Starving For A Six-Pack: My First Week Of Prep For A Professional Fitness Model Photo Shoot

dana mcmahan before after weight loss

LEFT: This is my "before" shot (I get that it's ridiculous to call that a "before"). RIGHT: Eight days of hungry and the six pack joins the party.

Blisstree contributor Dana McMahan wants to be a fitness model, but to get professional photos taken for her portfolio, she’s on a strict diet and exercise routine that has her, literally, starving for a six pack. This post is about the mental and physical impacts of her first week of trying to slim down; come back next week for week two.

Ever wondered what it feels like to have a body that you see in fitness ads and stories?

I can tell you. It sucks.

Ok, so the part about having the body isn’t so bad, but the part about getting it? That’s another matter.

I’m not talking about the workouts. I love working out. I like nothing more than throwing some heavy weights around; challenging myself with a kettlebell swing tabata that leaves me gasping on the ground; seeing just how long I can hold that weighted plank or wall sit. A good workout leaves me euphoric.

No, I’m talking about the diet. The one that leaves you with a constant, gnawing ache in your gut that keeps you awake at night and on the verge of tears at the thought of having to deny yourself one more thing. I’m not a dieter. I like my food. Come on, I’m a food writer. It would not be overstatement to tell you my life revolves around food. To wit: I have a French pastry tattooed on my stomach.

dana mcmahan fitness photos

This photo doesn't cut it.

The stomach that right now I’m trying desperately to flatten. As I write I’m halfway through a two and a half week depletion to get ready for a fitness photo shoot. Here’s the thing: I want to get work in print or on camera where I can show what a real woman looks like when she gets strong and fit. (They call that a “lifestyle model” by the way–the nice term for when you’re not 18 and don’t have perfect skin, hair, or teeth). But to have a chance at work like this (which the agency I just signed with tells me will be hard enough as it is, thanks to that macaron tattoo and, yeah, the map of the world inked on my back) I have to have photos of, you know, the product. And the photos I had taken last year for fun with a girlfriend, a year into my fitness journey when I was proud to finally have some muscles, those photos won’t cut it. They’re not “my best marketing tool,” says the agency.

So I’m to have new images shot. And I need every hard-won muscle to make a stellar appearance. Guess what hides muscle? You got it. Fat. So I have to shed the (by most standards) little bit of fat I typically carry before I get in front of the camera.

It’s a catch-22: I work out and eat to be strong and powerful (not skinny and frail), but to get the photos that may get me work showing what a strong woman really looks like, I have to drop my body fat so low that my mother tells me I look like I did in college when I had my tonsils out and couldn’t eat for two weeks. It’s so low that I’m constantly freezing, bundling up in the office and turning on a space heater. And my brain is so deprived of its fuel–carbs–that I’ve walked into a store with no idea what I’m there for, wandered into the tiny parking lot of my gym with no clue where my car is, emailed an assignment to an editor who retired six months ago, and struggled to find the simplest words in conversation.

My workouts are suffering, too. I missed the rack replacing the bar after some light front squats and would have seriously injured my wrist if my husband hadn’t sprung into action to grab it as it fell. Weights that are normally light to me now feel impossibly heavy. Walking up the stairs tires me. And I’m only 10 days in!

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    • MelissaH

      I don’t really see a difference. You look great before and after, but your before just looks like you drank a glass of water or something. It doesn’t seem worth it to put yourself through that just for vanity’s sake when you look the exact same.

    • Lauren Lever

      I think most women have that problem, with the belly, unless you have just awesome genetics (or are 22). I would love to have a six pack, but honestly, I love breakfast tacos a bit more.

    • Annie

      I’m sorry, but at the end of this, you won’t be showing me “what a real woman looks like when she gets strong and fit”. You were strong and fit before you started starving yourself. Strong and fit means being able to climb stairs, being able to lift heavy, and being able to think clearly. It breaks my heart to read this. This is not inspirational. This just makes me sad to see how unreasonable the standard of beauty is on both ends of the spectrum. With or without muscle, you’re still doing unhealthy things to your body to get into print.

      • davee44

        I agree completely!

    • BFD

      I agree with Annie 100%.

      The phrase “showing what a strong woman really looks like” really set me off. A strong woman can look like anything, can have any body. For a site that talks so much about being healthy and loving ourselves, this article focuses on just the opposite. Definitely not inspiring.

    • Briana Rognlin

      I don’t think Dana’s trying to inspire anyone to do what she’s doing. I think she’s trying to expose one of the realities of the media and fitness industries: That all those images of “fit” women we see (even the ones that are supposed to be “real women,” i.e. not fashion modesl) are more often than not people who are going through this kind of grueling diet and workout routine to look that way. (And in some cases, they’re STILL getting photoshopped even after all that.)

      When I decided to have Dana write this series for Blisstree, I wasn’t hoping for an inspirational column; I was hoping for something that would make everyone think about the standards set by media, and yes, the fitness industry. If it’s making you realize how crazy it is…then you’ve gotten the point.

      • Trish

        It seems like you are trying to say this is an “expose” series or something, but it seems like Dana is just saying she wants to be a fitness model, and this is what she has to do in order to achieve that. Not really trying to expose how awful it is, but just having to take part in it in order to achieve her own personal goals.

        I think the distinction between doing this in order to expose what people have to do, and doing it because of a personal goal is an important difference. And it seems like your idea of what this is, and Dana’s idea of what this is are not exactly on the same page.

    • Matina Vourgourakis

      What a horror story. Strong and fit indeed. It’s sad that we still have so far to go.

    • Naomi Williams

      Do you REALLY want to be part of an industry that perpetuates the lie? If so, why?

    • ituderevolution

      Oh honey. Words fail. I’m so sad that you feel the pressure to conform (like all of us have) to fit into another standard of beauty set by another industry. Sure, you’re not skin + bone splashed on the cover of Vogue, but the fitness industry can be just as depraved when it says “this is what a strong, beautiful woman looks like”. You clearly have inner (and outer) strength. I hope you can call on it to push back and tell the agency “I won’t starve myself to show a false representation of strength. Because the “before” photo is what a REAL strong, beautiful woman looks like.”

    • rose

      It would be a lot more inspirational if you were ACTUALLY planning on showing what you look like while fit…. as opposed to showing what you look like after playing around with anorexic eating habits to make your body abnormally thin. I remember exactly what it was like to work out while not eating enough, the gnawing pain, lying awake at night hungry… I was also 14 at the time with an eating disorder. This story is really sad and a really horrifying example to set for young girls. There are other methods to choose besides the mainstream “fitness model” route.

    • Liz

      This isn’t Pinterest folks. This isn’t about the whole “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” thing. Dana does not sound like she has an eating disorder and insinuating she is anorexic is completely out of line. That is a serious medical condition and unfair to place on someone who you know nothing about other than this isolated story about her preparing her body for modeling pictures. Additionally, if she had such a disorder she would not have been able to build the muscle she has in the first place. Yes, you’re are all right – modeling agencies shouldn’t have to come to this and we should all turn against the modeling industry and tell them this isn’t what real woman look like. And you’re right. Most of the time it’s not. However, America’s Next Top Model is in it’s 1 billionth season, we still buy magazines that are so airbrushed the people are unrecognizable, we’re still buying into the diets and the diet pills and the shapewear and the face creams. What does this mean? It means that it’s really easy to point the finger but that if we didn’t want to look like them too – we wouldn’t be supporting it and buying it and watching it.

    • ARCreated

      this makes me angry, sad, and strangely feeling justifies in denouncing the whole fitness model world. I hope you go eat a pastry and go work out and get pictures done looking like a real woman and stop promoting the myth of perfection that only harms us all physically and spiritually.

    • Claudia

      I’m a personal trainer and I have stopped training and dieting this way. Myself as well as my clients. I get a lot of new clients who come from other trainers and are physically and mentally run down, sometimes injured. I say stop the madness. If you are lucky your metabolism can recover after this kind of treatment. Everytime you add another diet stint on to this one you will weaken and deplete your metabolic function. You can’t rely on being able to train like you currently are into old age, and you metabolism and digestive function needs to be strong to handle just your every day food and lifestyle.
      I sincerely wish for you that you will get out of this what you wanted …. and then move on. Look in your area for a Wholistic Fitness trainer, someone who will help you recover, stay lean, and eat and train for your body type!

    • Julimonster

      The comments are often as thought provoking and interesting as the article – thank you for providing an insite into something that I never would have thought existed – LIFESTYLE models? As if reality isn’t enough?

    • Trish

      My question is: If you have to do this in order to get photos that will make people want to hire you, won’t you have to do this every time you have a job?

      People are going to want the product they buy (you in the photos after 2 weeks of deprivation) so it stands to reason that that is what you will have to do any time you book a job based on those photos.

      And since you say you feel on the verge of disordered eating, if it becomes a constant in your life, if you get jobs, then aren’t you going to be living an unhealthy life, and no longer be able to be fit and strong and healthy?

    • teenie717

      I’m just glad to finally get a clearer picture as to WHY I can’t seem to get abs like that! With this honest explanation of what it takes, I’m better able to decide for myself if it’s something actually working so extraordinarily hard for, or at the very least not beating myself up when I’m not there yet.

    • skram08

      This reminds me so, so much of how I began my journey into disordered eating that ended up seeing me hospitalised with anorexia- at 36 years of age. I was fit, I loved to powerlift (because I am not good at moderation and like to push myself to extremes) and considered myself to be a pretty self aware individual. I just wanted to see how low I could get my body fat levels- I kinda thought of it as a science experiment and my body was the petri dish.
      Just be aware that the more you starve yourself of good fats and so on the harder it is to think rationally and the easier it is to continue the disordered behaviour- it becomes addictive.
      I’ve even blogged about my concerns regarding my forays into crossfit, paleo, eating “clean” and how all of that can veer closely into ED territory here in fact; (warning- possibly triggering photos)
      Just… be careful. I thought I was smart enough to know when to stop and spent several years just trying to get a ~little bit leaner~ but it can be very hard to stop once you start.

    • davee44

      I think she is influenced by the Media and the so-called…. “men” in the fashion industry.

      I am a guy that likes a really woman’s body with some curves on it. The skinny muscular six pack look for women is NOT attractive at all. Real men like curves in the right places

    • Jamie

      Have you checked out Lean Bodies Consulting? Erik Ledin runs the show there and his method and knowledge are above and beyond anything I have seen before. He doesn’t believe in hours of cardio or carb depletion or any of the ‘traditional’ old school bodybuilding/fitness model craziness. You get to eat….for real….like ice cream post workout if you wish…..among other things that would be unmentionable for photoshoot prep according to the fitness industry.
      His clients have incredible success with their programs…..actually astonishing.

    • Lisa Callingham

      This is a really out moded, unhealthy way of prepping- are you happy to risk metabolic damage for a photo shoot? Every time we embark on these deprivation style diets it is HARDER to lose the fat next time – and there will be a next time, because you cant keep that up forever- you need to get educated on sane preps. The look is completely possible without crazy amounts of cardio, with carbs, fats and protein making up a very balanced diet and where you feel good with energy and strength. This old style doesn’t cut it if you really want to be healthy, strong, ripped….. And happy.