Barbie Thomas: Body Builder with No Arms, and Inspiring Mother of Two

Yesterday night I was just thinking how many “problems” we face today are first world problems, just that majority of us don’t know that. For example, if your greatest problems in the past six months include any of the following:

  • Not having a seat when taking public transport
  • Not being able to lose the last two pounds (when you’re not fat to begin with)
  • Being too lazy to exercise
  • Wishing your boyfriend would text you more often
  • Being sent on a mandatory training by your company
  • Having Chrome hang on you while watching YouTube
  • Not knowing whether to have McDonald’s or KFC for lunch (neither of which are good options, by the way)
  • Feeling awkward about attending an event where you don’t know anybody
  • Having an oversensitive friend
  • Not knowing what to do during your weekends

…then you are truly living first-world style.

Barbie Thomas, Body Builder

Today I introduce to you this lady called Barbie Thomas.

Barbie is 37. She’s actually not much different from you or me except that she has no arms — she lost them when she was two years old due to an accident with an electric transformer. She climbed onto the transformer, grabbed on the wires and the electricity burned her arms all the way to the bone.

“They were like charcoal,” says Barbie.

Her arms had to be amputated from shoulders down as a result.

The doctors said that she probably would not live, and that if she did, she would be a vegetable for the rest of her life. However, Barbie recovered, boggling the doctors.

(This reminds me of Wilma Rudolph’s story — I mentioned her in a previous Ask Celes post. Wilma was hit by a series of deadly diseases as a child and the doctors told her mom that she could never walk again — but she grew up not just walking, but running, and later on becoming a record-breaking Olympian at the age of 21. In a way, Barbie bears similarity to Nick Vujicic too — the inspiring man with no arms or legs, whom I mentioned in the same post.)

Barbie Thomas

This is Barbie Thomas, who lost her arms when she was two

Today, Barbie is fearless: she does almost anything a person with arms can do. She drives, types e-mail, dances, puts on her shoes, lifts weights, cooks,wears her clothes, and runs on the track — all by herself.

Barbie Thomas, cooking

Barbie preparing roasted mashed cauliflower in a cooking tutorial. Watch: Lunch with Barbie.

Barbie Thomas, exercising

Barbie exercising on her back

Not only that, she is also a professional body builder.

Yes, you heard that right. A professional body builder. Have you ever complained about not being able to exercise because you’re “too tired,” because “the gym is too far away,” or because you “don’t feel motivated to work out”? I know I have.

Not only that,

  • Barbie has been competing as a body builder in Phoenix, Arizona, against able-bodied women, since 2003. That’s 11 years and counting.
    Barbie Thomas, body builder competition

    Barbie in a body builder competition, strutting her stuff

    Barbie Thomas, body building competition

    As Barbie says, “‘Can’t’ is NOT an option!”

    Barbie Thomas, jumping

    Barbie jumping, in another competition

    Barbie Thomas, dancing

    Barbie dancing while flawlessly maintaining her balance

  • Since young, she has been dancing, swimming, and working out.
  • If training isn’t enough to keep her busy, she has not one but two teenage sons aged 14 and 18, whom she takes care of every day!
  • She dabbles in modeling and intends to foray into acting, where there is a niche for limbless people in Hollywood.
    Barbie Thomas, modeling shot

    Barbie’s modeling shot

    Barbie Thomas, modeling on the beach

    Another modeling shot of Barbie, this one on the beach

  • She is also moving into motivational speaking to inspire others.

Barbie’s inspiration comes from this statement someone once told her, saying that “You know you cannot win.” And Barbie says that these words, to this day, “…light a fire under me like you’d not believe. Because when someone tells me that I cannot do something, I’d bust my buns to prove them wrong.

Watch this short four-minute video where she shares her fitness routine and her inspiration:

(If you can’t see the video above, watch it here:

As Barbie says at the end of the clip, when people say they “can’t” go to the gym, it’s not that they can’t, it’s that they won’t.

Barbie’s story speaks for itself, so I’m not going to add much here. While some may draw inspiration for fitness from her story, I feel she inspires in all aspects of life. Barbie Thomas embodies drive, passion, persistence, diligence, and self-confidence when most, if caught in such a devastating life circumstance, would have given up hope. She is a true example of someone who lives life to the fullest whereas there are many who have the luxury of an able body but don’t even appreciate it or destroys it with bad eating and bad habits.

Take a cold, hard look at your life now. My questions to you are:

  1. Are you living the life you’ve always dreamed of?
  2. Are you making the best out of your days?
  3. Can you be doing more?
  4. If “no” to Q1 or Q2, or “yes” to Q3, how can you turn things around, starting from today?

Change doesn’t happen immediately — it is a culmination of small steps taken every day. It all starts from today. For Barbie Thomas, it started when she was two and a half years old, when she was lying in her hospital bed after the accident. As she saw her mom in the room, Barbie reached out her legs and gave her mom a hug — hence starting her life journey of using her legs and feet in place of hands to accomplish what she wants in life.

How about you? What’s your starting moment going to be? And how can you carry this forward?

Get started here:

Learn more about Barbie:

PS: Special thanks to PE reader Sam Chong for sharing Barbie’s story with me and giving me the opportunity to share it with the rest of PE!

Images: Barbie Thomas

  • Sam Chong

    Hi Celeste,

    The “First World Problems” seen in the article is a good thought for us to reflect upon. Thank You for listing her details in this inspiring article. She is truly an example of LIFE WITHOUT LIMITS!

  • Calae

    Hey Celes! What an accomplished woman — body builder, model, actress, chef? Most people aren’t any one of those things, let alone a combination of them!

    I was pretty surprised as I read this, because just yesterday I watched this TED talk:

    (well actually, I read the transcript, but that’s because I didn’t have headphones to listen to it when I found it), and I was afraid that this article was doing just what Stella was asking people NOT to do. Luckily, that wasn’t the case. =)
    Barbie is a really great inspiration, thank you for sharing her story while I sit at work getting nervous about driving home in the rain. =p

    • Celestine Chua

      Hi Calae, how serendipitous it is to read your comment — I actually responded to Deen’s comment before I read yours or even clicked to watch Stella’s TED talk (actually I read the script too like you), and realized that she spoke of the same message I advocated in my response. I totally agree that just because someone is disabled shouldn’t make him/her “inspirational porn” to others, and that the reason why I’ve featured Barbie in this piece (plus mentioned any other disabled people) is because they have inspiring qualities, as opposed to them automatically being inspiring because they are disabled and, well, living.

      At the same time I’ve to say that the example she mentioned about the boy associating people with disabilities as giving inspirational speeches is quite amusing. It’s reflective of how people have come to label “disabled people living a great life” as “yet another ‘inspirational story’ about how blah-blah person overcame odds to be where he/she is.” I can understand why though, because it does seem a segment of the society is moving in that direction. seems to have regular covers of such stories, as do some inspiration/self-help communities. Perhaps one day all of us can see past labels, see everyone as individuals with individual life paths, and strive to understand and learn in that manner.

      • Calae

        I just responded to your reply to Deen’s comment (how funny you said that before reading my comment!).
        I remember having a few moments in the past where I’ve heard stories about disabled people and thought, “…but they’re not really DOING anything…” and feeling like a monster because everyone around me was saying how inspirational they were. I was very grateful to hear Stella say that it makes no sense as well!
        I do hope we soon see everyone as individuals, and not as the labels we stick on them — it’s something I’m trying to learn how to do myself on a more regular basis, because I was raised to judge people harshly at a glance and I really don’t think that’s fair to anyone.

  • Susan Alderson

    I see essays like this a bit, featuring extraordinary people. And while I applaud their drive, I don’t feel motivated by them. I don’t have their disadvantages, and neither do I have their staff. I come from a long line of fishermen. My parents were the first to graduate college. I am a Regular Person. I don’t have a disability driving me. I only have me.
    I don’t have a husband who supports me while I start a business, I don’t have close friends who believe in me. I get up and exercise because I don’t want to be 90 and in pain. I don’t have the time or inclination to be a body builder. I’m not a role model for anyone.
    What I am is blessed with opportunity. I have nice kids. I have a good idea for a good business that satisfies me. I was able to get a college degree. I live in America, where there are pretty well zero barriers for entrepreneurship.
    I’m not an inspiration – but neither do I complain. It doesn’t take severe hardship to do your best. Every day, get up, try to do your best. That’s it. It looks different for each of us.

  • Nancy Lopez

    Nice Celes. Great post!

  • Kimberly Vogel

    What an amazing story!

  • Deens

    This is an amazing story. I often wonder however, do we always need to resort to the disabled community to inspire us? Do we always need to take a story from their book to provide us with inspiration to live our lives? And how about gazing into the developing world? Sometimes it can come with the narrative that..”oh we have everything we need so we should be happy and do more”. Unfortunately, comparing myself to others in that way doesn’t inspire me.. it leaves me thinking, wow that was a really great story, or that’s too bad, I wish I could.. and then the inspiration and motivation stops there.

    • Celestine Chua

      Hi Deens, that’s a great point! I think inspiration comes in all forms from all people. I wouldn’t look upon Barbie’s example as “Oh, we should be inspired because she’s disabled and she’s still able to do X, Y and Z,” but that “This is a woman who has experienced an unfortunate hardship and yet she is able to prevail through the obstacles to be who she is today.” It’s not her disability that makes her inspiring; it’s the circumstances she had to go through to get to where she is today, an embodiment of values shared at PE. In fact when I see Barbie or any “disabled” person like Nick Vujicic, Dr. Yeo Sze Ling, or the blind stranger I wrote about a few weeks back, I see these as complete beings as opposed to seeing them as “disabled.”

      Perhaps the “disabled” community tends to get more attention as “inspirational stories” in the self-help arena (TED talks and what not), but with reason too — they do indeed face huge marginalization from the general society, and more physical hardship than the average person given their obvious physical limitations. These experiences, we can probably never empathize because we simply aren’t in their shoes. At the same time I don’t see them as different from us and neither do I see them as a category different from me — a category that I’ll never be in — because I don’t think disability is a state that any of us is impervious to. It’s possible that an accident can happen to any of us in the future and render us disabled; I don’t know. I’m just saying, because I do believe that sometimes we as humans (myself included) tend to take what we have for granted, and that includes an able body, our sight, our sense of hearing, our voice, our sense of touch, our health, and basically things that we’ve had since we are born but never spend much time acknowledging.

      I’m glad that you referenced the developing world as an area to look into too. I try to share a spectrum of stories on PE as a way for readers to reflect and draw inspiration from — some of these stories include “disabled” people, some include successful leaders and icons, some include people who have fallen from grace, and some include real people like Michael Adamski (PE reader who lost 25kg in 8 months). Since everyone is different and has different values, not all stories is going to resonate with (and hence inspire) everyone, and that’s okay! Just because a story doesn’t inspire one doesn’t make it any lesser or less inspiring for others I feel. As long as we always adopt a learning attitude and draw lessons from everything we see/hear/read, this is probably the most important tool we can ever have in our growth and personal journey.

      • Calae

        I love what you said about how disabled people (is there a better term for this? It sounds so harsh. =( ) go through things that most of us will never fully understand, yet we’re not impervious to disability ourselves. I love how that emphasizes a “oneness” mindset!

        In terms of taking health for granted, I see it all the time. My mom has recently begun to use reading glasses because she can no longer read small print very well, and she went on and on about how depressing it is to get old and have your body start to break down. My sister and I both need glasses — I have very different vision-strength in each eye due to Amblyopia and therefore poor depth perception as well — and we just couldn’t understand how my mom could be so careless in her complaints. We’d never had the chance to experience great eyesight, how could my mom complain about needing some glasses for only a few things in her life? I can understand that it’s frustrating or possibly scary because it’s something outside of your control, but there’s no need to harp on it constantly, right?
        I guess what I’m trying to say is, we can always find things we can be grateful for and we should really honor ourselves more. Even with my glasses, I’m grateful that I can get glasses and can see at all. Heck, I even have contacts that I should be taking more advantage of wearing — I’m lucky enough to have options!

  • Danii Turnbull

    Wow, this moved me to tears. What an incredible woman. Takes away many of our created excuses when you read something like this. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Celestine Chua

      I totally agree. When I saw her story, I just felt that so many of our (our as in the world in general, including myself at times) complaints in life are so trivial and inconsequential (weather, traffic being heavy, transport being late, bad people behaviors, etc.) and that there are really higher, more important things to focus on by having the right kind of attitude. Barbie truly embodies that and that’s why I decided to feature her story because it/she is so inspiring.