Brendan Yu
Curry Coastal Pilot

Eight years ago, local Brookings resident Jennifer Vanderschaaf was afflicted with an eating disorder. She saw herself as overweight and often struggled to maintain a healthy diet. Her self-esteem plummeted and her body suffered the consequences.

“I saw this image that wasn’t true,” Vanderschaaf said. “I just saw myself as this unhealthy, unattractive body instead of an entire person, and it became an obsession with the food and the scale, and it just wrecks your insides.”

Through counseling and therapy, however, Vanderschaaf was directed to the gym, where she gradually learned how to take care of her body through fitness and nutrition. As it turned out, Vanderschaaf was a quick study when it came to lifting weights, and she soon took up bodybuilding.

“I found it empowering to be able to change my body and reformulate it to a way where I felt comfortable with myself,” Vanderschaaf said. “I gained a lot of confidence from that. I just fell in love with the challenge of it; pushing yourself to learn new exercises, new ways of building muscle, new levels of fitness. It just became a challenge and a passion.”

Bodybuilding not only improved her physical fitness, but provided an alternate outlet for Vanderschaaf to channel her energy toward instead of the unhealthy coping mechanisms she developed for her eating disorder.

“I learned how to appreciate and view my body through a healthy perspective through fitness and lifting and, through that, I can kind of control and manage my physique and build my self-confidence.”

Last year, Vanderschaaf decided to take the next step in her bodybuilding endeavors by partaking in an amateur competition, a grueling and challenging endeavor in its own right: To prep for a competition, bodybuilders typically go through a 12-to 16-week period known as “ripping,” where they cut their body fat to a low percentage while maintaining their muscle mass. In the weeks leading up to her first competition, Vanderschaaf limited herself to as few as 800 to 900 calories a day— even cutting out spices from her diet in the final weeks.

“I’ve never pictured myself as being someone who was confident enough to get on stage, let alone in a bikini. It was very intimidating and very scary,” Vanderschaaf said. “I was shaking the entire time during my first show on the stage, and it went by like a flash. Nobody laughed at me, nobody threw me off the stage. It really kind of showed me that, like I’ve been told by my mother and father, these things you’re afraid of, sometimes you just have to do them; you just have to face your fears and conquer them and move past them because in the end, you realize that they’re not that scary and you grow from them.”

And while she felt “scared to death” during her first competition Vanderschaaf found solace and comfort from her fellow competitors.

“There’s so much love and support in (the) industry. (Other competitors) will come and put their arms around you, they’ll support you and pick you up and motivate you to get up their showcase your body,” explained Vanderschaaf. “It’s not so much about first, second and third place when you’re backstage at the show. Everyone’s pretty much rooting you on and reminding you you’ve worked so hard on this. You’ve put in the blood, sweat and tears, and getting up on stage is just showcasing your work. It’s unlike anything I ever imagined.”

Although Vanderschaaf has experienced an outpouring of support and positivity from her new connections in the industry, as well as from her friends and family, there has also been a few losses as well.

“Not everyone understands or supports the path I’ve chosen to continue with bodybuilding,” Vanderschaaf said. “Due to some restrictions at certain points in my training I’ve found it difficult to maintain a very social life.

Not everyone understands or supports the path I’ve chosen to continue with bodybuilding. Due to some of the restrictions at certain points in my training I’ve found it difficult to maintain a very social life.”

Bodybuilding is not without its own inherent risks, as it is common for competitors to struggle with eating disorders due to the pressure to eat as cleanly as possible— Vanderschaaf herself experienced some relapses during his first competition last year. Nonetheless, she has persisted with the sport, and building upon her experiences from last year, captured first in the novice division and third in the opens at the Cascadian Classic in Bend this past May.

For Vanderschaaf, who one day hopes to compete on the professional circuit, to have three months of rigorous exercise and dieting culminate in one day is a trade-off she’s more willing to undergo time and time again. After all, it isn’t the prospect of winning or placing on the podium that motivates Vanderschaaf to compete, but the realization that through hard work, anything is possible.

“Bodybuilding has made me into almost a different woman with the way that I can see now— how if you put your mind into it, you can achieve it,” she said. “It really isn’t just everyone else out there that can do these things— that’s how I used to view it, that I would never be one of those people. Now I see there aren’t those boundaries. Anyone has the ability to do anything if they’re willing to put in the time and the effort and they’re willing to sacrifice that hard work, they can achieve it. I love how I feel now, and I want to inspire and show other women that it’s possible that you don’t just wake up this way.

“Anyone can achieve this, I’m a prime example that anyone, no matter how how you feel and how much you don’t think you have, you can have it, and it is within you.”