May is known as Women’s Health Month, as well as National Physical Fitness and Sports month. In order to celebrate all things health and wellness that have to do with women of color, today we’re launching Fitness Fridays for the month. We’re hoping to share stories that help others embrace the importance of taking care of themselves both inside and out.
Even if you don’t follow her professional page @Lyzadora, chances are, you’ve probably seen Tokini Bilaye-Benibo somewhere on Instagram. Her waist-length locs are a sight to behold and have popped up on countless natural hair pages. And the makeup artist, who not only does hair and makeup full time but owns a shop in Houston called Lyzadora Beauty, has magician-like skills with a brush. But what really catches everyone’s attention is the 34-year-old’s body. Bilaye-Benibo, on top of being a stylist and MUA, is a body builder. In her most recent NPC fitness competition in 2016, she placed third after going up against elite women body builders from around the United States, Canada and Mexico. “There was no one on stage who looked like me,” she said about the lack of Black women taking part in such competitions. “There were no other Black girls on stage.” But it was a process for Bilaye-Benibo to stand center stage and represent Black women in bodybuilding, a process that started back in 2012.
She was a collegiate track athlete, who like many of us, entered the real world and packed on the pounds. It took a desire to transform her body, as well as the desire to live out a passion that had been burning within her since childhood, for Bilaye-Benibo to not only lose the weight and build muscle, but to become a force within competitive bodybuilding. Check out her story.
MadameNoire: What originally motivated your decision to transform your body and then eventually foray into bodybuilding?
Tokini Bilaye-Benibo: To be honest, I was probably six or seven years old and I was at home with my dad. There was a bodybuilding competition on, and of course, you see the men and I’m like, ‘Wow!’ So then after the men come on, I see all these women and I freaking lost my mind as a kid!’ That’s when I think I can distinctly remember my intrigue with muscles. And so fast forward to when I got older and the time actually got right, because it takes so much time and discipline to be competition ready. That particular year, 2012, I was 29 and I was overweight, and I was like, “I’m over this sh-t.” And so I said, “Ok, I’m going to give myself a new body, and if this doesn’t work, I’m getting plastic surgery.” A lot of people don’t tell you for real for real what it is, but that’s what it was. You graduate college, you’re making more money, and women and men, after a certain age, all you do is happy hour and Sunday funday. All that is is food and drinks. Next thing you know you’re 50 pounds heavier and like, “Ok, how did this happen?” So that’s exactly what happened to me. But I was like, “You know what? Let me get my life together.”
I didn’t want to be that person. I would look at my arms, I would look at family members — I didn’t want to be that person who the doctor told, “You have to change this or else.” I didn’t want to be told that. And we’re all told that “Oh, once you get to 30, your body goes downhill from there.” But I said, “I kind of think that’s a choice.” I think to a certain extent, it is a choice. For me, it was kind of one of those things where I was just like, “Whatever I can do in my power to make sure that I’m healthy, that’s what I’m going to do.” So initially I didn’t start bodybuilding. I started getting my health together. I went on a complete raw vegan detox and I did that for six months, and I think I lost maybe 65 to 70 pounds. This is before I even started working out. This is before I started training, before any of that stuff. So after I had gotten to 150 or so, I said, “I think it’s time for me to do what I’ve always wanted to do.” So that’s where I decided, “You know what? Let’s do this and it will be your gift to yourself for your 30th birthday. You’ll have a new body and feel good about yourself.” That’s what I did. I trained in 2012 to get ready for my first fitness competition as a birthday gift to myself.
Were you ever nervous about what people might say? You know we Nigerians.
I honestly didn’t care. My dad doesn’t compete, but he’s always been into bodybuilding as long as I’ve been alive. So that was never an issue for me. People are going to talk anyway. Outside of bodybuilding, people will talk if you’re fat, people will talk if you’re skinny — you might as well have the body you want. You might as well have the things in life you want because they’re going to talk anyway. But to be honest, there is a stigma when it comes to Nigerians, specifically women. It sounds terrible, but you don’t really have any value outside of getting married and having children, regardless of your degrees, regardless of your accomplishments. So I started training, and of course, my dad was impressed because he’s always been health conscious. But when I’d gone to Nigeria, they were like [in accent], “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Don’t do too much. A man will want a woman to be soft. The exercise is too much you know? Stop now. It’s only yam. It’s only garri.” They don’t really get it. Instead of being a jerk I say, “You know what Auntie? I’m good.” But every once in a while, you know, I was at the airport in Nigeria and they were like [in accent], “Soooo, you be man or woman?” I was like, “Ask your mom.” That’s the worst thing you can do in the airport in Nigeria because they can hold you, but that particular day, I was over it. I hadn’t even really advanced that far as far as bodybuilding yet. But I continued.
How do you balance a busy schedule and making time for exercise?
It’s hard having to balance it before work: Getting up at 4 a.m. to go train and then making sure all of my food is ready and then going to work. Normally, in the morning, I get my cardio out of the way and then I get out of work. And then after I get off of work is when I do my weight training. It makes it easier for me to split it up. One, I’m not as tired at once having to do cardio plus the training. And then it breaks up the time for me. I can get up, go do my cardio, listen to music and get my day started, get a little energy, and then it allows me to work because my workdays are long too.
How has scoliosis impacted you while building muscle, particularly on your back?
For my whole college career, even high school, I was told “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” So I was afraid to do anything until I started training. It was a physical thing but it was also a metaphorical thing. I was so afraid to do certain things, but I literally had to put my foot in. I had to. I had to figure out how to work around it. I do limit myself with certain things in the gym. I believe that anybody of any ability can train according to their own body, we just have to make modifications. That’s what I do. My favorite physical attribute on my body is my back, but it’s also my greatest insecurity because of my scoliosis. I can see it. Other people can’t see it as well as I can. But on the other hand, I look at my back and I’m like, “Ooh this thing is shredded exactly how I want it.” So it’s both for me. As far as heavy, heavy weights that could put strain on my back, those I don’t do. I’m not a power lifter. I’m not in the gym to impress anybody with how much weight I can throw around. People always ask, “Well how much can you squat? How much do you bench?” I really don’t care. I don’t care about the numbers. My goal is an aesthetic goal.
As far as numbers go, what advice do you give women trying to build muscle who get discouraged by the number on the scale?
It’s hard to tell someone not to look at the scale because the numbers, to a certain extent, are still an indication of certain progress. But certain days, with women and their hormonal fluctuation, you may hold more water. You may have days where you’re extra skinny one day and then the next day you’re like, “Why did the scale go up two pounds? I thought I put in the work.” As much as it sucks, you just have to get through the day. Don’t mess it up by binge eating emotionally. Get through the day. Keep doing what you’re doing. Add a little extra water. If you’re worried, drink some more water. As simple as it sounds, adding additional water helps to reduce belly fat and bloating. If you’ve ever seen a toilet that doesn’t flush, the best way to make it flush is to pour more water in it. If you want your body to flush, that’s what it’s going to do. The more water you drink, the more water you’re going to flush out.
As far as the fitness side of wanting to be at a healthy place physically, you have to be ready to do it yourself. Nobody else can motivate you like you can and no one else will. You can have all the gym buddies in the world, but they’re going to fall off. And it’s going to be left up to you to say, “You know what? I’m not driving through Jack in the Box today.” “Let me go to the gym, I’m not sleeping in.” “It may be cold today but I’m still going.” People say it’s a lifestyle change, but it sounds so cliche to me. The real, real, real, is that it’s a daily decision. You have to make a daily decision not to be greedy. I’ve been there. When I first started I was like, anything starch-related, I need it. And that’s my thing. I never had issues with sweets: candies, cookies. Mine was like rice, pasta, something like that. But I have to make a decision every day: “Ok, you’re good. You’re not hungry, you’re just greedy.” I have to tell myself that because I know. I gained weight because I ate too much. Not only did I eat too much but I was sitting my a– down all the time. Outside of work, all I was doing was sitting down and chilling and chilling. So I’ve had times where I’ve pulled into a drive-thru, ordered food and thought, “Ok, I’m going to regret this in two days or the scale is going to go up” and I would literally pull off on the plug. Literally run off before getting to the window to pay. That was a victory for me: “Ok, you didn’t actually buy the food so you’re not going to eat it.” Or days that I would buy junk food. I don’t have control when it comes to certain stuff, so I don’t put certain stuff in my house. I don’t put chips in my house because I like crunchy things and if it’s a family-size bag, I’m going to chew it. Most of these companies who have most of the junk foods, they have psychologists and neurologists who work for them. They know the things that are addictive: salty plus crunch, sweet plus chewy. Those things neurologically fire off things in your brain that give off the same hormones and chemicals as cocaine, heroine, all of those things. That’s why it becomes hard for people to let go of certain foods.
And what do you say to people who say that muscle and femininity don’t mix, so they’re afraid to do strength training because they might get “bulky”? Looking at someone like you, you are very feminine. You are a beauty lover! You do makeup and hair but then you’re also a very strong and muscular woman.
Here’s the thing, a lot of women do say that, but what I’ve realized is that most of the people who say that have excess fat anyway. They’re like, “I don’t want to be big and bulky,” and I’m like, but your arms can barely fit in a jacket. Let’s try to look at something a little bit different so that you’re able to do whatever. Plus, you have to really train a lot to just get big and bulky. Naturally, I have smaller arms. So it’s taken me four years to even build muscle on my arms. And I decided that you can’t leave it up to someone else to determine what femininity looks like. It looks different for different people, and for me, I like muscle. I’m a glam girl, but I don’t need to necessarily be prissy all of the time. I like to sweat because sweat means I’m doing something right. I like my six-inch heels just as much as I like my running shoes. I decided that muscles look really cute in a dress! Either way though, you have to be confident in yourself. Whether you’re muscular, whether you’re skinny, whether you’re fat — own your sh-t. Own the skin that you’re in. Transform it in the way you want to, but you have to own where you’re standing. So for me, I was like, “Ok, this is what I am. This is who I am and this is how I like to look.” Even if I was wearing a fruit basket on my head, if it feels good to me, it’s going to appear confidently on me.
Follow this femme fitness enthusiast at @Lyzadora and @Lyzadorafitness. Check out the rest of this month’s Fitness Friday features with yogi Jessamyn Stanley and CrossFit competitor Elisabeth Akinwale.