Manny Maung talks to Aye Aye Soe on the struggle of becoming a champion female bodybuilder in Myanmar.

“Myanmar people don’t consider me beautiful,” Aye Aye Soe, 25, confides when we meet in her newest gym near Thuwana stadium. “I’ve always been naturally slim and needed to put on weight which is what started me training in the first place.”

Wearing black skinny jeans and a checked shirt, Aye Aye Soe sports a short, asymmetrical haircut and some light makeup. A shaved undercut exposes a small tattoo just below her right ear, and another exposed tattoo on her right wrist suggests there is something of a rebel spirit lurking just beneath.

In Myanmar’s conservative society, tattoos were considered taboo, especially among women. The trend has enjoyed a surge in popularity in the past few years but it is still considered fairly risqué behaviour for women to undertake.

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Yet, the tattoos are not what draw distinction to Aye Aye Soe. Rather, they reinforce her apparent independence and ability to challenge the status quo.

Her position as a gold medal winning body builder also pits her apart from the rest. Not only is she good at what she does, she’s achieved what few in her country will even dream of – winning gold in an international competition.

Only Aung Swe Naing, Myanmar’s top performing male body builder, has attracted more controversy than Aye Aye Soe, but this is because of allegations of drug use (from his own team) just before the start of the Southeast Asian Games that Myanmar hosted 2013.

Aye Aye Soe attracts the controversy simply because she is a woman. She may not be considered classically pretty by Myanmar-standards but there are likely others who would disagree. She has full lips which reveal neatly lined white teeth and when she smiles, her dark eyes glint mischievously, helping to accentuate her pixie-like features.

In fact, the first thing I note is how feminine she appears. She is graceful and lithe – and she is petite. Weighing just 56 kilograms and 5.4 feet tall, Aye Aye Soe is hardly what one expects when meeting a professional body builder. It is a common – and annoying – misnomer.

“Everyone thinks that bodybuilders are massive but that’s just not true,” she explains with more than a hint of exasperation. “It’s actually very difficult to put on bulky muscle and to be lean. You have to work really hard to build muscle and when you work out, your body is burning fat. So women rarely put on muscle bulk easily.”

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Another thing that annoys her, mainly because of the sexist overtones, is when she is catcalled by men. It gets infuriating then, when they leer at her and call her a lesbian or “tomboy” (a pejorative term in Myanmar) once they realise their muscles are puny in comparison to hers.

“It’s so ridiculous,” Aye Aye Soe says. “I’m doing what I do for the love of sport and to perform as an athlete. It’s not for anything else and I want to make that really clear: I take my professionalism seriously.”

For a determined woman in Myanmar, the hurdles of stereotypes and expectations can be limiting. If anything, these limitations have made Aye Aye Soe more determined.

It started when she was 16. Myanmar culture deems a woman’s curves as her highest mark of beauty and by family accounts, Aye Aye Soe was informed that she was a runt.

Wanting to put on weight, she began working out at a local gym. A hobby soon turned into a regimen. Before long, exercise was a part of her daily routine. By the time she turned 20, she felt strong and fit – and beautiful.

“I asked myself, how could I make myself feel even more beautiful?” Aye Aye Soe tells me. “It was actually one of my trainers who thought I could do well and suggested I enter competitions.”

Working as a clerk at the Myanmar Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Federation, she met her mentor, Maung Maung Kyi, who became one of her strongest supporters, encouraging her to train harder and eventually helping her become interested in competition training.

“I could see my body changing and adapting to the exercises that I was doing and it felt so satisfying,” Aye Aye Soe recalls. “I’m small but lean, so the physique division in competing really called to me. I could stay small but could build form and be strong.”

Women’s bodybuilding – or more aptly, body sculpting – competitions have four main divisions. Judges assessing the bikini division look for tone rather than muscle definitions. This round is considered more apt for the sports or bikini model “look”. The figure division requires more posing, which judges assess for poise and balance. The fitness division assesses athletic tone, flexibility and gymnastic strength.

Aye Aye Soe’s preferred division, and one that she has won medals for, is the physique division. Lean muscle mass with very little body fat and a good, even balance of muscle over the body is what rates with the judges.

In 2012, Myanmar women were finally able to compete internationally. The widespread easing of restrictions and sanctions at the time helped to open up a whole new world of possibilities for many in the country. For Aye Aye Soe who had been competing nationally since 2010, international competitions were a marked step away from what she thought she knew.

“We had been competing in longyis in Myanmar, and we were finally given approval to wear two pieces, a sports bra and bicycling shorts,” she says. “In international competitions, I wore a bikini and had to learn how to oil up and apply spray on tan. Besides getting used to a bikini, I was wondering why on earth would they want to put tanning lotion on me when I’m already brown!”

A string of international competitions in 2012, which she self funded to compete in, saw Aye Aye Soe awarded first place or in one of the top four positions.

“I thought at the time, I am never going to be considered to have the looks needed for a beauty pageant but I can be beautiful and strong and fit – this was how training made me feel.”

A strict regime of diet control and exercise is necessary for honing a body into shape she says. Food is the critical factor and some days, Aye Aye Soe would have to force herself to eat.

“You have to eat to replenish your body, and sometimes I wasn’t hungry, but I knew I had to put fuel into it,” she explains. “Other days I wanted to eat more variety but I had to be so disciplined.”

During pre-training, she would carb load to try and put on weights. Always, there would be eggs, lots and lots of eggs, then plain noodles.

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Once she switched over to full training mode, her diet would involve mostly protein-laden food, more eggs (although just the egg whites to reduce calories), steamed chicken, fish and plenty of vegetables. In the evenings, she would eat more proteins and take her vitamin supplements.

In between training, Aye Aye Soe worked as a trainer in the gym of Sedona Hotel in Yangon. Everything she earned went toward training and her competitions, she says.

In 2014, she finally landed the ultimate prize, a gold medal in the physique round of the highly regarded 12th Southeast Asia Bodybuilding competition.

“I felt vindicated,” she says. “All the criticism against being a female bodybuilder, all the naysayers who had to say congratulations afterward, it was satisfying to know I believed in myself and could achieve this.”

Aye Aye Soe gives credit to her family who did not necessarily approve from the start, but gave her their best when they realised her heart was set.

She has now taken a year off training and competing to start up two gyms: one in North Dagon and one in Thuwanna. Her business partner had the funds and she had the nous, which made sense in opening the gyms as a joint effort. They cater for both men and women, with personal trainers and tailored programs available for those who want to consider training harder.

For the next five years, Aye Aye Soe’s ambition is to expand the businesses to include spa facilities and fitness classes, while continuing to be a personal trainer. She’s not sure whether she wants to compete again, but she hasn’t scrapped it off the “to do” list.

Some challenges still remain.

“It’s hard to find a man who is not intimidated by me,” she says with a wry smile.

“And it’s hard for me to meet someone who understands that I prioritise my work. But I’m happy being active, being productive and working hard rather than sitting around waiting for someone. Sometimes, you have to go out and get the things that you want.”

This article was previously published in MYANMORE’s monthly lifestyle magazine, InDepth #11, September 2015

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