The Feminine Physique

Petra Browne
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Years ago, when my body simply was what it was, soft and long, before I had even contemplated changing it into anything else, I came across Martin Schoeller’s Female Bodybuilders on a bookstore display table. In it were studio-lit portraits of women whose faces had been reduced to bone and socket and vein, whose skin had been stained with spray tan and eyes outlined in shadow. Enormous muscles rose up to enclose their necks. They looked prehistoric, fossilized and eternal. I thought they had destroyed their chances at love. My mistake was to assume they were living under the star of sexual capital, as I was. After all, they wore the rhinestones and velvet of showgirls. What I didn’t yet understand was that bodybuilders are ruled by a different star, the same star that would later rule me, if only temporarily. It was dim and solitary, with enormous gravity. I still don’t have a name for it.

Since childhood, one of my chief desires had been to show no weakness. Throughout my twenties I worked in restaurants where my coworkers would offer sealed jars, kegs, cases of wine, and banquettes on which I could perform feats of strength. But the impression of strength I cultivated was rooted less in my appearance—tall and slender—than in my determination. Then, at age thirty, I began lifting weights, and my body changed rapidly. I looked in the mirror and flexed my newborn muscles. I was finally mastering what had, since puberty, seemed uncontrollable. Granted, this mastery was taking my body in a direction I had never intended—my other chief desire since childhood was to be Jessica Rabbit—but I sensed a growing congruity between my physical form and my desire for respect. One day, all I would have to do would be to wear a sleeveless shirt.

Initially, I lifted with a friend, an amateur boxer and PhD student. But when his semester leave was up, he moved back to Ithaca, New York, and I continued by myself. I felt alone in my new passion—most of my friends in Brooklyn had never set foot in a gym. Over time I began to identify with the men in the weight room—it was almost all men—with their shaker bottles and sweat towels. I befriended a gym regular who had competed in a bodybuilding show. He showed me a photo of himself smiling onstage in board shorts: a curious costume for a bodybuilder, I thought. He explained that this was Men’s Physique, a different category from Bodybuilding, and that it prioritized a kind of beach-body look that required less development. The upper legs weren’t considered at all. Soon I discovered that a similar category existed for women, called Bikini, and nothing seemed more natural than that I, too, could compete.

Competition was easy for me to understand. My father bred and showed miniature schnauzers. I had spent most weekends between the ages of eight and fourteen riding with him out to some livestock arena where he would powder and spray his dogs for the ring. He did it, I believe, not because he valued the competition itself, but because it channeled an obsession that would otherwise seem deranged. He spent hours each day grooming and walking his dogs. He bought huge computer monitors on which to edit show photos. This man, otherwise so taciturn, would lie on the floor in his home office and talk on the phone at length to other owner-handlers. Competition gave structure to his mania. The only major difference between his pursuit and mine was that in this case I would be the schnauzer.

The following year, 2015, I competed twice in Bikini with the National Physique Committee (NPC), an amateur feeder organization for the International Federation of BodyBuilding and Fitness (IFBB). Bikini was conceived as the bodybuilding equivalent of a “Hawaiian Tropic competition,” according to IFBB athlete representative Bob Cicherillo, who took credit for coming up with the category in an interview with Muscular Development. The concept was effectively a reversion from the bigger-is-better ideals of bodybuilding’s peak in the 1990s and 2000s to its origins in midcentury muscle shows, where women sometimes shared the stage with male competitors in beauty or swimsuit contests held during intermission. The women who competed for titles such as Miss Body Beautiful and Miss Physical Fitness had the soft, curving bodies of pageant queens—and, indeed, in Bikini’s first years, many competitors had a fairly natural, smooth appearance. Soon, however, women began to depart from this physique; though they retained the same hourglass contours, their surfaces became more ripped. (This muscular creep, I would later discover, was endemic to all classes of bodybuilding.) By 2015, Bikini looked to me like a perfect reconciliation between my two chief desires: appearing invincible and looking pretty.

I had always believed my body could save me. Pretty Woman, Cinderella—the fantasy goes by many names. This fantasy drove me to type out Craigslist Missed Connections to strange men I saw on the subway, to devour books with titles like Getting to “I Do”: The Secret to Doing Relationships Right!, then stash them guiltily out of sight, under my bed or on the top shelf of my closet. It drove me to scan the faces of men on street corners and stoops, checking for their approval. I put my headphones in my pocket so I could better receive their feedback. Their collective attention would act like the pressure of a mold on its material, the final product of which would be me, minted into my most appealing form. But these preoccupations ran counter to my desire to appear self-sufficient, and I felt ashamed of my dependency. Bikini seemed to offer a loophole: an hourglass shape, but one built by discipline. It was stripped of fat, no longer subject to fertility cycles, hand-holding fantasies, horoscopes, and rom-coms—in other words, all the things that made me weak.

Meanwhile, Women’s Bodybuilding, the category that included Schoeller’s more muscular subjects, was under existential threat. In 2014, the IFBB had announced that Ms. Olympia, the top Women’s Bodybuilding contest since 1980, would be discontinued. There would, however, still be opportunities for women in the Ms. Physique Olympia, Ms. Figure Olympia, and Ms. Bikini Olympia categories—each featuring a smaller physique than the last, and all of them smaller than Bodybuilding. Figure had been introduced at the Olympia Weekend in 2003 as a softer, smaller alternative to Bodybuilding. Bikini had been introduced in 2010 as a softer, smaller alternative to Figure. Finally, Women’s Physique was introduced in 2013 as an alternative to Women’s Bodybuilding altogether, one with a muscular ceiling written in. Certain poses were eliminated, such as the aptly named “most muscular”: two fists clenched in front, shoulders angled to the audience to show the most upper-body mass. These changes were the culmination of years of efforts to rein in the muscularity of female competitors. As early as 2004, Jim Manion, IFBB’s chairman, sent out a directive to athletes that vaguely asked those “whose physiques require the decrease” to reduce their muscularity “by a factor of 20%.”

The changes to the Olympia women’s roster mirrored changes going on in the men’s division and in the sport as a whole. There had been rumblings for years on message boards and blogs that Men’s and Women’s Bodybuilding both were ruined by mass monsters and drug abuse. Accordingly, three new men’s categories have been added since 2011: 212 Bodybuilding (referring to a 212-pound weight limit for competitors), Men’s Physique Classic, and Men’s Physique, in order of descending size of the competitors. By opening competition to smaller physiques, the federations opened to more competitors, and, significantly, to more entry fees. Shahriar Kamali, a retired bodybuilder better known as King Kamali, has said that Bikini was “good for the sport” because show promoters that used to make one or two thousand dollars per show are now, after the addition of Bikini and Men’s Physique, making “thirty, forty, fifty thousand dollars per show.” In the words of Cicherillo, “Business is booming.”

If it’s true that the smallest-size categories at professional shows bring the most revenue to the IFBB, this isn’t reflected in the prize money, which disproportionately goes to Mr. Olympia. At the 2019 Olympia Weekend, Mr. Olympia won $400,000, while none of the other titles took home more than $50,000. When Ms. Olympia was still around, her prize money was a small fraction of Mr. Olympia’s. In 2014, Iris Kyle, the most decorated bodybuilder in IFBB history, won Ms. Olympia for the tenth time and took home $28,000. That same year, Phil Heath, as Mr. Olympia, took home $275,000—about as much as Kyle had made in her ten-year reign. The numbers would seem to say that the smaller divisions are subsidizing Men’s Bodybuilding. Yet Kamali was convinced that male bodybuilders “carry the whole sport.” The reason? “Everyone wants to see super freaks.”

The first time I saw Sasha, he was working out at my gym, surrounded by trainers. He was massive and mute, like an extra on Game of Thrones. A few weeks later, we did a session together. He had recently emigrated from Ukraine, where, the training manager told me, he had coached bodybuilders for competition. It took a few sessions to convince Sasha that I had what it took to compete. Finally, he said, “I see you strong here,” tapping his chest. We selected a competition twelve weeks out. Twice a week, we worked out legs. Sometimes he worked out alongside me. Three days a week, I did upper body on my own: back and biceps, chest and triceps, shoulders. Free weights, cables, machines. Five, and eventually seven, days a week, I did cardio on the elliptical.

The process Sasha guided me through is called prep. The aim during prep is not so much to build muscle mass as to hold on to what is already there while burning off the fat that cloaks it. This is achieved through training, but also by intensive dieting. I gave up what Sasha asked: wheat, confections, red meat, tomatoes and red peppers, fruit of any kind, peas, table salt, tap water. What was left was mostly tilapia and cod, kale, low-sodium broth, and colorless, calorie-free shirataki noodles. Sasha’s rules around food and training, handed down to him from other coaches as bodybuilding doctrine, were inscrutable to me. I found myself living in a world where green bell peppers were OK and red peppers were not. He would dowse over my shirtless body each week, looking for pockets of water. I began to feel a creeping sense of helplessness. At times it seemed he was less a coach than a witch doctor. Together, we were casting a tremendous time-lapse spell.

 It sort of worked. As I grew smaller, fitting more neatly into the role the patriarchy had written for me, the men of the world came to my aid. There they were, opening doors for me, carrying my things, paying for my coffee, my oysters, my tiny circumscribed dinners. They approached me in the cardio deck at the gym and told me what to eat in the last stages of prep. They named me princess. They named me honey. Another woman might’ve felt demeaned, but for me it felt like a buoy. Finally, the world—meaning men—could see me. 

The first true bodybuilding contest for women was the Ohio Regional Women’s Physique Championship, held in 1977. The organizer, Henry McGhee, informed the entrants that they would be judged on the same criteria as male bodybuilders: muscularity, symmetry, presentation. McGhee would go on to form the United States Women’s Physique Association, a short-lived competitive league whose aim, according to a 1984 article for Flex magazineby Steve Wennerstrom, “was to overcome the limited, beauty queen stereotype of what the American woman should look like.”

Over the next several years, women with some muscle began to show up and win. Still, there were no truly breakthrough physiques in the sport until 1983, when filmmakers George Butler and Charles Gaines staged a competition, the Caesars World Cup, for the purposes of their 1985 docudrama, Pumping Iron II: The Women. At the event, Bev Francis, an Australian powerlifter with world records in two weight classes, made her bodybuilding debut. Francis was already known as the Strongest Woman in History. In the process she had also become, by necessity, one of the most muscular women in history—which was exactly the point of having her star in Pumping Iron II. Her massive physique would, by its very presence onstage, cause controversy. She was brought in to provide film’s dramatic engine.

In one scene, at an obviously staged backyard lunch with her family, Francis explains, “In the past all the winners have been women that to me aren’t really bodybuilders. They’re thin. They’re sort of more…”

A male voice volunteers, “Sinewy?”

“Yeah, like ballet dancers or gymnasts. Like Cinnamon.” She gestures toward a bashful girl of about eleven sitting beside her. “I’m going to go in and try and really get big, and try and look just like a male bodybuilder would. Now, whether the judges are going to like it, I don’t know.”

Contrast this with how Rachel McLish, the reigning Ms. Olympia at the time, describes her ideal: “I visualize, like, the caricatures in comic books, right? With the tiny little waist and perfect legs and little muscles, but, you know, they look like Wonder Woman.” Arguments over how much development is acceptable in a woman—between judges, officials, and the competitors themselves—form the core conflict of the film. In one scene, women fitting McLish’s description gather in a pool at Caesars Palace, circling a statue of Diana, and discuss what chance Francis has with the judges. A young American offers, “I hope, really, that they stick with the feminine look.” 

Carolyn Cheshire, an English bodybuilder, corrects her: “We’re talking about a developed shape. We’re not talking about God’s given shape. We’re talking about a shape that’s been created in the gym through hard work.”

Meanwhile, back in an empty event hall, three IFBB officials address the judges for the Cup. “What we’re looking for is something that’s right down the middle, a woman that has a certain amount of aesthetic femininity, but yet has that muscle tone to show that she’s an athlete,” one official says.

A young male judge is indignant. “I object to being told that there is a certain point beyond which women can’t go in this sport,” he says. “When you say that they should look athletic but not too masculine, what does that mean, exactly? I mean, it’s as though the US Ski Federation told women skiers that they could only ski so fast.” The judge is, in fact, Charles Gaines, the film’s screenwriter, though this is never announced. That Gaines is the one who voices dissent to the IFBB official’s retrograde views—likely a move to stir up, or at least make explicit, controversy around Francis—begs the question as to whether there actually was any such conversation within the IFBB.

During my prep with Sasha, I watched the film over and over. What was going on offscreen, I knew, didn’t quite match what the filmmakers were dramatizing on camera: that for all the talk about Francis’s size, she was shrinking, just like I was. There are no scenes showing Francis, or any of the other women, weighing chicken breasts. Nobody talks about weight loss, and nobody talks about the weakness that comes on suddenly as the body, running out of fat to burn, begins to cannibalize other tissues. Francis and her fellow contestants were losing skeletal muscle, heart muscle, organs, bones, even blood. To be certain, the training scenes do not make light of their efforts. The camera shows faces contorted in pain. What they don’t show is how training is a way to bargain with the body. We need this tissue. We are still using it. Discard anything else, but not this.

By the night of the Caesars World Cup, Francis’s face is wasted down to the bone. The emcee announces her weight loss: “Bev, having reshaped her body from that of a one-hundred-and-eighty-one-pound powerlifter to a one-hundred-and-forty-five-pound bodybuilder, is making her competitive debut.” Francis appears as a backlit silhouette standing on the top step of the choral riser. As she hits her first pose, a front double bicep, a few scattered boos give way to cheering. The spotlight turns on, showing Francis thick-waisted in a yellow bikini. Her posing is a bit stilted, but her body is glorious: balanced and full.

I was smitten. To me, she was not only incredibly handsome, but brave. A friend of mine once told me she developed crushes on guys who represented what she wanted to become—in her case, usually musicians—whether she realized it or not. My fascination with Francis followed the same template. She represented how I thought I might look if I gave myself free rein, if I didn’t have a conflicting commitment to mainstream standards of beauty. I thought about her constantly. I combed through decades of interviews online and in the library, looking for clues. But I found nothing, no key that could give a person like me the fortitude to become a person like her. I ordered a film still of her stage performance from eBay and put it up in my bedroom like a talisman.

Francis reportedly believed she should have placed “first or last” in the Cup, but she came in exactly in the middle, eighth in a field of fifteen. She placed this way not because the judges felt tepid about her, but because the scores were averaged. But her presence put the sport on notice: in the years that followed, more and more bodybuilders began to look less like Rachel McLish and more like Bev Francis. For a brief moment in the mid-’80s, it seemed that bodybuilding might catch on among women. The 1985 Ms. Olympia sold out Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum, in part because of Pumping Iron II’s release. The sport fit naturally with second-wave feminism’s seizure of traditionally male domains, its rise correlating with popular phenomena such as shoulder pads and films like 9 to 5 and Working Girl.

A December 1985 article titled “Futurewoman” in Joe Weider’s magazine Muscle & Fitness predicted how the new discipline of bodybuilding would transform womankind: “Because bodybuilding develops the entire physique to its full potential, in a few years we will discover what woman really should look like.” (Another bit of wishful thinking: “Thinness will no longer be chic, but will be regarded as exactly what it is—lack of development.”) Of course, the prophecy has proven false. Thirty years later, not only does the public still argue about what a woman should look like, but bodybuilders themselves do too. Arguments about how women can best shape their bodies have never been absent—even, or perhaps especially, within the sport of bodybuilding. To me, bodybuilders like Francis seemed so far beyond the beauty metrics by which I measured myself that I assumed they’d broken free entirely. In fact, many bodybuilders profess to feeling alienated from their own bodies, a hallmark of anorexia nervosa. In her monograph Women of Steel, sociologist Maria R. Lowe describes how some ex-athletes seek out bodybuilding because their now sedentary bodies seem “somehow foreign to them.” One bodybuilder in Lowe’s book speaks of her body “as an object, as something that needed to be controlled from its insatiable desires.”

Despite her influence on the sport, Francis never managed to win a major competition.In her last show, the 1991 Ms. Olympia, Francis again believed she should place first or last, but she placed second. By this time, Francis had bleached her hair, gotten a nose job, lost mass and gained it back, all in an effort to appease judges. After losing the title by a single point—to the tapered, almost feline Lenda Murray, who was carrying several more pounds of muscle than Francis had back in 1983—Francis decided to retire.

In the final two or three weeks before my show, I began to lose strength. Sasha hand-picked lighter and lighter weights for me. We spent more time on machines to decrease the risk of injury. On leg days, I wore two knee braces and took ibuprofen in advance. And because my body needed to conserve energy, my days were marked by profound lethargy. Just moving through the world became a chore. My garments grew loose. Veins stood out on my hands and neck. I hadn’t menstruated in months. I began to understand that what appealed to judges from the stage might unnerve men in the street.

I didn’t place in that show, but I didn’t care. I saw the other women and knew I simply hadn’t accumulated enough muscle before prep began. I didn’t blame Sasha for this, but I did blame him for his methods. My own research had proved that many of his ideas, though common in bodybuilding, were scientifically baseless. I was furious about everything I had given up. For weeks I had bought up all the distilled water at my local grocery store and still my socks left deep furrows on my ankles. On the day of the show, during the intermission, I walked with Sasha to get an iced espresso—the only drink I was allowed—and told Sasha everything he’d done wrong. That night, I went out to eat with a friend and ordered a fried-oyster po’ boy with tater tots, cornbread with honey butter, a biscuit with cream cheese and cherry pie filling, and a slice of lemon chess pie. I washed it down with an entire pitcher of tap water. Sasha went home.

I had read online about an approach to dieting known as IIFYM, short for If It Fits Your Macros, meaning that as long as your daily intake of macronutrients—protein, fat, and carbohydrates—falls within the prescribed ranges, you can eat whatever you want. The article mentioned “natural” bodybuilder Alberto Nuñez (natural because he competed in drug-tested federations), so I hired him to coach me online for my second competition. Berto gave me a self-governing system in spreadsheet form: one sheet for training and one for weigh-ins. He had written provisions for when I lost weight too slowly (add one hundred kcal cardio per week, decrease fats and carbohydrates) and for when I lost weight too quickly (increase carbohydrates). And not only was I allowed to eat whatever I wanted, I was no longer chained to the elliptical. Berto told me that every mile I walked would count as 100 kcal toward my assigned cardio. Set free into the landscape, I walked from Brooklyn into Manhattan and Queens—over bridges, under overpasses, through cemeteries. As I walked, my blood glucose dropped and the world flared up in startling color. The rustling of plant life took on an animal urgency. Birds and rats directed my attention to what was edible. During my first prep, I had begun to notice abandoned delicacies on benches and windowsills, and especially in stairwells. As I dieted down further in my second prep, I began to photograph these leavings. I called the series “Found Snacks”: a burrito face-planted on subway steps; an apple-banana pairing beside the banister at the doctor’s office; a spill of fresh berries across a brushed-steel seat at the 116th Street station.

Then I began to hide food in my sock drawer, mostly protein bars and the toppings that came with oatmeal at Starbucks—packets of nuts, dried fruit, and agave syrup that I could not bring myself to throw away. Once or twice a day, I would walk to one of several local grocery stores. Some days I bought something I could eat: 97 percent lean ground beef, a grapefruit, Liquid Smoke. Other days I bought something to save for after the season: an individually packaged stroopwafel, a box of Fruity Pebbles. And some days, visiting the grocery store was just a pastime. I lingered over pickle relish and frozen waffles and marbled skirt steak. Aside from grocery shopping and walks, I left the apartment as little as possible. Instead I would lie on my futon in the darkness, staring into my phone, scrolling through macroscopic photos of jelly doughnuts.

I was taking on the behaviors of a starving animal, but I didn’t know this at the time. I simply carried on with dreamlike automaticity until I stumbled upon The Biology of Human Starvation by physiologist Ancel Keyes. The book is an exhaustive two-volume account of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, which Keyes and his team conducted during World War II. To replicate the famine conditions of Nazi-occupied Europe, the experiment’s subjects, all male, were required to live in a metabolic ward and to lose 25 percent of their body weight over a six-month period. Keyes solicited volunteers from among conscientious objectors, offering incentives—health and dental care, free enrollment in the University of Minnesota—to compensate for the inevitable hardships. But according to a motivation survey, many volunteered not despite such hardships but because of them. These men wanted to test their self-discipline, to know what it was like to starve. Many felt guilt about not going to the front; they saw the rigors of the experiment as a better substitute for combat than many other jobs in the Selective Service System. Some two hundred men applied. Thirty-six were selected. Thirty-two completed the experiment.

As the men got deeper into semi-starvation, Keyes found, their bodies worked on their minds. They lost interest first in sex, and then in just about everything besides food. “Food in all its ramifications became the principal topic of conversation, reading, and daydreams for almost all Minnesota subjects,” Keyes wrote. “Cookbooks, menus, and information bulletins on food production became intensely interesting.” The men went on shopping sprees, bringing home coffeepots, hot plates, and kitchen utensils. They chewed so much gum that their jaws became sore and their ration was cut to two packs a day. Their sense of smell and hearing became more acute. One subject reported “a strong, almost compelling, desire to root in garbage cans.” Keyes described an incident in which this man “actually ate garbage, a sandwich he found on the ground and a student’s lunch which he had stolen.” Keyes labeled this behavior “self-punishing,” but I understood how hunger had lifted the veil of propriety, how it allowed Subject 232, with the clear vision of an animal, to see food where others saw trash.

As I put my body under greater and greater duress during that second prep, it began to shut down its reproductive capabilities. Quite suddenly, men and I lost interest in one another. They must’ve read this change in the separation between my muscles; in my slack, meager breasts; in the way the skin of my face lay like a drop cloth over my skull. My hair fell out in strands. My vulva was dry as a relic. Men stopped noticing me at all. At last I was able to walk with my eyes straight ahead. I was free, I thought. Of course, I wasn’t free. It was just that, like the subjects in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, my growing fixation on food had displaced any interest in sex.

By the end of the Minnesota experiment, there was one subject whose psychological scores had improved significantly over the months of starvation. To the researchers, this suggested that “the experiment had significant therapeutic value.” Subject 130 described it thus: “It undressed us. Those who we had thought would be strong were weak; those who we surely thought would take a beating held up best.” In his diary, he wrote, “I am proud of what I did. My protruding ribs were my battle scars. My abnormal conduct in society was also where I was hit. I am proud of these. I am glad I acted like a fool, that I became so weak I could hardly turn over in bed, that I thought with my stomach instead of my head. It was something great, something incomprehensible.”

“When we walk onstage we are closer to death than we are to life,” a bodybuilder once told anthropologist Alan Klein. Indeed, throughout prep, I thought often about death. Wasn’t it the logical conclusion of all that dieting? It seemed to me that death was nothing more than the final relinquishing of one’s bodily materials back into the common fund. Of course, during my own prep I was never actually close to death. Keeping up the illusion of health at least keeps the Bikini competitor out of real danger. Building the physique of a bodybuilder, however, demands real risk. Chemicals come into play: anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, insulin. Diuretics are taken in quantity to achieve the hard, “dry” look. Bodybuilders have been known to faint from dehydration, to collapse onstage, to have heart attacks. Some have dropped dead. Though the bodybuilder’s physique is developed through fitness and weight loss—our most common markers of “health”—it is not an expression of health but of will. She has much in common with the stylites of the Byzantine era, who fasted atop pillars for months and years. I believe bodybuilding has merit in the same way so many extreme pursuits do: it teaches a person what she is capable of. But health is not one of its merits.

A couple of weeks before my second show, I stopped to get an espresso and a sparkling water at a restaurant in my Brooklyn neighborhood. I knew one of the waitresses from my own years waiting tables. She noticed my changed silhouette. When I explained that I was preparing for a competition, she asked if I felt amazing, presuming that as I approached my goal I was coming into glowing, profound health. Her question surprised me, considering how withered I’d become. “No,” I replied. “I’m starving.”

“What do you mean?” 

“Well, I’m dieting very hard… This doesn’t just happen from working out. I have to restrict calories.” She stared at me blankly, so I continued, “Bodybuilding is not healthy. This leanness is not sustainable. It’s a temporary state.”

“If it’s not healthy, then why would you do it?”

Her mistake is understandable, based on misconceptions that the IFBB and the NPC have cultivated. Bev Francis, who is now a judge in both federations and, with her husband, the largest show promoter on the Atlantic seaboard, has described Bikini as a category for all women “who are interested in health.” “Health” has become a euphemism for attractiveness, the underlying assumption being that beauty follows health by necessity. Maintaining such a delusion to attract entrants or consumers makes fiscal sense. In 2017, the wellness industry was worth 4.2 trillion dollars, and it continues to grow twice as fast as the rest of the global economy. The IFBB has perceived this opportunity; it cleverly named its newest competition category Wellness. This name seems to imply a healthier, more natural ideal than that of Bikini, but the conditioning, or leanness, required in the new category is exactly the same. The sole difference is that a Wellness competitor must have a more developed lower half. As Cicherillo put it: “Wellness is all about the ass and thighs.” He went on to say that he sees room for yet another category, a “beach bikini–type look, a little bit softer”—seemingly, he wants to get back to his original vision of Hawaiian Tropic. Incidentally, there has not been a Miss Hawaiian Tropic International since 2010, the same year the NPC introduced Bikini. The former director of Texas’s Hawaiian Tropic Model Search, Kathy Wheatley, now heads Swimsuit USA, whose Facebook page bears the slogan “Beautiful women who represent a healthy lifestyle!”

Despite the IFBB and the NPC’s push toward this mirage of health, Women’s Bodybuilding found a powerful ally in Jake Wood, an aerospace manufacturing heir and bodybuilding superfan. In 2011, Wood established Wings of Strength, a website where subscribers could see their favorite bodybuilders in lamé swimsuits, angel wings, leather corsets, or holding enormous steel chains. He then used subscription proceeds to sponsor prizes for Women’s Bodybuilding. In 2015, Wings of Strength held its first annual Rising Phoenix World Championship and paid the fees to have it sanctioned by the IFBB. The contest was intended to replace the lost Ms. Olympia title, but in February 2020, Wood also bought the rights to the Olympia Weekend. By the time these words are published, a new Ms. Olympia will have been crowned.

The impact this will have on the sport, however, remains uncertain. The winner of the 2020 Ms. Olympia will likely take home a meaningful sum, but what about the rest of the competitors? Bodybuilding as practiced at the highest and most massive level requires a level of commitment from competitors that is incompatible with holding a full-time job. In fact, the first Mr. Olympia contest, in 1965, was conceived with the intention of offering bodybuilders a livelihood. The IFBB hoped that larger contest prizes would guard against attrition; many top competitors were retiring to work as bouncers, bodyguards, and professional wrestlers.

Wrestling is a typical fallback career choice among female bodybuilders, though they wrestle by private appointment, and in hotel rooms rather than arenas. I think of Th-resa Bostick, whose bodybuilding career started taking off in the late ’90s. King Kamali, who coached her, called her the female Ronnie Coleman. Within eight years, Bostick had placed first in the NPC National Championships, competed on the Olympia stage, won second place in the Europa Super Show—and then disappeared from bodybuilding altogether. When asked what happened to her, King Kamali said, “She started what they always do. She had a website. She started wrestling.”

Because of their devoted male fans, disparagingly called “schmoes,” women like Bostick are able to earn a surer living. And the success of Wings of Strength would seem to belie Bob Cicherillo’s claim that the market for Women’s Bodybuilding is “almost nonexistent.” What seems more likely is that to men like Cicherillo, Women’s Bodybuilding is incomprehensible in the same way it was to me when I discovered Schoeller’s book. Cicherillo says he has fielded many complaints, including from show sponsors, along the lines of “Why are we looking at these women?” I recall once showing a picture of Bev Francis to a male gym regular. His face twisted up and he informed me that he was not interested in having sex with her. I asked him why he had to assess her in that way. Couldn’t he imagine she was his mother, his aunt—someone beyond the pale of his personal sexual preference—and that she had achieved something monumental?

From the audience, you couldn’t tell I was unwell. The distance of the stage, combined with the wash of light, created an optical illusion. This body, which had appeared vascular and wooden backstage, and whose skin looked painted with shoe polish, was transformed into something sleek. You couldn’t see the veins like a web over my abdomen, the lymph nodes like egg sacs tucked in the crease of my thigh. Most bodybuilders cast the body as a foe to be outsmarted, but this body was my collaborator. I wanted to see every secret system at work. I would’ve wanted to crawl inside the strange, rippling thing, had I not already been inside of it. I walked to the center, did my turns, and glanced at the judges’ table. They appeared distant and miniature, as though I were looking at them through the wrong end of a spyglass. Bev Francis was there as a judge, as I’d known she would be, sitting in the center and busily marking scorecards. I wanted her to look up. I wanted her to see me. She was the only one I cared about. But I was alone only for a moment before I was called back into the lineup.

I approached Francis during a break, almost trembling, to tell her she was a hero of mine. She stiffened. I suddenly felt pathetic in my satin robe and five-inch platform heels. I had thought that my struggle to master my body had given me some understanding of her. But in the bodybuilder, the struggle is readily apparent. Bodybuilders become deformed by their passions. Their faces sink back. Their voices deepen. Some lose hair and don synthetic wigs. There is a certain dignity in this honesty—whereas the whole point of Bikini is to conceal the toll.

How presumptuous I had been to think my foray into Bikini gave me some kinship with her. Here was somebody who had accomplished something miraculous, who had been a pioneer. Her handsome face was tight. She told me she was busy. I left her alone.

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