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.
"I was really struggling to eat and the bodybuilding really allowed me to see food as fuel. It's been good at refocusing me to stay positive and on the right road."
She adds, "you don't have to worry about numbers when you're treating your body kindly."
The other benefit of working towards a goal and focusing on strength, Calafiore says, is it helps reduce some of the referred pain she lives with daily.
"I'm able to feel stronger in my body now, which allows me to do more things overall and outside of the gym," she says, adding that despite her limitations, she always shows up and never skips on a workout.
"If I experience pain when I'm working out, I sit down until my pain allows me to continue. I stay and I get it done," she says.
One thing Calafiore does need help with, though, is prosthetics that will allow her to compete next month. Facing a bill of thousands of dollars, she headed to GoFundMe to seek help, and within 24 hours, her first target was met thanks to a private benefactor and generous donations from the community.
"I did not expect that. I thought maybe my friends and family will see it, but the extent of what it has become has left me speechless," she says.
Now, 16 weeks into prep and the finish line of with her big day just four weeks away, Calafiore explains how she's feeling about it all.
"When I was a kid I was told I didn't need to do sport, and so I never really thought that I would end up doing a this with my life, but after I went to my first event and sat in the crowd and felt that energy, and the love and support and the cheering, I just thought, imagine if someone without hands and feet was on that stage. That would be a pretty powerful moment."
Pretty powerful indeed.
Listen: Health and fitness guru Michelle Bridges talks to Holly Wainwright about how she fits everything into her days.