From the outside, the world of competitive bodybuilding can be a mysterious and hard place to understand. The hours spent in the gym; the insanely restrictive diet; the diamante emblazoned string bikinis and spray tans.
But for 28-year-old Vanessa Calafiore, who was born without feet or hands and spends many of her days experiencing chronic pain, this world has offered her the kind of purpose and centering effect most of us only dream of. And come October, she’s set to compete onstage for the first time at the Victorian state championships.
“I can’t express to you how I feel in my body,” Calafiore tells Mamamia.
“I’m a girl who walks around without hands, and feet and I have no qualms with that, but the bodybuilding gives you this inner… you carry yourself differently. You just start believing in yourself in a way you never did before,” she explains.
Similar to the way many of us stumble across life-changing experiences, Calafiore came to discover bodybuilding through following a boy. Or more specifically, following a boy she had a crush on into the gym. And as these stories usually go, the boy faded into the background, but the weights stayed.
“It was like love at first squat,” Calafiore says laughing. “It just made me feel really empowered and I realised I was a lot more capable in my body than I gave it credit for. Then the ball just went rolling from there.”
The ‘ball’ Calafiore refers to is prep – the four letter word that fills unfit diet-lax people like me into a flustered panic.
Think regimented meal plans that count calories to the tee. Tailored workout routines that include six days of weight lifting and a 'rest day' that can include up to three hours of cardio. Think exhaustion and hunger and deprivation.
When asked about this Calafiore says that yes, those things are all true, but that there's also a lot more to it.
After struggling to create a healthy relationship between her body and food, dedicating 20 weeks to readying herself for competition has been the catalyst of change her mentality needed, Calafiore says.
"When I walked into Doherty's [the iconic weights-focused Melbourne gym Calafiore now trains at] I was only eating about 500 calories a day... I was always trying to lose weight," she says.