A new start after 60: I always battled with my body image – until I became a bodybuilder at 64

<span>‘People would say they wished they had guns like mine!’ Marlene Flowers at the WHS Wilfred R Cameron Wellness Center in Pennsylvania.</span><span>Photograph: Kristian Thacker/The Guardian</span>
‘People would say they wished they had guns like mine!’ Marlene Flowers at the WHS Wilfred R Cameron Wellness Center in Pennsylvania.Photograph: Kristian Thacker/The Guardian

In 2021, at 64 years old, Marlene Flowers entered her first bodybuilding competition. Oiled, tanned and wearing a bikini, the auto repair shop owner from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, found herself under bright lights on stage, twisting and contorting to show off her taut muscles alongside people half her age. Once the flexing was over, she then performed a one-minute posing routine to the theme song from Flashdance, one of her favourite films. “I was terrified to get out there but as soon as I did, I realised everyone was so encouraging and supportive,” she says. “We all wanted each other to succeed and I walked away with a trophy.”

If you had told Flowers when she was in her 50s that she would be inviting people to judge her figure, she would have laughed in your face. She had a natural aptitude for freestyle swimming as a child, but struggled with her body image. Self-conscious and often shy, Flowers went on to marry and divorce twice. “It all affected my self-esteem and I ended up with an eating disorder for many years,” she says. “It was getting worse and worse until I was hospitalised for issues relating to my weight loss at 58. That was my wake-up call.”

Once she had built up some strength and was discharged, the youngest of her two sons, Ryan, encouraged Flowers to start taking care of her body through exercise and to see food as a way of keeping fit. He directed her towards home workout videos and after noticing that the instructor on one of the DVDs was older than her, she decided to give it a try. “I thought if she can do it, so can I. I started to get stronger and began to enjoy putting on the videos,” she says. “I was feeling more confident in my body but it was all a private thing. The idea of working out in public felt like too much.”

After five years of home routines, Ryan eventually managed to convince Flowers to try out his local gym. “I was really nervous about people staring at me or having something to say about my age, but I had reached my limit with the home workouts,” she says. “So we went in together, tried a few machines and after I left I remember saying to Ryan: ‘That wasn’t so bad.’”

Slowly building her confidence by working out with Ryan every day, Flowers started to gain muscle mass. “I wanted to push myself,” she says. “I felt stronger and other people started to notice too. They would come up and say that they wished they could have guns like mine!”

The compliments sparked an idea. Ryan decided to film some of their sessions and upload them to TikTok and Instagram under the username @granny_guns. After a video of Flowers flexing those eponymous guns went viral, her growing online following flooded her accounts with positive comments. She decided to enter a bodybuilding contest as a target for her exercise regime. “We got something like 8m views on one video, it was crazy,” she says. “I noticed that it was really inspiring people to get fit and that encouraged me to keep going.”

Now 67, Flowers has won four more bodybuilding trophies, boasts more than 1 million Instagram and TikTok followers and has gained sponsorship from clothing brand YoungLA, making her the oldest sponsored female athlete in the US. She still works out every day, starting with a 10-minute ab routine and 130 pushups at home before heading to the gym for a two-hour session with Ryan, who has since left his job in business development to train his mother full-time.

“My new friends in the bodybuilding industry have become my family,” she says. “They genuinely care. It’s wonderful to fit in and I’m breaking the stigma for others too. Even in our local gym, I’m noticing older people joining. I now have more self confidence than I’ve ever had in my whole life.”

She has also gained famous fans – including bodybuilding legend Arnold Schwarzenegger, who follows her Instagram account – and has her sights set on a competition in November, where she might be able to win her “pro card” to become a certified bodybuilder. “Being older only means I need a bit more recovery time, but otherwise age is just a number in your mind,” she says. “I’m on a mission to motivate everyone. Once you get moving, it always makes you feel better. There’s nothing else like it.”

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