A self-described extrovert, Dawn Shafer Forbes greets guests with a grin, an exuberant welcome and a very firm handshake.
“I love people,” she said.
Over the past decade, she’s also learned to love herself.
The 54-year-old bodybuilder from Arden Hills who once hated her brawny form so much she starved herself nearly to death is now the World Champion of Pro Women’s Bodybuilding. She is the oldest competitor to ever win the title in this competition.
“I think I was in shock,” she said of the accomplishment after trying five times. “For 12 years, I’ve been saying I’m going to be the World Champion, and I finally got there. I was just really excited.”
‘I should be leaner’
Forbes was a farm kid who grew up with her three sisters and brother throwing hay bales and feeding cattle in Detroit Lakes, Minn. In school, she was a three-sport athlete focusing on the running sports: cross country, track and basketball.
A people-pleaser who hated conflict, Forbes was also a perfectionist who turned her sharpest criticisms inward.
She admired the sleek, slim bodies of runners and the waif-like look of model Kate Moss. When she looked in the mirror, she didn’t see a strong athlete, she saw a bulkier body physique and she hated it.
“When I was around 13 years old, I noticed that the negative mind thoughts started taking over, telling me I should be prettier; I should be leaner,” she said. “I always hated the muscle mass that I had.”
Those thoughts followed her to Minnesota State University Moorhead, where she joined the cross country team and developed anorexia.
“The leaner you were, the better you would be,” she said was the team’s mentality. “The top athletes were myself and another anorexic woman.”
Beaten down by anorexia
During her junior year, Forbes became so weak and depleted, she would sleep through her classes. Her sister, who was attending the same school, became concerned and alerted their parents.
In 1987, Forbes’ parents pulled her out and hospitalized her for seven weeks. There, she underwent intense counseling and her food intake was monitored. Physically, she improved, but psychologically, she remained the same self-critical person.
Her low self-image sabotaged her first marriage and haunted her as she became a mom and worked as a school teacher.
Embracing her brawn
Seven years after her first marriage dissolved, she met her husband, Mike, owner of Forbes Dental Care in St. Anthony, while running marathons. They married and had two children. During those early years running together, she confided to Mike that she felt it was time to stop fighting her body.
“I said to him, ‘I really want to embrace the body God gave me,’ ” she said. “ ‘God gave me muscle, and I want to be able to embrace it. I think that would be healing for me.’ ”
Never one to do things halfway, Forbes sought out a trainer, filled her garage with weight-lifting equipment, consulted a nutritionist and set to work trying to become a world champion bodybuilder. In 2009, she got her pro card, which allowed her to compete professionally.
Learning and fine-tuning
On her first try at the International Pro Elite Professional World Championships, Forbes placed 10th. This group allows only natural competitors. Performance-enhancing drugs are forbidden.
Each time Forbes competed, she learned something new, like how carbs affect your cells and how the timing of a meal can make muscles look fuller. She consulted with a posing coach who taught her how to make each muscle pop just by the way she would stand.
Contestants are judged on symmetry, conditioning and posing. There are four categories that increase by muscle mass: bikini, figure, physique and bodybuilding. Forbes was in the bodybuilding category.
With each competition, she went up in rank. She placed eighth, then fourth, then second and finally first on Nov. 16 at the competition held in Missouri. She took home prize money, a huge medallion and a nearly three-foot bronze trophy.
Forbes is quick to give credit to her family.
“My husband, Mike, has supported and loved me unconditionally. He taught me to believe in myself,” she said. Her oldest daughter, Sadie, 26, speaks up when her mom’s anorexic behaviors flare. Her second daughter, Kaia, 16, tells her to ignore negative feedback on social media, and her son, Christian, 13, is her encourager when she feels like quitting.
Now that she’s achieved the championship, Forbes has set herself a new goal — to pass on all that she has learned about body image to young women.
She’s spoken at a couple of college campuses and youth groups and has met with athletics directors and coaches, some who were posting the body-fat percentages of the female athletes on the lunchroom wall, she said.
“I really want to start ‘Girls in the Garage’ and I want to work with 10-year-olds as they start out. I want to train them, but as I’m training them, I want to emotionally work with them as far as learning to love themselves,” Forbes said. “There’s no perfect person.”
Deanna Weniger can be reached at 651-228-5556 and firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @dlweniger.