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What It's Really Like to Be a Fitness Model

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Photo: Alex Palombo

Admittedly, it can be a hard habit to break: Opening Instagram, looking at the toned, acne-free models in perfect form and thinking, "Ugh, she's fit; she's got abs; her life must be perfect."

While comparing your body (or life!) to someone else's is sure to do more harm than good (it's proven, in fact), there's one thing you probably overlook: Many of these women do this for a living. Trainers, influencers, and yes, athleisure-clad fitness models make a living by exercising. Waking up every day to sculpt a six-pack is quite literally what gets them that "glamorous" gig shooting photos for the latest Nika sports bra.

But it's still, well, a job. We asked NYC-based fitness model Chelsea Aguiar, founder of Athaya Fitness, to tell us what it's really like being a fitness model.

Secret #1: Rejection happens every day, multiple times a day.

"For every 100 casting calls you go to, you may get two jobs," says Aguiar, who has been modeling consistently for about four years. Growing up as a dancer in Santa Fe, NM, Aguiar had to get comfortable with criticism and rejection when she wouldn't get a part. Then as an adult, when she found a love of strength training and entered a bodybuilding competition in 2011, her physique was once again on display for critique from a new audience, so she had to learn to put any self-doubt in the back of her head. (DYK that more and more women are trying to gain muscle through diet and exercise?)

While she decided to move to NYC to pursue acting, she began taking more fitness classes while auditioning, and it was then that she realized her passion for fitness. She became a personal trainer, and from there, heard about colleagues who also worked as fitness models. She's been focused on that ever since, but Aguiar is quick to point out that her career hasn't exactly been easy.

"It was rejection over and over and over again. Some companies brought me in five times only to say no once more," she says.

So while you may flip through a magazine or see a commercial on TV and think how good the girl with rock-hard abs must have it, Aguiar says what most people wouldn't know is that she and other models have been told they looked "wrong" hundreds of times before they booked one single job.

"I'm five-foot-six, and definitely one of the shorter girls at most castings," admits Aguiar. "I've even been released from jobs before for being an only inch or two too short."

Secret #2: Fitness models have insecurities, too.

Soon after Aguiar entered the industry, she realized the harsh reality that professional fitness models have just as many insecurities as the next girl. Hey, their bodies are constantly being picked apart.

For Aguiar, she says she's been working on the relationship she has with her body her whole life. "I remember getting my period at 11 and all of a sudden being highly concerned with how my body looked in clothes, what people thought about it, and how it compared to my friends'."

And even models aren't immune to bullying. "In middle school, a boy in my class pointed out to everyone that I had hairy arms, and the boys teased me for it until I graduated high school," she says. "I still get embarrassed when I notice it in pictures."

Although studying dance for more than a decade growing up ultimately helped her develop a connection to her body that has guided her modeling and fitness prowess, doing pliés in front of a mirror five nights a week made Aguiar wish she had "smaller shoulders, less muscular arms, thinner thighs, and higher arches in my feet."

"What changed this loop of negativity for me was realizing that people's opinions of me only matter if I allow them to," she says. Her go-to solution for overcoming nagging insecurities: yoga and friends. If it's been a rough day, she says she gets out of her head with a long, relaxing yoga class or group run with other women who make her laugh and inspire her.

"[Rejection is] really hard, so it's essential to have a strong sense of self, and remove your heart from those situations," she says. "Nothing in life is assured. You have to work hard, show up every day, be your best, and be open and warm."

Secret #3: There's no such thing as dieting.

Cheat day? Psh. Taking a week off of training? Yeah, probably not. For fitness models, staying in shape means that weekends of overdoing the takeout and mixed drinks are off the table. Aguiar, who fully admits to not shying away from a pizza, says that kind of willpower can be difficult.

But when the struggle gets real, she says she remembers why she sticks to a healthy diet...and it's not just for her career. "I eat as preventative medicine and because it makes me feel my best, not because of my job," she says.

Aguiar is also quick to dispell any rumors that fitness models (or any model for that matter) just don't eat or go from starving themselves to binging between jobs. "There's no such thing as dieting between jobs, says Aguiar. "You can't yo-yo diet because of the frequency of auditions," she says. "It's often 12 hours of notice or getting a surprise call to jump on a train to shoot with Reebok the next morning. You don't have the liberty of preparation." (Here's what SI swimsuit model Nina Agdal has to say about food and fitness.)

Secret #4: You need to perform like an athlete.

There is a lot of pressure to be the first to nail the technique of the latest workout trend or do mid-air splits to capture the best photo, says Aguiar. "It's overwhelming and scary," she says. "Every day there's pressure to learn a new skill or a new trick to add to your résumé. The more you can do with confidence and ease, the greater your chances of booking that next job."

So much like a professional athlete, it's Aguiar's job to nail that headstand or crush those box jumps. "Training two hours a day, six days a week isn't always fun," says Aguiar. "Healthy doesn't have to look like me. This is a pretty extreme end of fitness."

But even then, if you nail the form, the nutrition, the diet, and the skills needed to book a job, that still doesn't mean you'll get it. "This week I lost a big job to a dear friend of mine, and I was crushed at first," she admits. "It was complementary of my skills as an athlete, and I had felt confident and comfortable during the audition process. When I first heard she booked it, I had myself a little pity party. 'Why not me?' Then I realized, I didn't lose this job because I was inadequate. I lost this job because my friend is a badass and was the best woman suited for the job. It's important to remember that the strengths of others do not diminish your own."

Secret #5: You need to earn your success.

At only 5 feet 6 inches, Aguiar walked into a talent management agency at 24 years old thinking "This is my big break!" "I had been dieting so hard and was turned down almost immediately," she says. "I was heartbroken. But looking back, it was a blessing in disguise because it allowed me time to cultivate fitness and wellness as a lifestyle, and build my portfolio."

Instead of throwing in the towel, Aguiar started a fitness Instagram account. "I researched the types of activities and photos that were in the magazines I hoped to one day be featured in," she explains. "Then I reached out to every photographer and model tagged on the magazine's Instagram and asked if they would be willing to collaborate or do a 'test shoot' with me."

After two years of hoping it would all pay off, her hard work finally did when she was invited to Wilhelmina. "This time they called me," she says with pride. "And I left with a contract."

Secret #6: Yes, fitness models support the body-positive movement.

More brands are beginning to use models of all different body types (*confetti*), embracing real, beautiful female bodies in campaigns from Aerie, featuring gorgeous it-girl Iskra Lawrence, or Addition Elle's NOLA activewear line promoted by models Ashley Graham and Jordyn Woods. Even Nike is finally getting real by offering plus sizes and promoting the idea that beauty and strength come in more sizes than one.

And Aguiar is all about it. Particularly, she says she's inspired by Athleta for representing women of not only different body types but of multiple generations and ethnicities, too. "Their Instagram gives me the girl-power feels," she says. "And the athlete in me loves Reebok's imagery, from CrossFit, to yoga, combat, and dance. They promote athletic physiques across multiple disciplines."

In fact, Aguiar says that fitness modeling has become the greatest platform for so many strong, confident women to take ownership of what beauty and health really mean.

"We absolutely need to expand the range of body types represented in advertising and media," she continues. "It's important that as the fitness industry continues to expand, we don't reinforce misconceptions of what 'ideal health' looks like."

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