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100 Women: Thai woman fights stigma to become a bodybuilder

Penpraghai Tiangngok poses showing her muscles.

Penpraghai Tiangngok is pursuing her dream of being a champion bodybuilder, despite being called a "freak".

With a muscular physique, a height of 168cm and long blonde hair, Penpraghai, who's known as Fon, is the first Southeast Asian woman to compete in the Olympia.

Often referred to as Mr Olympia, the Olympia is the world's largest and oldest bodybuilding competition.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was an early participant in the event.

"All bodybuilders, whether Thai or foreigner, have a goal to compete in Mr Olympia," says Fon, who lives in Thailand.

Back at home, in the north-eastern province of Loei where she was born, getting stared at is something she's now used to.

"People don't recognise me when I go back to my hometown. They are surprised of how big I am and think I look transgender," she says.

Even in the beach town of Pattaya, where she has lived for the past eight years and where bodybuilding is gaining popularity, Fon says fellow Thais sometimes see her as a "freak". Several of them don't speak Thai with her, assuming she is a Filipina or Brazilian.

"I like to dress up and wear make-up, and whenever I go to Central (Central Festival Pattaya Beach), people look at me and they know I'm a bodybuilder. But when I go to the market, I get different looks," she says.

"When foreigners look at me, they're like 'wow'. Their only reaction is 'wow'."

Following her father's wishes, Fon worked at an office for a while but later quit to become a personal trainer in Bangkok, before moving to work in Pattaya in 2008.

She started her serious training with the help of her former Czech boyfriend, who was a bodybuilder.

"I didn't think of competing at first; I just wanted a nice body and a six-pack," Fon tells BBC Thai at the gym she set up last year in Pattaya.

"There weren't many women lifting weights [at the time I started], but nowadays you have both men and women. In the past, female bodybuilders looked strange in the eyes of Thai women."

After training for a while, her boyfriend suggested that she compete.

Fon's first competition was the 2012 Mr Thailand, the country's biggest bodybuilding contest.

She then made it into the national bodybuilding team and competed internationally in Singapore at an event organised by the World Bodybuilding & Physique Sports Federation (WBPF).

She was disappointed after ranking last out of 10 competitors. Fon decided to leave the team that day.

"I believe that if I am really talented, I am capable of going to anywhere in the world," she says.

In 2011, a year after gaining a place in the national bodybuilding team, the local Thai press published stories about Fon being arrested for selling steroids, which is an illegal substance due to the potential for abuse.

Some amateur and professional athletes use steroids as a sport enhancing drug; bodybuilders use it to increase their muscle size at a faster rate.

Fon tells BBC Thai that a police officer attempted to purchase the products online and asked her to bring them to him at the Ekamai bus terminal.

She admits that she didn't have a licence to sell the products. Fon claims that though she was initially asked to report to the police station, she hasn't been asked to appear in court yet.

Various bodybuilding federations including the IFBB attempt to control the use of drugs among bodybuilders. The IFBB lists the names of bodybuilders who test positive on their website, but they don't test Mr Olympia participants.

"Many people ask me whether or not I use steroids. I ask them why they don't ask me how I train or how many hours I work out… I want others to know that using steroids doesn't help you to get bigger. The first thing that helps is the amount of weights you lift," Fon says.

It took Fon a whole year to prepare for the Olympia, longer than she has trained for any competition before.

"In the Olympia, they look at our weak spot when we're presenting ourselves on stage. I know that my arms and calves are still small compared to foreigners," she says.

Image copyright WASAWAT LUKHARANG/BBC THAI

In September, Fon won the 10th place in the women's division of Mr Olympia in Las Vegas, topping her initial goal of reaching the top 15 of 28 participants.

"I was both happy and surprised. I don't know how to explain it… I performed better than expected," she says.

The International Federation of Bodybuilding & Fitness (IFBB), which organises Mr Olympia, told BBC Thai that Fon is the first Thai and Southeast Asian woman to take part in the competition.

Now Fon's dream is to rank among the top three in her Olympia category, which means having to compete in a pro-competition at the beginning of next year to be able to qualify for the Olympia again.

"The way I see it is if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best," she says.

Photography by Jiraporn Kuhakan

What is 100 Women?

BBC 100 Women names 100 influential and inspirational women around the world every year. For our 2017 season we challenged them to tackle four of the biggest problems facing women today - the glass ceiling, female illiteracy, harassment in public spaces and sexism in sport. Find us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and use #100Women

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