The Struggle is Real: Devoted to Unveiling All Sides of Competing
Name: Amanda Senter
Occupation: Personal Trainer & Freelance Makeup Artist
Location: Portland, OR
(Amanda post competition in 2012. Photo by David Aboody)
Amanda, as someone who has been working with you from a ‘life coaching’ perspective I just want to say I am more than proud that you have decided to share your story. What you have been through is devastating but you are so admirable for wanting to step out from the shadow you have been living in and spill the truth on your personal struggles and journey to where you are at today. I commend you for doing this interview and needed to say that up front! So please, can you inform our readers of your past- previous to ever stepping foot on an NPC stage? What was your life like growing up?
Firstly, I’m so honored to be asked to be part of your series. I’ve read every interview and I get so much out of what the women prior have written. I never made it to the pro level like they have so I feel quite like the “little fish” here but I hope that someone can get something out of my story. I told you before that I’d be completely up front and hide nothing. And since personal pain touches everyone, yet can make us feel so isolated, I hope that the reader can connect with something here and know s/he’s neither alone nor worth any less as a competitor or as a person because of any darkness in his/her past or present.
I didn’t compete in my first show until I was 28. Prior to that year, my life was a constant battle with my weight. Being obese in high school left me with no shortage of insecurities. But my outlet and my joy was in music and acting. I sang competitively on a local level and spent as much time on stage as I could with various high school music groups or drama productions. To say the least, my home life was very negative and my family was not supportive of my interests. This is when I learned to cope with the negativity by binging and eating secretly.
After high school I was neither in the position nor had the confidence to find a way to further my artistic goals. Without that positive environment and outlet for my pain, food was no longer enough. My internalized pain began to manifest in self-harm, namely cutting. Later in life I would end up having my forearms tattooed to hide the scars that remained.
By the time I was 19 or 20, I was starting to learn about exercise and changing the way I ate. But 30 or 40 pounds lost in a very healthy and moderate manner triggered that addictive and self-abusive part of my personality. I began starving myself and obsessively exercising. Which later turned into long periods of binge/purge episodes.
I thought nothing of keeping a scale in my living room and stepping on it an upwards of six times each day. My (then) boyfriend bought a treadmill for our house and I would exercise for hours until I had burned off the days calorie intake and then some. The treadmill overlooked the bedroom and I remember many nights of running long past a reasonable bedtime to finish my calorie burn for the day. I felt superior to my sleeping boyfriend because I was “working while he was resting”. We’ve probably all seen that quote online by now.
Losing the weight gave me not only attention I had never before received but also a sense of power. I learned early that being “fat” can make a girl rather invisible in our culture. Unfortunately, I never internalized the praise and accolades I received from my peers or judges when I was performing because when I got home I was so humiliated by my family. They would shame me for singing, tell me to “shut up” and that I “sucked”. But people are funny about the way they change the way they treat you when you suddenly become more physically attractive. To me, this translated into that my outside appearance was far more valuable than my talent or personality. Therefore my health or mental well-being became an afterthought.
(Amanda at 16 years old)
You went through a lot of personal matters within your relationships with men. Do you feel these experiences shaped the way you viewed your body and body image before you ever decided to compete?
My lack of self-worth back then lead me down some dangerous roads. Typically, into the arms of another abuser. But in my mid-twenties I had finally had enough of my disordered eating and exercise. Not only did I want to learn how to do things right, I wanted to help others who had been through similar struggles.
Once I stopped my bad behaviors, I entered college for personal training and dumped a very toxic relationship. Things were looking like a bright new chapter in my life because I was leaving negative things behind and feeling good in my own skin. But no more than a week later, I was raped on a blind date and then again by that same ex-boyfriend. Consequently, returning to my old methods of coping with pain I only new how to express in self-harm and disordered eating. The actions of my ex fostered the belief in me that not only am I a physical commodity but once tarnished, a certain level of disrespect from people was just to be expected.
I know this is a heavy topic and not one that your readers would probably prepare themselves for in an article about the competition lifestyle. But the reason I do share this is because these experiences created a recurring pattern that would shape who I was as a competitor and after hanging up my Lucite heels.
The starve/binge/purge chaos lasted for another few years, although to a lesser degree. My next serious relationship was the first time I really fell hard in love. Unfortunately, he had a certain way of speaking to me or manipulating me that caused so much insecurity about the way I looked. At one point he told me “we’re not getting engaged until you can give me tangible, physical evidence that you can whip yourself into shape.” I was already a trainer for a few years at that point. This added to the long-standing humiliation I felt for being a fitness professional with a secret eating disorder.
Later the next year, we were long ended and I started working with my first competition coach. I believed that competing would force me to stop my binge/purge behavior because “I couldn’t be unhealthy and step onstage”. Oh, the blind hope of ignorance, haha.
You told me a story about going back to your high school graduation much thinner and wearing a very tight dress. Do you feel you were doing this to “get back” at some of the people who made you feel like less growing up? What was the ultimate goal and mindset of showing up that way? Do you feel it worked for you or just caused more internal struggles with your body image and desire to maintain such a lean physique?
My high school reunion was a few months after breaking up with that last ex. I was gonna “whip” myself into shape alright. That boy was gonna eat every last word!
I already new I wanted to compete when I set my goal weight loss for my reunion. So I took the advice of competitors I knew from the gym at which I worked and put myself on a “mock prep”. But instead of any gradual progression of programming or nutrition, I went full pelt for months at my old extremes and worse. I didn’t think about what I was doing at the time. I fooled myself. Perhaps it relates back to previous experiences, but my drive to lose more weight superseded what I would ever even let one of my clients consider doing. I didn’t value my own health at all. I felt my only hope for a better future was getting into a smaller dress size.
Basically, I did every wrong thing. Over-trained. 90 minutes of intense cardio every day. Roughly 800 calories a day and I even was using Clen (Clenbuterol is a sympathomimetic amine used by sufferers of breathing disorders as a decongestant and bronchodilator. People with chronic breathing disorders such as asthma use this as a bronchodilator to make breathing easier. Its effects, however, are more potent and longer-lasting as a stimulant and thermogenic drug. It causes an increase in aerobic capacity, central nervous system stimulation, blood pressure, and oxygen transportation. It increases the rate at which body fat is metabolized while increasing the body’s BMR). Ridiculous, right? It wasn’t about the bullies I had in high school. It was an attempt to cleanse me of all the pain and shame of the last decade.
New body, new you! That’s what marketing always says, right? Impress everyone! Especially people who don’t even know the real you… Who better to validate what you are on the outside? Seems like many people fall into that trap. The outside defines what lies beneath.
Essentially, things like that are empty. Sure it was fun for a while that no one recognized me, and everyone was giving me loads of praise for the way I looked and being 80 pounds lighter than what they remember. But honestly, I was a little embarrassed by the attention that dress got me. It was super low-cut and I was in no way ready to be considered “sexy” at that time in my life.
Looking back now, It actually ended up contributing to me not posting pictures of myself recently. I didn’t want people to know that I’ve gained weight after that night, not to mention after competing.
When was your first show and what made you ultimately decide to compete?
My first show was the Emerald Cup in 2012. I wanted to compete because I figured it’d be a great stepping stone for getting into a fitness magazine, which was the ultimate goal. And since I felt like I was going nowhere in my life at the time, I determined it was “do or die”. And approached it as such. I would train harder, diet harder, devote more than any other girl next to me. I had about 30 pounds to lose to reach “stage weight” so there was no time to mess around.
I didn’t feel ready for Emerald Cup at the time. I originally wanted to do Oregon Ironman being that it was a smaller show. But my coach at the time assured me I would be ready for this larger arena. I ended up doing both shows since they were only weeks apart.
After your first show, how would you describe the weeks following? How did you handle eating? Working out? Your mental state? How was this different from the way you viewed exercise and diet previous to ever competing?
There wasn’t a break between Emerald and Ironman. I knew I wanted to get leaner for the next show so I continued training and dieting ferociously. The only diet I felt worked for me (again, disregarding what I and my coach at the time knew to be healthy) was beyond extreme. And I lived on it for months, not weeks. I would eat only tilapia, extra lean ground turkey, zucchini, and olive oil. Every few weeks I would get a small amount of flank steak. I wouldn’t allow myself anything else because what if I lost control and binged?
But it wasn’t just diet. I would take everything my coach recommended and go 5 steps farther. She said go on a fat burner. I lived on it daily. But I also used intense caffeine pills and Clen. I actually needed the pills just to have enough energy to feel normal enough to function through a workout. But I continued to disregard what my body was telling me. I put on my “laser focus” and powered through another 60, 90, or 120+ minutes of cardio I was going to do that day. I would never tell my coach about all the extra work I was doing. Many weekends I was in the gym multiple times a day for an hour or more just for cardio.
(Amanda in prep for her second competition- 2012)
After Ironman, I didn’t really struggle with food. Because really, I didn’t change what I was doing. I added some cheat meals on the weekends and laid-off so much cardio. But I just kept doing what I thought would keep me lean.
It was a few months later that I repeated my typical emotional cycle with food. I got my heart broken. Not even being competition-lean won me the heart of the man I wanted. The intense inadequacy I felt sent me into a heavy relapse of bulimia. It was a long process of working with a counselor to get my head back on straight. I regained about 40lbs that summer. But with new determination to beat back my old demons, I figured another competition was just what I needed to prove myself. So I jumped right back on to my old program. The diet and training came right back. I laugh a little now because I wanted to do a cleaner and healthier prep and decided to forgo the black market substances.
(Amanda’s second competition, the Oregon Ironman in 2012)
When you finally decided to stop competing, I know you had very rapid and seemingly uncontrolled weight gain. You also have been dealing with thyroid and other hormonal issues. Can you describe that experience to our readers? You have mentioned having little to no energy at many points and barely been able to make it through a workout. What have the doctors recommended as the best route for your long-term health? How long has this been going on and have you made any progress in feeling better physically?
The signs of adrenal exhaustion were there for years. But since I never considered myself lean enough to make my health a priority, I just ignored it. I’ll never say that competing was the sole cause of my health problems. In talking with my doctors, we’ve come to surmise that I’ve always had some hormonal problems my entire life. Add to that a decade of insane practices with diet and exercise, finally my competition preps were just the icing on the cake.
After not being able to compete again in the 2013 spring shows for which I was training, I rebounded again. I created the perfect storm for what happened last year.
In the early fall of 2013, I was ready to start taking my rapidly re-gained weight back off again. I didn’t really pay attention to the red flags for a while. Intense fatigue. Lack of hunger or drive. I figured it was all mental. Not until January of last year when after six months of intense diet and exercise and only a 2 pounds lost did I really start to second-guess things. I felt my life depended on taking the weight off. I was stuck around 183 pounds. I’m 5’6” and competed at 130lbs. I NEEDED to lose this weight. But ultimately, I threw in the towel that month.
Once I ended my insane training and dieting, I finally had a minute to stop and think about how I felt. I started needing a nap every couple hours. At worst I was sleeping 16 hours a day. I had no ability to focus for an extended period of time. By February other people were commenting on how sick and drained I looked. I realized about four months of short term memory was gone when friends were commenting on experiences I swore never happened. There were even returning clients with whom I had no recollection of working with. It scared me.
It took a few months of testing and trying different medicines and supplements to really notice much of a change in my energy. There was quite the list of hormones that had pretty much tanked on me. And even now, I don’t feel like we have a strong hold on everything causing me to go through long periods of feeling either completely normal and full of energy or feeling drained all day. There is no in-between.
I had to take about six months off of exercise. And then if I tried to train, even lightly I would be completely exhausted after a couple sets. A few weeks into starting my medication program, I believe my body was still in it’s height of adrenal burn-out. When I would go to lift, I’d have half to maybe 1/3rd of my normal strength if I tried to push into a workout. My new coach took me off cardio entirely and had me just focus on strength training with plenty of recovery time. But even then, I’d yawn excessively and so that combined with the decrease in strength, I took that as a sign I really needed to give my body a true break.
Once my doctor did some really progressive testing and found I needed to be on a methylated B vitamin complex, I had a lot of energy return. She found not only were many of my hormones tanked and causing a severe drop in energy but on top of that, because I wasn’t able to process certain vitamins, I was only producing 40-50% of the amount of energy of a normal person.
After all of this, Allen- my new coach, got me to finally try flexible dieting for myself. I can say, for all the difficulty of last year physically, nutrition is great for the first time in my life. Allowing myself to work with macros and removing a lot of the mental pressures I had with any non-competition-diet foods has changed my life.
But my body still isn’t in a place where fat loss can happen very well. My last doctor said I will continue to gain fat until my hormones are balanced. Despite how drastically my relationship with food is and how easily I can maintain hitting my macros, I’ve still gained about 30lbs since starting my new program.
You have shared with me that you felt “big” at the Emerald Cup in 2012 I believe? You placed 5th regardless of your personal beliefs and body image. Looking back at those photos now- do you feel you had body dysmorphia and do you feel you are still dealing with that in some ways?
Oh man, I still hate looking at those photos. The peak-week methods were all wrong for my body and what I had put it through leading up to the show. So I actually did look bigger onstage than I had the days prior because what the body will do with water when water pills, sodium depletion and the introduction of starch that I hadn’t had in months all combined in the couple days prior. My otherwise flat stomach was distended onstage. Plus there were just a host of other issues behind the scenes that contributed to how I felt about my look that day.
But the body dysmorphia didn’t get really bad until right after that show. Once I saw the pictures, I immediately felt guilty for placing. There were many girls on that stage who had a better body than me. I figure I had an edge because of my stage presence. I know how to work an audience from my years of performing. I know my glutes didn’t get me that trophy, that’s for sure! What contributed to my insecurity and guilt was hearing other competitors critiquing other people in their classes once the show was over. I had just gone out there to have fun and practice. But even onstage during first callouts I was getting some intense shade from other girls near me. One girl actually mouthed “What the F—-!?” at me when I had my back to the judges. Right then, I started to question whether or not I belonged there.
So I just got harder on myself for the next show. I took pictures of myself not to show how lean I was getting but to prove that I was still too big to be a competitor. As you can see, I was sickly-looking. Like skin and bones. But I couldn’t see it. I held no regard for the deep circles under my eyes or my unhealthy frame. I only saw how thick my thighs still were. And that’s what’s so strange about this mental issue. You literally see things differently. Many occasions I’ve come to realize that my mind had distorted my reflection or picture to see something much bigger than it was. It’s like those funny distortion filters we have on our phones. Only it’s in your head and you can’t toggle back and forth between reality and illusion.
So once the weight gain became uncontrollable, I mentally shut off. I couldn’t deal. I still hide in clothing and have avoided almost any social situation which would call for me to wear something other than large gym wear.
“As you can see, I was sickly-looking. Like skin and bones. But I couldn’t see it. I held no regard for the deep circles under my eyes or my unhealthy frame. I only saw how thick my thighs still were.”
You sure have dealt with a lot through your past relationships, family life, and extremes within fitness. But what would you consider your ultimate “rock bottom” and what do you believe got you to that point? How have you overcome some of those feelings/issues as of today?
In all honesty, I don’t think you can get much lower than making an attempt on your own life, which is what I did after I was raped. I ended up alone in the hospital with nothing and without any numbers memorized to call anyone. Waking up the next morning, I knew God must have a purpose for me somewhere. So it’s hard to compare any level of sickness around competing to that time in my life. But there are certain events that made me feel very much out of control and in despair. Not being able to compete in 2013 was very rough on me mentally. I was ready for the stage but a family issue came up and I made the choice to walk away from that event. But instead of staying in shape and waiting for another show, I was too upset about not doing my show. I temporarily gave up on myself at that time, but not to such a dark level of pain.
The hardest part of being as sick as I have been the last year has been the absolute loss of control of my body. To have all the power I once had over it completely stripped became a persistent ache of ineptitude. Here I was, an experienced and respected fitness trainer who could hardly function in the gym. Thank God I have the most patient and understanding clients! Many times I’ve had to cancel because I wouldn’t be able to function in a session. I’ve slept thru alarms and missed sessions. Or if I was there, it was incredibly challenging to demonstrate exercises and I would usually have to sit for a while after doing so. I take my professionalism very seriously. Every minute of their time matters to me. So I really began to feel unqualified because of my lack of energy and my weight gain. I know they hire me because of my skill and knowledge and the heart I put into it. But man, have I gone home feeling guilty so many times.
You have self-admitted to me that you have dealt with a lot of binge eating episodes. We have spoken about the fact that you could possibly be binging because in your head if you are overweight that would make you unattractive to the opposite sex. And in a way it is a “protection mechanism” to your past experiences with men and what you have been through with being hurt. Do you feel acknowledging this type of behavior and the reasoning behind it has been beneficial to decreasing the behavior?
I believe most people binge eat to avoid intense emotion. Mostly negative, but some binge eaters need to even numb positive emotions if felt to a degree they can’t manage. There were times were I could tell part of my binging was to shelter myself. And it was further reinforced by the way some guys would treat me after competing, and especially how quickly their attention was lost once I gained weight. From childhood, my only power was food. In a very negative external environment, it was my only comfort at times. So as an adult when my mind, my “internal environment” became too much to handle, I felt I needed to suppress the pain and anxiousness with copious amounts of food.
What I’ve come to understand about inner pain especially, is that the more you run from it, the more it owns you. It changes your behaviors and will often be at the root of your self-sabotage in your personal goals.
And finally this past year I’ve been able to gain a different perspective on myself and truly come to trust that when you turn towards and lean into your pain, you disarm it. When you expose it, you diminish it. And the less you hide it, the more you can help others by showing them they aren’t alone in theirs.
So all of that, plus changing the way I view my own nutrition has helped me beat over-eating.
I know this last year or more you have taken a step back from putting yourself out there in social situations, on social media, etc. In a way, we have acknowledged that you are “hiding” from letting people see you in your current condition. Do you feel you are embarrassed? Do you feel you have to live up to what people expect from you as someone in the fitness industry? Or do you feel your career path and your body image do not align? Can you elaborate on these feelings and how you have decided to try and beat them with finally sharing your story?
My first doctor told me to completely leave the fitness industry and focus on my makeup career. She felt it would ease a lot of the pressure I was putting on myself. That actually ticked me off in a good way! I’ve been to college, gone through many certifications and spent extensive time studying and educating myself on my chosen path in nutrition and personal fitness training. I know I’m unique in the kind of training that I do and I can easily prove I have value in this community based on my clientele.
However, many competitors feel immense shame in going up a few body fat percentage points. Here I am trying to model fitness and teach bikini posing technique to many people looking like I haven’t stepped foot in a gym for a couple years. So yeah, I didn’t want to promote myself or show what I looked like online for fear of the mockery that might ensue.
The first step was contacting you. I was at a loss on a daily basis and was slipping back into over-eating at night. I knew some of your struggles and just wanted to talk to someone who could relate to my situation. Things really progressed when you first asked to interview me. My excitement was magnified when I told my closest friends about the opportunity. They agreed that not only would it be interesting to hear from someone who isn’t out of the woods yet, with all the benefits of hindsight and health-restored. But also that so many people seek someone with whom to relate on their most insecure levels. And that’s (as he put it) one of the qualities that makes me a good trainer, is that I have a story and I will relate to my clients where they are. That I can prove to them based on my experiences that they can change because I did, I will, and I believe the same for them.
What would you say your strongest and weakest moments or most significant moments in your journey were?
My weakest moment is tough to talk about because I never have. It was during the relapse of my bulimia after my second show. At that time, my gym was closed on Sundays. In desperation to burn off calories I went to the gym alone and did cardio. But I soon left, went to the store, binged on food and returned to the gym to purge in the bathroom and get back on the treadmill. I repeated that twice that day only to end up on the floor in tears. It was then that I came to understand, for me, competing was just my old E.D. in a new disguise.
The best moment in many, many years came only a week or so ago. I felt called to finally share my story on my personal Facebook page. I posted a full-body picture of myself in the gym and shared a large part of where I’ve been for the last year. The response was incredible. Being such a reclusive person for the last year, I didn’t think about the number of people who might see the post. I got so many amazing comments and personal messages. So many people responded so well, it brought tears to my eyes. So it makes me feel much better about how honest I’ve decided to be here.
As stated, this series of interviews are to really develop the underlying issues, physically, mentally, and psychologically that affect us on the inside and are often not seen from the outside. What would you say your biggest “hidden struggle” is today?
I still struggle with my fear of inadequacy. I’ve spent so many years of my life believing that my value was negotiated by my weight. Now, of course intellectually, I knew that wasn’t true. But a belief in the heart, no matter how weak or strong can sway the mind so well.
So last year I was seeking ways to reignite my creativity and my passion. I started doing more youtube competition makeup tutorials. And diving into my makeup work. But there was more. I still have such a strong heart for helping people. I found that creating my fundraiser Strength to Save filled that longing in me to make a bigger difference in the world.
The more I focus on who I am inside, the less my weight matters. I’m at a point now where, though I’m not comfortable or happy with it, I can accept my situation for what it is. And I believe that is what will empower me to progress with greater strides in reclaiming a healthy body. Where the mind goes, the body will follow.
What advice would you give to someone in your position, what has helped you find some balance?
First off, never put your mental or physical health to the side. Not for any competition or for any goal. You have one body and one life. I can’t think of any event, any stage or any photoshoot that was worth being so sick.
I’m very concerned about what social media is doing to bodybuilding. Mainly in the way women are presenting themselves online. The trend of “fitness porn” style photography is off-putting to put it kindly. Perhaps I’m more sensitive to the subject because of the fact that men have used and abused my body for their pleasure and power. Your body is yours at the end of the day. Do whatever you choose with it. But on social media, people are influenced by these messages. Whether it’s competitors shaming their off-season body for not being competition lean or bombardment of hyper-sexualized fitness icons. It can be hard to walk away from that not comparing yourself to what you see. So to women who are more sensitive or easily triggered, be mindful of who you follow and where you find yourself going in your internal dialogue. Don’t plant seeds that have destructive fruit.
And lastly, do not fear failure. Where I am today is exactly what I considered personal fitness failure to be. Overweight and powerless to change it. The truth is, no matter what your biggest fear is, it will not destroy you if you don’t let it. In many respects, my life has never been better. I always thought happiness would be back down below 12% bodyfat. But I wasn’t happy then. I actually feel much stronger and happier mentally and spiritually than ever. In time my body will heal. Sometimes our biggest fears lead us to great victories.
What motivates you today? Has that motivation changed since you started?
This recent time in my life has shown me how precious health is. So my motivation comes from small victories of making it through a whole workout or seeing the positive impact I can have on another person’s life. Hard to think of much more valuable than helping other people. I’ve learned that one’s own depression can diminish the more they devote their life to helping others.
Do you have plans to compete again in the future? Do you believe competing is a healthy goal for you at this point in your journey?
Hard to say about competing. I don’t know if my body will go there again. I have a beautiful figure suit that my dear friend Kristi wore on the Olympia stage tucked away in my room. I can’t seem to let it go. But I don’t really spend any time thinking about myself on stage right now.
I’m enjoying learning what it feels like to have self-acceptance and not push my body to some intense level right now.
What are your future goals with your career at this point? I know you are passionate about helping others, have a makeup business, and also started a foundation. Can you tell our readers about your personal goals and direction you are headed now?
My specialty in training is corrective exercise and human movement. I’m passionate about helping athletes and general populations improve the way their body moves. I work with them to prevent or recover from injury. So I plan to expand that aspect of my career. Makeup is a side-project and I’m mainly in it for competition makeup and fitness photoshoots. But if it goes in another direction, I’m more than open to it.
My foundation has been amazing. Strength to Save is based in the fitness community. Our aim is to raise money to rescue victims of and prosecute criminals of human trafficking all over the world. In two months on just a local level, we raised over $1,000. The main concept is kind of like the ice bucket challenge which is social media driven and relies on posting a video. But our method is to have you show an exercise that makes you feel strong, and dedicate a percentage of the weight or reps to the fundraiser. In the post you share a fact about human trafficking to raise awareness.
I feel like human slavery is so easily overlooked. But there are an estimated 36 million slaves in the world. All ages, genders, and social classes. This is something that truly thrives on the silence and passivity of others. Every little bit of money we raise is saving an innocent person from a life of pain they might not otherwise escape.
People can find out more about my program on Facebook, on Instagram @strenghtosave, and my website.
If you would like to reach out to or just continue to follow Amanda’s journey, you can do so through the following channels: