“A lot of times people see exercise as punishment for poor decisions, but a change in mindset about wellness and exercise is all that’s needed. It’s more about you than self-recrimination. You owe it to yourself to be fit.”
What does a Nigerian woman living in the United States with looks that would cause a model to burn with envy do when she has conquered the beauty field? She becomes a bodybuilder that’s what. In fact, Tokini Ibikuro Bilaye-Benibo showed interest in the sport at a very early age. Perhaps it was her emulating her father who did not compete but honed his physique to near professional levels. These times working out served as a means for father and daughter to bond. Tokini shares with Griots Republic that she and her father used to watch competitions and openly shares, “being fit with some level of muscularity has always been important to me.” This all makes perfect sense coming from a woman who was a gymnast as a child, joined a West African dance troupe and who eventually went on to compete in track and field in college at the University of Texas (and has the legs to prove it!)
We’d be remiss if we failed to mention Tokini competed in Heptathlon events. “I’ve always had this athletic, dance, health, fitness core,” she laughs. “I recall working out on the track and saw a woman doing lunges but what I also noticed was how fit and muscular she was, and I went over to join her, and after talking to her, my interest in becoming a bodybuilder bloomed.” Tokini’s goal? To obtain the muscularity but keep femininity and beauty at the forefront, and having operated in the beauty industry before competing professionally, she can do both well.
Tokini began competing in 2012 which was a birthday gift to herself. After putting it off for so many years, she decided she wanted to give herself a new body as a gift. How did she do it? She merely removed those “reckless” things that were not good for her body. Tokini recalls being told about all those things that happen to your body as you get older, but those words were coming from individuals who were not following their own advice. So, she decided she was not going to be that person whose health began to decline as she passed thirty years of age. In fact, she decided to improve at 30 and eliminated junk and alcohol from her body.
In July 2012, Tokino competed for the first time. Competing as a heavyweight, she has competed in the United States, Mexico, and Canada and has held rankings in North America as high as 3rd place, a spot for that she is particularly proud. “When I think about what I was able to accomplish in the amount of time I did against people who had been in the sport a lot longer than I, I cannot help but feel a sense of pride,” she beams.
Being Nigerian and a female bodybuilder does present some unique challenges culturally, however. “An African woman is supposed to be soft, delicate. You know, this and that but for me, I can have all the muscles in the world, but they cannot diminish my femininity.” Tokini is quite confident that each woman determines her own level of femininity. In fact, she navigates the worlds of beauty and muscularity quite well.
Now, there is the question of female professionals using performance enhancement drugs and the impact on the feminine appearance. That myth is quickly dispelled by Tokini after clarifying that PEDs merely supplement the body’s ability to burn fat. When people comment on a woman’s chiseled facial appearance as being masculine, it is usually because she has eliminated fat all over her body, including her face. Seeing a professional bodybuilder in the off-season, the face immediately begins to regain fat. That lean and chiseled look happens with or without the use of PEDs. “When I’m competing, and am on stage, I am at 4-5% body fat. That doesn’t take anything away from me being a woman or womanly,” she says. Unfortunately, Tokino still gets “hate mail” from men within the black community saying things like, “she is not a woman” or “that she is too manly.”
She shrugs off most of the commentary, understanding that her bandwidth is wider than just the normal bodybuilder and that she is one of the few African women in the sport. While she is seen as a bodybuilder, she is also seen worldwide as a beautician and make-up artist as well. “People will always have something to say, so I have decided to be me and live my life unapologetically. There are many women that I inspire, and that means a whole lot more to me than a coward behind a keyboard.”
So to those who would like to become fit, whether to compete or just for better health (or both), particularly as we go into “resolution” season, Tokini believes that fitness and health is just a matter of time. She stresses this may require getting up a little earlier or curbing the couch potato habits. It also may mean preparing meals in advance to ensure a sensible diet is adhered to and arriving at the gym as early as 4 am or even going to the gym as breaks in the day allow.
Since GR addresses individuals that travel frequently, Tokini lets us frequent flyers know that travel is not an excuse to gain weight and lose sight of our health. In fact, she goes on to suggest using what you have around you to help you exercise. She recommends, “lunges and working out at the beach either in the sand or water is great resistance training. If there is a chair in your room, you can either use it for support to exercise or even the counter in the bathroom. Go dancing. It burns a lot of calories, and it’s fun. Go sweat.”
“It simply takes time and sacrifice.”