GURUGRAM, Haryana -- Most afternoons, Yashmeen Chauhan puts on a remix of the Shiva Tandava Stotram, loads impossibly heavy weights onto an exercise machine, flexes her ropey, muscular biceps, and switches into beast mode.
Depending on the day, she torques her chest and shoulders as she works the chest-fly machine; squats 130 kg; does bench presses; deadlifts 150 kg — all in her relentless quest to become the first Indian woman to earn a pro-card at the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) Professional League.
"Through bodybuilding, I have proven to myself that I am strong — not just physically, but mentally as well," Chauhan said one afternoon after a dizzying workout on the chest-fly machine. "It shows on my body and in the confidence I exude while walking on the street."
This year, the 39-year-old fitness enthusiast returned to competitive building after a two-year hiatus. For years, she had competed everywhere from Hong Kong to India's rural hinterland (In 2016, she was the Indian Body Building and Fitness Federation's Miss India and Miss Uttar Pradesh and she also won bronze at IFBB's Miss Asia), but earning a pro-card would cap a long, unfinished journey that began when a bullied, overweight teenager in Haryana became a Jane Fonda-inspired trainer, an award-winning bodybuilder, businesswoman and the owner of Sculpt — the gym where she works out every day.
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Instagram has mainstreamed workout culture, but — like most things online — in the most unattainable and depressing ways. The internet is awash with photographs of pouting Yoga celebrities, doing asanas in fitted sweats, that only serve to reinforce standard patriarchal notions of the perfect feminine form. Chauhan is on Instagram too (she has 148,000 followers), but in Gurgaon where she lives and works out, a muscular woman is a rare sight.
One afternoon, as Chauhan strolled through Ambience Mall, a wide-eyed man in a green shirt stopped and gawked as she passed him, little girls tugged on their mother's arms and pointed and grown women grimaced.
For Chauhan — like many Indian women — just occupying public space is a form of protest. And her appearance, as a visibly worked-out "big" woman, she said, was a way of asserting control over her body and challenging notions of femininity.
Female bodybuilders create their own concepts of femininity by foregrounding notions of size, strength and power, said Tanya Bunsell, a professor of sport sociology at St Mary's University in Twickenham, UK.
"By transgressing notions of what it means to be a female in her traditional town, [Chauhan] is possibly opening up ways for other females to be," Bunsell said.
"From transgressing notions of what an Indian woman should look like — soft, thin, small — to creating a body which she considers beautiful and not for others' pleasure, choosing a leisure activity for herself rather than focusing on womanly duties, and wearing clothes which openly defy the cultural and religious norms of the community."
But such transgressions often come at a price: Women like Chauhan are often controlled by the tyranny of their own body image, but they're also deemed "gender outlaw[s]", said Bunsell, which means they are marginalised for being socially deviant within a traditional, more conservative culture.
"I imagine that she breaks taboos in every way," Bunsell continued. "From transgressing notions of what an Indian woman should look like — soft, thin, small — to creating a body which she considers beautiful and not for others' pleasure, choosing a leisure activity for herself rather than focusing on womanly duties, and wearing clothes which openly defy the cultural and religious norms of the community."
Bodybuilding is also a way for women to reconfigure notions of gender.
"Gender deviance can be defined as anything that steps way outside the idea of a binary gender system where females are expected to be stereotypically feminine in terms of their looks, their body shapes, their mannerism and their personalities," said Ruth Chananie, a professor of sociology in Iowa, who has also written about normalizing gender transgression through bodybuilding.
While many assume bodybuilding to be an act of feminist resistance, both Chananie and Bunsell have found that often the desire to resist was secondary to the women's passion for the sport.
"Not all of the women embraced the feminist perspective," Chananie said. "Some of them didn't even want to be associated with the word 'feminism.'"
THE MALE GAZE
The muscular female body is gradually becoming more acceptable in India. The Instagram account of fitness model Gurbani Judge, for instance, has over one million followers, most of whom visit her page to view photographs of her showing off her strong curves and muscular limbs against the backdrop of grungy gyms.
But female fitness competitions have long struggled to define the perfect form, and selection criteria are still largely shaped by the male gaze. This was evident from the recent guidelines published by the IFBB Professional League — the tournament Chauhan had been prepping for.
The IFFB has three categories of competition: Bikini, Figure and Physique. While bikini athletes are expected to have "full round glutes with a slight separation between the hamstring and the glute area" (essentially a well-rounded posterior), figure athletes should have "tight glutes with separation between the hamstring and glute area" (ergo a small but muscular posterior).
The guidelines are silent on the glutes expected of women in the physique category, which Chauhan would be competing in. Rather, women in this category must have "full muscle bellies".
"If you're going to be muscular women, then in order to be acceptable and thought of as sexy and attractive, you also need to look feminine," Channie said . "Beauty norms like long hair, face full of make-up, feminine accessories like high heels and jewellery, and definitely things like breast implants."
Chauhan earlier competed in the bikini and figure category, in which competitors take to the stage in platform heels to show off their slim, toned bodies. This time, Chauhan was training for physique, a category that no Indian woman had ever won before. Chauhan's desire to be the first is what brings her to Sculpt day after day, to play her favourite workout music and get her beast mode on.
"Yashmeen is a self-built girl," said Chauhan's aunt, Sudha, as she made methi parathas, aloo and chutney at the large brick home in Defence Colony where Yashmeen grew up. After Chauhan's parents had a bitter separation, they left her with her grandparents and Sudha when she was only a year old.
Chauhan had dropped by after her morning workout, and with the easy familiarity that comes from years of living together, the women went about chatting and prepping lunch — Chauhan in leggings, a tank top and sneakers, and Sudha in an orange salwar kameez.
They tenderly reminisced about Chauhan's grandfather, a colonel in the army whose portrait hangs on the wall in front of the kitchen. Sudha remarked that he was a strong believer in the unpopular opinion that girls are better than boys. Chauhan was the apple of his eye, she said, adding that he would be proud of the woman Chauhan has become.
The niece and aunt duo also remembered the tougher days: particularly Chauhan's childhood as an overweight, unhappy child.
But as with most other challenges in Chauhan's life, she had Sudha's help.
"I used to ski and play hockey," Sudha said. "I knew basic exercises, so I used to tell her to go across the street and exercise."
Young Chauhan was so conscious of her appearance that she only agreed to train before dawn at the park across from home to avoid being seen. But it wasn't long before she upgraded from the small park to a neighbourhood gym where she worked as an aerobics instructor.
"All I used to do was cardio, cardio, cardio," she said, recalling Jane Fonda fitness tapes and group classes. It wasn't until a male bodybuilder attended one of her classes to improve his own cardiovascular endurance that she considered bodybuilding for herself.
But her male trainers discouraged her from weight training.
"They used to say, 'You know this is not meant for women. This is for us,'" she said.
The table is set with parathas, aloo and a chutney. Chauhan is on a strict six-meals-a-day plan to ensure she is perfect shape for the upcoming competition, but she decides to give in to her aunt's cooking.
"I'll start being serious on Monday," she said.
"The biggest thing that she has in her life is determination," Sudha said. "She is very hardworking towards her profession."
A NO-JUDGEMENT ZONE
Sculpt, the gym that Chauhan owns and works out in twice a day, is a shrine to her career as a competitive builder.
Images of Chauhan plaster the walls, medals hang on display and trophies line tall shelves placed near the entrance. There is a slogan spray-painted next to a painting of a woman lifting heavy weights: "With pain comes strength."
Chauhan has the same motto tattooed on her forearm.
In one corner, Neharika Modgil, a slender 20-year-old law student, loads weight onto a barbell beneath a giant photograph of Chauhan.
"[Chauhan] exudes a sense of confidence in herself, and also in everyone around her," Modgil said. She said she hopes to follow in her trainer's footsteps. "[Chauhan] [encourages] people to start believing—if not in themselves, then in something bigger than just the normal goals that they set."
Chauhan trains men too. She patrols her gym, correcting posture and demonstrating proper techniques. It's a no-judgement zone, she often says.
"She has more muscle mass than me, and I don't shy away from saying that," said Amit Arora, who has trained with Chauhan for eight years.
While her clients at Sculpt are in awe of her athletic prowess, bodybuilding remains a largely male-dominated space.
Mahesh Chaudhary, the general secretary of India's nationally recognized Body Building Sports Association, has been in the industry for over two decades—first as a competitor, then as a coach. "We are trying to focus more on women these days," he said.
But while the focus may be shifting toward female athleticism, Chaudhary admits most women are turning to gyms simply to get in shape or maintain their physique. Hardly any want to become bodybuilders.
"We don't like when [women] are too big," he said. "Men do not like women with huge bodies and big biceps." He puffed his chest out and pointed to his biceps before breaking out in a chuckle. "They only like sleek bodies."
There are women like this — but not like Chauhan — at his federation's competitions, he said.
In April, Chaudhary's bodybuilding association held a Mr. North India bodybuilding competition in Elaichipur Loni Village, located on the Haryana-Uttar Pradesh border. There were no women in the audience, but despite the gender exclusivity suggested by the title, six young women did arrive to compete.
The women were young, thin, and seemed nervous at the incongruity of standing in heels and bikinis in a field on a makeshift stage in the middle of a village. But they seemed to grow in confidence as the crowd of wide-eyed men whistled, applauded and eventually thronged the stage to take photos of them.
They were, to borrow Chaudhury's description, "sleek".
Last month, Chauhan returned to the stage after a two-year hiatus to compete in the IFBB Professional League's Pro Qualifiers Series, hoping to make history by becoming the first Indian woman to win a gold medal in the physique category. The competition featured athletes from all over the world, but took place in Delhi, a familiar setting for Chauhan.
Home advantage aside, Chauhan's confidence going into the competition stemmed from her belief that true feminine strength included strength of mind and body, she said just days before the show.
Chauhan's biggest challenge was competing in the women's physique division against a Chinese sportswoman. The competitors were judged on their size and shape, muscle tone and proportion, symmetry and choreographed poses.
Chauhan took to the stage in a glittery pink-and-gold bikini, and executed the iconic poses that builders work into their routine to highlight the development and definition of each muscle group: the "front lat-spread" shows off the latissimus dorsi — the flat back muscles that form the distinctive "V" shape — the double bicep, the side chest, and the rear-lat spread, that etched out each muscle on her back in sharp relief.
But the judges ultimately chose her Chinese competitor; Chauhan got second place and a silver medal instead.
"I was well prepared as per the guidelines of the IFBB Pro Qualifiers International Standards," she said on the phone after the competition. "So, I am absolutely confused with the decision." She added that people had already begun congratulating her before the decision was announced.
She described the initial aftermath as "heartbreaking", but her familiar poise and self-assurance soon returned.
On Instagram, Chauhan struck a more philosophical note: "Maybe the judges were looking for something else and I respect their decision whatsoever. After all, I stood on that stage to get judged right?"
Now, Chauhan is already preparing for her next competition.
"I will compete again," she said, with quiet assurance. "I will earn my pro-card soon."
For now she is back at Sculpt, working machines, lifting weights, and getting bigger, better, stronger and more ripped with every repetition.
A few days after the disappointment of the competition wore off, Chauhan posted a set of 10 photographs titled, "MY THREE YEAR JOURNEY AS A COMPETITIVE ATHLETE, AT A GLANCE", that began with her in a red bikini and matching stilettos to her most recent competition as a barefoot Physique competitor.
"Everytime I made a stronger comeback," she wrote in the caption. "IMPROVEMENT is the name of the game. DO YOU AGREE?"
14,479 likes and 208 comments later, it seemed most of her followers did.
Watch Yashmeen's journey here: