From a young age, Josephine Okwuofu disregarded the restrictive cultural gender roles of her native Nigeria in favor of fitness and a career in science. 

Josephine Okwuofu is a force to be reckoned with; at only 24 years old, she balances competitive bodybuilding and personal training with a corporate career in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. Okwuofu grew up in Ibadan, Nigeria with her mother, a seamstress, and younger sister. The three women took care of each other while her father studied medicine in Australia and obtained his citizenship, and eventually joined him in 2009. As the eldest child in an all-female family for almost a decade, Okwuofu was often called upon to do things that would normally be done by male children—such as fixing the TV and the car, and building furniture. These unorthodox tasks led to other “tomboyish” interests, including science, technology, and fitness. 

Today, Okwuofu works for a tech startup in the AI and robotics space and completed a graduate program at IBM; she is also a nationally ranked bodybuilder. She attributes much of her success to the culture of her native Nigeria, which places high value of hard work in a society with few shortcuts for many daily tasks. The Okwuofu family often had to carry water up flights of stairs, cooked from scratch daily, and walked long distances when no transport was available. In Australia, this commitment and diligence pushed Okwuofu in the unexpected direction of competitive bodybuilding—a path that challenged traditional Nigerian values, Australian freedoms, personal desires, and cultural biases.

Okwuofu’s interest in fitness and exercise began early. She always loved playing sports at school, particularly basketball, and admired an aunt who was a high-level soccer player as well as her father, who played competitive table tennis. As she got older, Okwuofu began going to the gym with friends, which slowly became an integral part of her life. She initially trained for obstacle course racing and calisthenics, then returned to lifting weights. As her interest in weightlifting developed, Okwuofu wanted to optimize her training results. She was fascinated by bodybuilders, which she came to view as the natural progression for her own fitness regimen.

In October 2018, she began a grueling 20-week preparation to enter the ICN (I Compete Naturally) National Season A competition, to be held in Sydney in March 2019. During the “bulking” phase, when Okwuofu was carrying extra body fat to maximize muscle growth, she faced no issues. Her family even approved her weight gain, seeing it as womanly and attractive. However, when she started “cutting” down her weight, Okwuofu faced criticism from her family and community. 

“I went back to Nigeria to visit straight after my bodybuilding competitions. Everyone in my family kept asking if I was sick because I was so skinny, telling me I had to eat and gain weight before leaving,” Okwuofu said.

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While Western beauty standards view thinness as desirable, Nigerian women face very different expectations. Where commenting on a woman’s weight would be considered a terrible faux pas in some countries, in Nigeria, it’s akin to observing that someone has changed their hairstyle or their outfit. 

This view is due in part to the Nigerian diet, which doesn’t vary as much as it does in Australia or the United States. While there are processed snack foods available, people predominantly eat freshly cooked foods such as yam, rice, stew, and meat or fish. For this reason, body composition and weight don’t vary as much in Nigeria as they do in Western countries. Most girls are slimmer, then gain weight when they have children, and stay heavier-set the rest of their lives. Men tend to put on weight in the belly and face around middle age. Being bigger, therefore, is associated with wealth and abundance rather than poor eating habits and a lack of discipline.

Immigrating from Nigeria, where bigger is better, to Australia, where slim figures are idealized, would present anyone with conflicting ideas of beauty and body image. Okwuofu deals with these conflicts by “staying in [her] lane and blocking out the noise,” focusing on her sporting and athletic performance instead of physical appearance. Still, other Nigerian athletes have come up against external criticism of their looks, much of which is derived from a culture that some consider misogynistic or dated.

Although Western media is filtering into Nigeria and attitudes are slowly shifting, gender roles remain fairly defined, with Nigeria ranked fifth lowest on the scale of gender imparity among Sub-Saharan African countries. Women keep house, men pay the bills.

Okwuofu is an athletic, muscular, tomboyish engineer in a society that believes women should be soft, curvy, and feminine, while men should be strong, authoritative, and masculine.

Okwuofu’s relatives and parents accepted her dedication to bodybuilding and hard work to enter competitions as characteristic—they had seen her apply the same single-minded focus to her undergraduate and honors degrees. They were, however, unimpressed that she’d chosen to dedicate so much of her energy and resources to something they believed made her undesirable to potential partners.

“If the comments weren’t about looking sick, they were about looking pretty,” Okwuofu said. “I was told I was too muscular and I should put on fat because I’m getting older and I should be getting married soon, so I need to look nice and curvy.

This attitude is not unique to Okwuofu’s family. Female athletes are often described in Nigerian media as looking too masculine, or are considered attractive “even though they look like men.” In a poll asking whether men would leave their girlfriends for Nigerian professional footballer Chi-chi Igbo, 80 percent of respondents voted either “Never! She is very unattractive,” or “Why in the world would I want to leave some flesh for muscle?”

Days before her competition, Okwuofu stood shivering in a pop-up tent, waiting for yet another coat of fake tan to set. With almost no body fat to help keep her warm. Despite her already deep complexion, a deep fake tan with a hint of gold would show Okwuofu’s muscular definition on stage and is essential for competitive bodybuilders. Okwuofu was concerned about her mother’s reaction to her fake tan. “My mum yells at me if she thinks I’ve been spending time in the sun and she sees my skin has gotten darker,” she said.

At one point, darker skin was considered more beautiful in Nigerian culture, believing it indicated “richer” blood. However, with social media, the Western preference for paler skin has begun to take hold, evidenced by the rising popularity of skin bleaching products. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 77 percent of women in Nigeria had used skin-lightening products as of June 2012—the highest percentage in the world. 

Nigeria is also a very religious and traditional country, with its population almost evenly split between followers of Christianity and Islam. As such, modest dressing is highly valued. Although it’s becoming more common for younger people to post more revealing photos on social media, doing so can still attract derision from the larger community. For Okwuofu, stepping onstage in nothing but a revealing, high-cut bikini was an act of defiance; doing it as a lean, muscular woman even more so. 

After 20 weeks of following a strict diet and grueling exercise program, it was time for the ICN. Okwuofu weighed in at 58 kilograms (127 lbs), with approximately 9 percent body fat. Her eyes and lips dominated her face; her cheekbones threw shadows any Kardashian would envy. Backstage, Okwuofu stood with her coach and a pair of dumbbells, doing some light movements to get her blood flowing and “pump up” her muscles. When her heat was called, Okwuofu stepped onstage in a lineup of lean, tanned women wearing wide smiles and high heels.

The judges called out the names of the poses and the women turned, flexing every single muscle, shaking with fatigue, grins turning into grimaces with the effort. For each heat, competitors might only be on stage for 15 or 20 minutes, but it’s a brutally demanding 20 minutes that represents a culmination of months of laborious preparation.

Despite it being her first time on stage, and competing against much more seasoned bodybuilders, Okwuofu placed third in ICN’s Miss Classic Figure Australia category.

While Okwuofu was concerned about her parents’ reaction to her showing her body to so many people, they were surprisingly supportive. “It’s a really big deal that my mum came to see my competition, and even helped me sew my bikini. That shows how much her mindset has changed since we moved here,” she said.

Okwuofu believes that her parents’ support was based on the fact that the bodybuilding would boost her budding personal training and online coaching business. They might not understand bodybuilding as a hobby, but they could understand the benefits and credibility of being a competitive bodybuilder for an aspiring fitness professional. Yet Okwuofu was balancing her own business with a full-time corporate job in a tech startup.

“I could never quit my corporate job to become a full-time personal trainer,” Okwuofu said. “There would be too much shame attached to it for my parents. It would be seen as a step backwards for my career, though it’s great if I dedicate my spare time to a side hustle.”

Okwuofu is one of the few women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and was one of the even fewer women graduating with a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Western Sydney. As of 2018, women represented only 22.8 percent of the Australian workforce in computer systems design and related services. Numbers are similar in the U.S., where African American women make up only 1.6 percent

“Being a person of color here, especially a woman…we have to work twice as hard, prove ourselves twice as much, and behave perfectly. Otherwise, we get overlooked, doubted, called aggressive or worse,” she said.

Women are dropping out of the STEM pipeline at every single stage of educational and professional development. This drop off begins at an early age as gender stereotypes and biases impact young girls’ perceptions of their abilities. Vanessa Doake, co-founder of Code Like A Girl attributes this to the “inherent inequalities in our society, as well as gender-biased societal norms which have discouraged women from pursuing STEM areas.” Heavily stereotyped toys and magazines, as well as advertising and mainstream media, compound this issue.

Most young Nigerian girls spent time at their mothers’ shops, learning family trades and helping. Absent her father’s presence, Okwuofu grew up outside these stereotypes and pastimes, instead building model cars, playing soccer, and rolling tires with boys. Those early experiences might have made her uniquely able to take on the cultural norms of her home country, and the larger issues for women in STEM.

Nigerians see medicine and caretaking work as a respectable career for an African woman, and an accessible one for Africans living in Australia. To make her parents happy, Okwuofu applied to study medicine, and moved successfully through the extensive interview process before switching her preference to engineering instead. To circumvent their disapproval, Okwuofu didn’t tell her parents about changing her preference until she’d already been accepted into the course. “I only ever applied for medicine for my parents, but I always knew I didn’t like it. Math makes sense to me because I can understand the principle and apply it to different contexts. Medicine is just cramming information, which I don’t like.”

“Before we moved here, people told us how hard it is for Africans, especially African women, to get a corporate job and move up the ladder.” Despite battling, at every step, the common negative assumptions and stereotypes that are applied to people of African descent, as well as occasional resistance from her own community, Okwuofu has found community and mentorship in other women of color in STEM jobs. Moving forward, she hopes to be able to use her insight into the unique experience of being a woman of color in corporate STEM to mentor other young women, and inspire women to achieve fitness as a coach.

Okwuofu is currently taking an extended off-season to build up her muscle and intends to compete again in 2020. In the meantime, she’s working on automating processes in the financial sector, and networking with other women of color in STEM industries. She hopes to encourage other women, especially African women, to pursue any paths they like without fearing a backlash from the community. “I want women of color to feel they have the freedom and encouragement to do whatever we want. Failure is not an option,” she said.

Check out Josephine Okwuofu’s online fitness coaching and follow her on Instagram.

Liv Steigrad is a Sydney-based copywriter and editor with a background in psychology. Her work and hobbies are largely guided by her desire to champion POC and members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

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