons why people look at me askance. The potential for developing your body is completely genetic, but there are substances that help you realize this potential. But you first of all have to discover your genetic potential and know how to work the right way – otherwise, you’ll do yourself harm.

Hagit Seindlis. 'There are moments when I think, maybe I made a mistake.'Credit: Yariv Fein

"Of course, you always have to be careful and be under supervision. They do blood tests on you every month, and there’s medical monitoring. All the damage that could be caused, heaven forbid, has solutions and remedies. But there are side effects, which is part of the self-sacrifice that comes with the profession.”

Like what, for instance?

“I haven’t gotten my period for two or three years now. Truthfully, I don’t miss it. My voice has changed; it’s squeakier. I live with it. Of course, the shape of my face and bone structure have changed a bit. But it’s possible to fix that. I haven’t yet started with Botox at a time when everyone my age has already undergone a few operations. So, I've said, okay, let’s ruin things a little more. At worst, we’ll fix it.”

'There is cultural conditioning regarding women, especially in this country – a woman should be small, thin, weak. I flout those conventions, flout all conventions really'

Loading up and abstaining

The anatomical sacrifices do not end there. The rigid rules of bodybuilding demand not only alternating between loading up on carbs and sugar and complete abstinence, but also drinking plenty of water followed by a total intentional water fast, designed to flush out the subcutaneous water and pump up the muscle.

"That’s how you get the freakish look of stretched skin over rock-hard muscles,” Seindlis explains. “It has to be done very carefully, it’s dangerous. People end up in hospital with arrhythmia.”

And yet, when there was a cancellation in 2014 of the “Ms. Olympia” contest – the highest-ranking professional female bodybuilding competition in the world, held since 1980 and offering prize money worth hundreds of thousands of dollars – it was not a result of health-related and other risks. The reasons were “lack of public interest” and the claim that bodybuilding categories distort the classic woman’s body. But in 2020, after an outcry, the competition resumed, with the support of an American organization called Wings of Strength. Last year also saw another interesting development: American bodybuilder Jen Pasky Jaquin was the first female bodybuilder in a wheelchair to receive professional recognition.

How did you feel about the way your body used to look and how it is today?

“Even before I entered the profession, I was conspicuous. I always dressed relatively provocatively. Sometimes I look at pictures from the past and remember a time when I was more feminine, more conventional, and also probably had an easier time in the world in terms of relationships with men. And I ask myself: Will I change for a man? Absolutely not. “

How do men react to you? Do some feel threatened?

“Israel is a really primitive country in this respect. A lot of men feel threatened by me, by the fact that I am stronger than them. In general, there is a tendency to immediately associate muscles with violence and aggressiveness. This is totally inaccurate. I know many bodybuilders, myself included of course, who are gentle intelligent souls. In any case, I stand out, so people avoid me.”

One man who didn’t avoid her is photographer Yariv Fein. They met about two years ago, when Fein was working on a series of portraits of people who push themselves and their bodies to the edge.

“I had already photographed a few bodybuilders before I met Hagit and she impressed me very, very much. I decided to focus on her, especially in all kinds of everyday situations and not necessarily in competitions,” Fein says.

Seindlis getting ready for a competition.

“What intrigued me about her occupation is the aspect of transformation. The change that women in this field are going through, and of course the change in the perception of women’s bodies. I am a fashion photographer and I deal with this a lot, also with the 'myth of beauty’ and how it’s been messed with. I find bodybuilding very beautiful visually, and I am interested in testing the limits. To explore the aesthetics, to see how female body builders see themselves and how society sees them.”

'Many adventures'

Seindlis managed to become a mother before entering the world of bodybuilding. A resident of a town in Emek Hefer, in northern Israel, she has three children – two daughters and a son, teenagers. She met their father, from whom she divorced two years ago, when she was only 17 and he was 20.

Do you that was related to bodybuilding?

“No, but maybe it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. He had a hard time with the physical transformation and decided he wanted to live his own life. But we really had many adventures during this time, 25 years. “

And how do your children live with it – how do you integrate motherhood with bodybuilding?

“Even if I’m not a typical mother, or different – I’m still soft, sensitive and gentle. Don’t let my appearance confuse you for one moment. When kids are born, your independence ends, there is no longer just ‘Hagit.’ There is ‘the mother of.’ There is a child who depends on you; you can’t just get up and go. Now it’s already, ‘Mom get off my case!’ of course, but I have an amazing connection with the kids. Only my middle child has some issues.”

Does she struggle with your transformation?

“She is worried her mother is different, and the way difference is perceived here in this country. My exhibitionism is hard for her. On Instagram, exhibitionism promotes my interests. I need to raise awareness, show the judges who I am, create a buzz, make connections with sponsors. PR is something that demands constant work; it’s not about just working out in the gym two hours a day. So, I made my Instagram account private. I involve my kids here and there but don’t want to burden them. During my first competition my daughter actually helped me a lot with the dance piece I had to perform. She even helped with the choreography and cheered me on. But now she’s a little older.”

How does the rest of the immediate and broader community react to you and the changes you have undergone?

Seindlis before a competition. 'You usually sit down and make new plans, otherwise you feel a sense of emptiness. '

“My mother is frantic, totally scared. Asks me to calm down and do it ‘just for fun.’ But I don’t do things that way, it is really all or nothing. To me, that’s part of the deal. In the eyes of strangers, it is daunting at times. Girls see me in the gym and say to their instructor, ‘I do not want to be like that.’ ‘I do not want my muscles to bulge,’ ‘I do not want to look like her.’ If initially I was offended, now I say: ‘Don’t worry, darling. You will not look like me.’

"There is cultural conditioning regarding women, especially in this country – a woman should be small, thin, weak. I flout those conventions, flout all conventions really. When I stroll through a mall or down the street heads turn immediately. The reactions will usually be: ‘What is this thing?’ ‘What the hell did she do to herself?’ The initial reactions are always negative. I also get creeps messaging me all the time. “

Is there some sort of fetish involved?

“Yes, I’ve become a fetish. It’s awful. ‘Pee on me, beat me.’ Awful stuff. But there are also positive reactions and genuine support. We really live on the edge in bodybuilding. We might lose our femininity. The fear is always there, especially in my category. I love being a woman, I don’t want to change my gender or become a man.”

Do people ask if you are undergoing [gender] transitioning?

“A lot of people ask that. Even my daughter’s therapist, who is supposed to understand the human psyche and look inward… it surprised me. People also immediately assume I’m a lesbian. I never cared too much about reactions, although in the past I was not so visibly different either. Yes, I stood out, because I rode a heavy motorcycle, for example. I probably challenge men all the time, by my nature.”

Are there times where you feel regret?

“Sure. There are moments when I think, maybe I made a mistake. Sometimes I think of giving it up, especially when I feel lonely or when I struggle with the diet. I wonder why I do it at all but try to remember the initial motivation. I feel like a sculptor thanks to this transformation. It fascinates me how far the body can go and what can be done with it. “

Is it a control thing? That “anything is possible?”

"I’m a bit of a control freak, and there’s something about 'playing God’ but with the body. It seems truly inhuman, to transcend the natural. I have fun being strong. I strive to not be just anyone, to not disappear. I want to leave a mark. And I really am the strongest in the country."

Seindlis' ambition right now is to get a professional membership card. “It’s called a pro card,” she says.

What do you need to do to obtain such a card?

“To win first place – the title of champion of the champions (after a winner is announced in each category, the winner of all of them together is announced). And I’m really close. In November 2019, I won third place in the international federation's Muscle Fest competition. I tried my luck in two categories: ‘physique’ and, for the first time, the bodybuilding category. In May, in England, I came in second in the federation's Ben Vader competition (named after one of the founders of the federation). Now I just have to come first."

In October, there is a competition called the “Arnold Classic” will be held in England – named after the famous Austrian-American actor and politician, of course. In November she will once again participate in Muscle Fest competition, in Romania.

How do you feel after a competition? Is there a crazy comedown?

“Sure. I eat a lot, overindulge, it’s over and you say – so what now? You usually sit down and make new plans, otherwise you feel a sense of emptiness. Rest for a few days and go back to training.”

Among Seindlis' bigger dreams is to win the United States “Ms. Olympia” competition, which involves a few dozen participants in each category and is unique given the relative minority of professional women bodybuilders: The same people – whether Cory Everson, Lenda Murray or Iris Kyle – win the grand prize year after year.

But besides topping their performance some day, Seindlis’ other dream To become a trainer, to open a center and to raise the level of the sport and awareness of it in the country. To show that the field is not dying, but maybe has yet to be born. To roam the world, to travel – and to make a living from this. From her passion.

*  *  *

To accept and to challenge / Yael Mishaeli

Female bodybuilding raises two issues that are not really separate: feminism and queerness. At the feminist level, it is understandable that the experience of women must be measured by "the master’s" parameters: rivalry and independence. To a large extent, men are still socialized to win wars and make money, and women are still socialized to find a man who will protect and provide for them. Although the appropriation of feminism by capitalism has helped convince women that they should “go it alone” – this has no grounding in reality, and is just a liberal trap – along the lines of “you will succeed if you try hard enough.” In practice, women trying to get ahead will earn less, if they are single mothers they may become poor, and even in terms of image they may be perceived as “not hot” or even threatening.

In fact, rivalry is the most effective way to suppress women, because it accepts the idea that there is only a little room for them at the top, so one shouldn’t trust anyone. Male brotherhood, on the other hand, promises that men will continue to run the world, while pretending to be “self-made.”

So being a bodybuilder is to accept the laws of patriarchy, but also to challenge them. It is to acknowledge how miserable it is that masculinity usually means winning, but also to show that we can appropriate this to our needs, because no one is born masculine or feminine.

At the queer level, this particular story can be placed along a broad continuum of gender resistance – from women who do not shave their hair to transexual men. The idea is that we create the bodies that are right for us without needing to be subservient to genitals and reproduction, thus revealing that the connection between sex and gender or between gender and sexuality is not self-evident or even necessary. In the heteronormative world, the expectation is that if you are not feminine it is probably because you are a lesbian, without the understanding that gender is also a platform for self-presentation and not just a sexual statement of intent.

It is clear that under patriarchy, there is a symbolic connection between masculinity and power and between femininity and weakness. Bodybuilding confirms and also undermines this symbolization. It literalizes the idea that women can be strong, offers women and others another possible body image, and allows us all to consider what we would want to look like if we were not afraid of being told that it doesn't suit us.

Dr. Yael Mishaili is a lecturer in the Program for Women and Gender Studies at Tel Aviv University and in the Gender Program at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

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