Prime Cut

By the time Arvada native Christine Pomponio-Pate arrives at the prestigious Arnold bodybuilding show in Columbus, Ohio, in early March, she'll have been intensively preparing her physique for close to four months. Her body-fat percentage will be near 9 percent -- between a half and a third of that of the average fit young woman. The muscles in her shoulders, back, arms and legs will stand out like the cords on a cut-away doll used to teach anatomy. Her muscle bellies -- the round part of the muscle where it looks like a snake swallowed a rabbit -- will be pumped and full, defined by edges as sharp as a countertop's.

Because muscles appear clearer on a depleted body, she will feel weak from food and water deprivation. "We try to dehydrate ourselves near to death and then hope we don't pass out on stage," she says.

Pomponio-Pate's physical training has been more intense than most people would understand. The former engineer's assistant has been lifting weights and burning thousands of calories during cardio workouts nearly every day. She'll gradually cut carbohydrates out of her meals until two days before the contest, when she'll stop eating anything of substance altogether. She'll be cranky and irritable. She will have started to dream about hamburgers and cups of ranch dressing.

In the final couple of days leading up to the competition, she'll also cut back drastically on water and sodium. Both are enemies of the bodybuilder. They swell the tissues, which can obscure the muscles and definition under the skin -- an undesirable condition known in the sport as "spillover." As the day of the show approaches, she'll cut her water intake in half. On the actual day of the contest, she'll merely sip at a water bottle and take an herbal supplement or over-the-counter drug such as Midol to dry her body out further, hoping to produce the coveted effect bodybuilders call "tight."

The rest of Pomponio-Pate's preparation is literally skin deep. Over time, bodybuilders have decided that darker skin looks better under the harsh glare of stage lights; each year the appropriate color seems to get a shade darker. "Three days out, we start layering on the Pro Tan," says Carla Sanchez, Pomponio-Pate's trainer. The lotion, which is more of a stain, sells for $26 a bottle.

Sanchez will help her client apply anywhere between four and eight layers of the color. Putting on one's own Pro Tan is considered foolish. Last year, Pomponio-Pate recalls, a contestant's tan was off at a major competition; she looked wan. "The judges said her color might've dropped her two places," she says. The morning of the show, she'll add a separate coat of Dream Tan, a pudding-like cream that creates a bronze or gold shimmer.

Having been coiffed and made up for two hours, she'll carefully pull on her one-piece swimsuit custom-tailored by Christine Marsh, who sews bodybuilding costumes in a small southeast Denver storefront. Her suits, crusted with Swarovski crystals, sell for as much as $500 and are famous all over the country. Pomponio-Pate's suit is black, wet-looking and extremely high-cut.

Once backstage, she will spend several minutes lifting dumbbells or tugging at tubular stretch cords; the short, intense workout helps fill the muscles with blood, making them look plump and large. She'll eat a handful of oat bran, to make her body look fuller, and some honey, to make her veins stand out.

She'll put on clear, open-toed plastic shoes with four-inch heels. Pretty, but inconspicuous. A poorly selected shoe hurts more than a perfect one helps, so contestants err on the side of caution. Finally, Pomponio-Pate will pin her number to her left side and step onto the stage.

At the better-known pro shows, such as the Ms. Olympia, the women are called out one at a time. They begin with a "relaxed" pose. "Of course," Pomponio-Pate notes, "it's not relaxed at all. It's sexy, but flexing a little. Everyone does it differently. I usually have one arm on my hip, one off. Some girls have two arms on their hips.

"Then you do your presentation: You show what you're bringing to the stage. A side pose, a back pose, another side, a curtsy and you're done."

Pomponio-Pate, who is only 5'1", will flex with her legs straight in the hopes of appearing taller. She'll arch her back and stick out her butt -- "so my upper body appears bigger," she explains. Everyone flares her lats -- the latissimus dorsi, the back muscles between the armpit and the ribs that form the crucial 'V' shape. "And, of course, always smiling," she adds.

Contestants will next turn to the right. Pomponio-Pate pivots with her right foot behind the left and then twists, giving judges a chance to observe the "cuts," or indentations, in her arms and the curves in her butt. Then she and the other contestants will turn their backs to the judges. Pomponio-Pate will move her long hair to the front of her shoulder, over her collarbone. As she flares her lats, she'll also lean just a little bit toward the judges to make her back seem even larger.

"You never relax," she continues. "You're polished and graceful and posing. You're always flexing. The lights are so hot. It's like a workout. Your back hurts when you're done. My arms fall asleep out there, and you're water-depleted, so you usually start to cramp."

When she's done, Pomponio-Pate will go backstage, change into her custom two-piece bathing suit and do it all over again.

In the late 1970s, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a seven-time winner of the Mr. Olympia contest, and Lou Ferrigno -- later known as the Incredible Hulk -- became famous as supermen who'd turned their bodies into oversized, cartoon versions of the male physique. Pumping Iron, a 1977 documentary, introduced the then-California-based niche bodybuilding scene to the general population.

Yet even after the movie caught on, females had no place to show off the results of their workouts. Women who wanted to pose had swimsuit contests or beauty pageants -- neither of which particularly rewarded muscles.

George Snyder changed all that. "I started the whole thing," he boasts, in a naturally argumentative New York accent. The owner of several California health clubs at the time, Snyder discovered that bodybuilding contests were not only popular, but also a good way to promote his clubs.

In the beginning, Snyder simply staged beauty shows for his women members. But it soon occurred to him that some of the fitter members wanted to show off their muscles, too. He contacted the International Federation of Body Builders, the organization founded by the Weiders, the first family of muscle and promoters of the Mr. Olympia contest. "They were completely sexist about it," he recalls. (Numerous calls from Westword to IFBB headquarters were not returned.)

The IFBB, Snyder says, was skeptical. "They told me, 'You're going to have to prove that girls exercise,'" he remembers one official telling him. Before one of Snyder's early shows, officials demanded that the female contestants demonstrate their athleticism by bench-pressing at least half their body weight before being allowed on stage. "They didn't want women on stage doing the same event as men. So I said, &'Fine. I'm going to start my own association.'"

In 1979, Snyder went nationwide with the Best in the World competition, an event he claims was the first major women's bodybuilding show. The guidelines were rudimentary: The women were to be pretty and feminine. He instructed them not to clench their fists while posing so they would look graceful. "But one girl did it anyway," he says. "Another kicked off her shoes. Women's bodybuilding was born that night."

The show was successful enough that the Weider Olympia franchise wanted a piece of it the following year. Yet it still had little in common with the men's side, where giant, veiny muscles won the day. "Muscularity didn't even enter into it," notes Snyder, who now lives in Orlando. "If a woman was too muscular, I didn't even let her into the contest. It was how good she looked, and what kind of role model she would be for other women. We looked for symmetry, her face, her hair, her skin, her muscular tone -- the whole package."

Rachael McLish, who won the inaugural Ms. Olympia contest, set the standard for future competitors. With her lithe figure, she was unquestionably beautiful. Yet viewed from two decades away, her body looks no different than that of any serious gym addict today.

Throughout the 1980s, bodybuilding tended toward excess. Although symmetry and overall looks were rewarded, the push in the gym was for bigger and bigger muscles. By 1990, the feminist principle that a woman could and should have the same goals as men was well established, and Bev Francis, an accomplished Australian shot-putter and discus-thrower, had become the new poster girl for the sport.

Francis looked dramatically different from female bodybuilders just a decade earlier. She could bench-press more than 300 pounds and squat more than 500. She was an impressive physical specimen, but also a curiosity. Old photos of her look manufactured: an entirely masculine body -- one that wouldn't be out of place in a men's competition -- topped by an incongruously feminine face framed by short blond curls.

Judges helped drive the change from lithe to huge. Overwhelmingly men, they were accustomed to evaluating muscular male competitors; most applied the same standards to women. Realistic observers and participants acknowledge that steroids and other workout-enhancing drugs also played a huge role; as the standard for women's bodybuilding became more and more masculine, it soon became clear that attaining such bodies with a woman's natural testosterone levels was, with rare exceptions, impossible.

Liane Seiwald, a personal trainer with her own gym in Golden, competed as a professional bodybuilder for nearly a decade before finally dropping out in 2000. "I'd been training for seven or eight years and was probably about as big as I was going to get without going the steroid route," she says. "I'd seen what it's done to other people, and I didn't want to go there."

Tweaking one's physique may be about celebrating athleticism and achieving personal goals, but, as with many other sports, at the higher levels, it's driven by money. Sponsors -- primarily supplement and equipment manufacturers -- pay to support shows that get press and public attention. By the mid-1990s, it had become apparent that serious women's bodybuilding, already a marginally appreciated sport, was moving further and further away from what people were willing to pay to see, changing from a spectacle to a fetish.

"Once Bev Francis won, it started to become more and more muscular," says Dave Newingham, who promotes the large Nova competitions out of Florida. "And what sponsors are going to want to buy into that? People will still pay to see freaky men. But they won't pay to see freaky women who look like men."

As local head of the National Physique Committee, the amateur arm of the IFBB, Denver's Jeff Taylor promotes most of the large shows in the Rocky Mountain region. He admits that he struggles with the idea that female and male bodybuilders must be held to different standards. "What's the right bodybuilding physique for a woman?" he asks. "Many of them can build themselves like a man. Should that be punished or lauded?"

On a recent weekday afternoon, Pomponio-Pate arrives at the General Nutrition Center at the Denver Pavilions to do a meet-and-greet for one of her sponsors, Isatori. On a card table just inside the entrance to the store, she lays out a pile of Meta-Cel supplement samples, as well as a pile of glossy eight-by-ten photos of her bikini-clad self.

A series of recent successes in major shows have turned Pomponio-Pate into a recognized physique star, if not a superstar. Last fall she placed sixth at the Ms. Olympia contest, one of the two biggest shows in the country. A few weeks earlier, she was asked to compete in the Arnold, probably the most important contest of the year. Named after you-know-who, the competition, which the governor still attends, is invite-only. Pomponio-Pate was one of only fifteen women in her category to get the call.

"Getting invited to the Arnold is huge," says Taylor, who has followed Pomponio-Pate's career from amateur to pro. "And to finish in the top ten of the Olympia -- it's amazing. This is about as good as it gets."

A couple of fans who've been awaiting Pomponio-Pate's arrival at the store start to trickle in. It's easy to see why they're here. Pomponio-Pate is strikingly good-looking, with long, dark hair, a classic inverted-triangle face with high cheekbones, deep dimples and perfect teeth. For a sizable portion of the male population, her figure -- large-busted, wide-shouldered and rail-thin -- would qualify as a perfect ten.

She is also unfailingly polite and personable, standing to greet each visitor. Three young men approach her slowly, made suddenly shy by their proximity to celebrity. Pomponio-Pate, however, is as friendly as can be. She smiles and shakes each of their hands.

"Have you guys tried this? Meta-Cel?" she asks, nodding to the table. "When I was competition-dieting last year, I gained ten pounds of lean muscle."

"Damn," says one guy.

A second looks intently at the photo and then up at Pomponio-Pate. "This picture doesn't do you justice," he says.

The three stick around long enough to get autographed photos, then leave.

A woman in sweats approaches next. "Can you tell me what you do for abs?" she asks. "I'm doing Body for Life."

"Well," Pomponio-Pate answers, "I don't really do obliques, 'cause you don't want that thickness. You want the 'V.' You've gotta be careful."

The woman picks up an eight-by-ten. "You're really cut in this photo," she says. "How'd you get down to this?"

Pomponio-Pate laughs. "Nine months of dieting."

Some cops stroll in a few minutes later. A couple of them recognize Pomponio-Pate and ask how she's doing. "I'm crabby," she says. "Hungry." She nods toward the supplement table. "Taking a lot of this stuff to stay awake. I'm smiling, but I don't know why."

During a lull, Julia, a supplement representative at GNC, walks over. "Why don't you eat something," she says, more directive than question.

"I know, I know." Pomponio-Pate takes out a tape measure that's sitting on the card table in front of her. "Let me see how fat I am," she says, winding it around her 24-inch waist.

A middle-aged man walks in. He's scruffy, unshaven, dressed in holey jeans and carrying a large, dirty backpack.

"How are you?" Pomponio-Pate asks.

The man stares. "Well, I'm seein' what I come to see," he says, adding, "I'm unemployed right now." He asks Pomponio-Pate where she works out. She answers vaguely: "Oh, different places."

"If you ever want to, you know, just work out or something...or maybe go out to dinner..."

"Oh, I couldn't do that," Pomponio-Pate says, showing him her wedding ring. "My husband wouldn't like it. But thank you. Thank you."

"I get that quite a bit," she sighs as he walks out with an autographed picture. "I just try to be careful."

She prepares for a snack: oat-bran cakes made with egg whites and sprayed with non-fat imitation butter. She's allowed two of them a day. She stays up preparing all her food for the following day, although it doesn't always look wonderful in the light of day. "I get sick of chicken," she says. "That's what I get sick of most. I mean, you can use spices -- until it's time to stop the sodium."

The supplement rep comes back with a Starbucks tea for Pomponio-Pate and a big whipped-cream confection for one of the men.

Pomponio-Pate looks longingly at the frothy drink. "What's that yummy-looking thing?"

On his website, Wally Boyco, a former marketer for Sears and Montgomery Ward department stores and current bodybuilding promoter, describes the start of what has come to be known as women's "fitness" competitions:

Back at the bodybuilding scene, female bodybuilders had discovered "the juice." The muscle mass needed to win contests was increasing rapidly. In 1984 the only options for a female physique competitor were bodybuilding, wet t-shirt, beauty and bikini contests, and a fledgling new sport called aerobics. Seeing the need for an alternative for the well rounded, drug free woman, Wally created the Ms Fitness(r) contests by the introduction of his Ms National Fitness contest.

Because the new category scored women on how fit they acted as well as how fit they looked, contestants added dancing and gymnastics routines to their posing. The event proved enormously popular, and other promoters took the idea and ran with it. In 1993, Snyder, who'd left the business for nearly a decade, started the Galaxy Competition, which combined a bathing suit competition with an obstacle course.

He hadn't changed his mind about what he thought constituted the perfect woman people would pay to watch, and he knew how to round up the right sort of contestant: "I had a photographer friend in Santa Monica who took pictures of beautiful women who exercised. So I flew out there and looked at hundreds of photos. I found seventeen that I liked. All of them were very attractive, with great bodies. Not muscular, but feminine, shapely, symmetrical." He flew the group to Florida for the inaugural Galaxy show.

Before too long, however, women's fitness competitions faced the same problem as bodybuilding had. The women -- many of whom had moved to fitness from bodybuilding -- started getting larger and more muscular. Their routines also became more and more professional.

"If you're not doing double and triple back flips on stage," says Newingham, "the judges consider that you suck. It's become a competition for gymnasts who didn't make the Olympics."

This wasn't what Snyder wanted at all. Shows like the Galaxy "started attracting the wrong kind of girls. In the Galaxy, we started losing the pretty girls because of the athleticism required in the obstacle course. They started looking wrong -- boxy, muscular. Nobody wants hard-looking girls; they're not commercially viable. Women look at girls in these shows and they start to think, 'That's what happens if you work out.'"

Men who like a certain type of woman tend to gravitate toward the publishing business, where they can show off the exact model of woman they prefer (Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione come to mind). Like many bodybuilding promoters, Snyder is also in the publishing business, where he makes his real money on magazines like Muscle Media and Women's Fitness. When it comes to women's bodies, he knows what sells.

"What the public wants is more models," he says. "That's what it's always been about. That's what the girls want; they want to be in magazines, representing companies. And that's what readers want -- to know who these beautiful women are. Everybody wants to be a star, right? I mean, why should there be so much confusion over what a woman should look like? Look in any magazine. It's basically the same look."

So he determined to eliminate the guesswork. In 2002 Snyder started a new show, the Galaxy Figure and Beauty Competition, and the standards were crystal-clear. "All the criteria for judging is appearance," he explains. "We let them do routines of some kind -- dancing, maybe, or posing. But we don't count it in their score. It's all for fun."

This newest version of women's bodybuilding came to be called the "figure category" -- Pomponio-Pate's specialty. It's no exaggeration to say that it has saved women's bodybuilding. Many of the competitions are standing-room only. Once again, magazines are filled with beautiful and defined -- but never manly -- women in small bathing suits.

Not only does the figure-show look appeal to more spectators, but without a grueling fitness routine to prepare, more women are eligible to compete. Taylor estimates that with only a little work, 20 to 25 percent of reasonably fit women at a health club could compete in an amateur figure competition. "It used to be that 60 percent of bodybuilding competitors were men," he says. "Now 70 percent are women."

"The figure girls are the bodybuilders of yesteryear," Liane Seiwald says, a little nostalgically. While she now trains women for figure contests, she can't help feeling that the sport of women's bodybuilding has lost something. The emphasis on appearance only -- and an appearance that harks back to the 1970s -- looks depressingly familiar.

"Speaking as an ex-bodybuilder," she says, "we'd always hoped that they might put some sort of athletic notch on the competition -- pull-ups or push-ups. Something that shows that you didn't just have decent genetics and now, with a month of dieting, you're up on stage."

The thirty-year-old Pomponio-Pate has always enjoyed pushing her body. Although athletic and good at most sports she tried, her primary sweaty interest was soccer, which she played for ten years.

Following the lead of her brother, who'd gotten into competitive bodybuilding, she began working out with weights in high school. In 1994, however, a serious car accident brought her workouts to an abrupt halt. The crash tore off her lips and knocked out most of her teeth. She endured numerous reconstructive surgeries, three on her lips alone, which were formed using skin from the inside of her mouth; she also received a new set of porcelain teeth. Following her recovery, she began working out again in earnest.

"A part of it was self-consciousness," she acknowledges. "Part was, 'Damn it, I'm lucky to walk and move, and I'd better use that.' I'm not going to sit around and be lazy if I can move."

Pomponio-Pate entered, and won, her first women's fitness competition in 1999, with a Michael Jackson-themed dance routine. A few months later she won the category again at the Colorado State Championships. When she tried to go national that summer, however, she finished ninth of ten.

"I didn't have any idea what I was doing," she admits. "I didn't know how to diet at all; I was trying to do a combination of carbs and protein and fats. I didn't know any of the little tricks to get super-lean." She also saw what she would be up against if she wanted to compete against the top women. All had trainers and choreographers.

Over the next couple of years, Pomponio-Pate jumped in and out of competitions, doing well in some -- sixth at the 2000 Nationals in New York -- and poorly in others. Fatigued and frustrated, she took all of 2002 off.

The following year, she moved into the figure category, grateful not to have to work up a fitness routine. Yet in several shows she placed only in the middle of the pack. The problem, apparently, was her shape. "The judges I talked to said I needed to be leaner," she recalls. "I was too thick, too muscular."

Every day, millions of women struggle to shave a couple of pounds and a few inches off their bodies -- the foundation for a multibillion-dollar dieting industry. For Pomponio-Pate, however, it was simply a matter of deciding what shape she wanted and becoming it. She buffed up her shoulders and arms and sculpted her body with diet, pushing herself to get ever leaner. "It's a lifestyle," says trainer Sanchez. "It's not something you do for twelve weeks and then stop. Hanging out at a bar on weekends, going out -- it just doesn't fit with what we're doing."

In photos from 2003 and 2004, the difference is clear. In the former, Pomponio-Pate is buff and muscular, clearly a gym rat. A year later, she is so defined, with her muscles and tendons so obvious, that her skin is almost an afterthought.

The shape-shift paid off. In May 2004, Pomponio-Pate placed sixth at the California Pro Figure show. At New York's Pro Figure, she placed second, which guaranteed her a trip to that fall's Ms. Olympia, where she captured sixth and an invite to the Arnold. Along the way she has also snagged supplement endorsements -- the pay is about $2,000 a month -- and a couple of plum photo shoots, including a back-page promo in Flex magazine and an August "glute" spread ("Hard and Round in 39 Days!") in Planet Muscle.

The margin between a competition-ready woman and one who is sick is paper-thin. Medical studies have noted a high incidence of eating disorders among female bodybuilders. Sanchez, however, says she keeps a close eye on her clients' diet and exercise to ensure they don't cross that line. She points out that none of her clients has ever stopped menstruating while training -- an early clue that the line between leanness and illness has been crossed.

Sanchez also notes that Pomponio-Pate has succeeded while staying natural, unlike some of her competition. "I'm not saying every competitor who's ripped is on drugs," she says. "But if anybody thinks there isn't any out there, they're wrong. It's definitely used in fitness and figure categories. It's at the amateur level and it's at the pro level."

At Christine Marsh's custom-bikini boutique, a small, bedroom-sized showroom hides her work area in back, a tiny space in which a desk and computer share floor area with shelves and shelves of see-through plastic tubs containing fabric pattern pieces -- tiny shreds of future swimsuits.

Marsh began sewing professionally in the 1970s, stitching fancy Western-pattern shirts for men. About eight years ago, she met Mocha Lee, a bodybuilder who needed a competition swimsuit. "I had never even thought of bodybuilders; I didn't even know there were fitness contests," Marsh recalls. Still, she had made swimsuits before, and working with the stretchy fabric is a bit of a specialty, so she agreed to help.

Since then, Marsh, a proper woman who wouldn't be caught dead in one of her own creations, has become the Nike of bodybuilding wear -- some of it for men, but the majority for women. She estimates her clientele at around 800. At one recent fitness show, sixty out of 67 women were wearing Christine Marsh creations. A few years ago she started making outfits for the Coors Light girls.

Sewing for bodybuilders presents particular challenges. A woman can lose up to twenty pounds as she prepares for a show -- ten in the week before the competition. She can shrink two inches from her waist during that same time. A suit has to have a lot of give-and-take. "I make things adjustable and easy to alter," Marsh says.

The bustline is another challenge. Many of the competitors are plastic-surgery-enhanced. Even among those who aren't, the look is a coveted one.

"You can't keep a girl from her push-ups," Marsh observes. Her pads come in three sizes -- light, medium and mondo -- and add $25 to the cost of a suit. Almost everyone orders them.

It's no coincidence that the shape of most top figure competitors fits a certain mold; after all, men promote most of the competitions. But even those closely involved in the contests sometimes have difficulty articulating precisely what that look is.

"A certain level of beauty," explains Dave Fujii, a head figure judge for IFBB-sanctioned Rocky Mountain region events. "Sort of Miss America and bikini shows, with a better body."

"The women have to have the right muscularity -- feminine, but muscular and athletic. Most look different from the average person on the street on a diet. You have to look like you worked your butt off -- lean and separated. But not too lean.

"But," he continues, "your face has to look as if you wake up every morning looking that way -- no 'hard' appearance in the face. We don't like the gaunt, dieting look. Just being skinny, or being really ripped, is not what we want."

Figure competitors are judged on their entire appearance, not just specific muscles. So while plastic surgery is not allowed in bodybuilding, it is permitted in figure contests. Fujii estimates that at the pro level, about 60 percent of the competitors have had some sort of plastic surgery -- breast augmentation and liposuction are common choices.

Also unlike bodybuilders, figure competitors must pay attention to other factors beyond their muscles. "Obviously, makeup is a big part of it," Fujii says. "We're looking for a soft, sensual look. And outfits are huge; the cut of the suit is very important." Not to mention a perfect-looking tan and the right kind of hair.

"You can have short, spiky hair versus long flowing hair," says Fujii. "But nine out of ten men will prefer the long, flowing hair." And nine out of ten judges are men.

Making matters even more confusing for competitors and judges is that the women are not judged on an absolute scale. Each judge simply places them in order of finish; first place, second place, etc. The woman with the lowest number wins.

With such vague standards, it's not surprising that the judges' opinions can vary widely. Seiwald, who judges women's competitions, says she has argued more than once with a nearby male judge.

"This one particular guy always sat next to me," she recalls. "And he liked girls with no hips; he preferred a boyish figure. So that's who he'd vote for. Well, I'd always go for the girl with a waist and who was a little hippier. I mean, to me, that's what a woman looks like."

"The IFBB judging is a joke," adds promoter Newingham. "It's terrible. A girl can walk on that stage, walk off, and walk back on again five minutes later and get a totally different score. We get a lot of girls who look exactly the same as far as their bodies. It's gonna come down to, 'Why do you like Sally better than Shirley? I dunno -- she just had a better look.'"

"After a while, it's ridiculous, to be honest with you," adds John Atherton, a nationally known women's figure trainer out of North Carolina. "I mean, 'pretty' is a subjective term. What's pretty? You tell me. That's why there are horse races."

Recently, a familiar bugaboo has begun to work its way into women's figure competitions: A more masculine, muscular look has started to creep back onto the stage. "The natural human tendency is to go to the nth degree," Taylor says. "More muscle, harder conditioning."

In response, three months ago the IFBB send out an unusual "Advisory Notice" to all of its professional women competitors. "For aesthetics and health reasons," it stated, "the IFBB Professional Division requests that female athletes in Bodybuilding, Fitness and Figure decrease the amount of muscularity by a factor of 20%." It then added, somewhat cryptically, "This request for a 20% decrease in the amount of muscularity applies to those female athletes whose physiques require the decrease regardless of whether they compete in Bodybuilding, Fitness or Figure."

At the Point Athletic Club in Lakewood, Pomponio-Pate is sweating through a workout on the StairMaster. There's less than a month to go until the Arnold, and she still has more than ten pounds to lose from her 113-pound body. Over a post-workout breakfast of a tiny box of raisins and scrambled egg whites with Tabasco, she reviews pictures of her old, 2003 body, and her retrofitted 2004 one.

She doesn't like what she sees. "I feel like I'm here" -- pointing to an old picture -- "instead of here." Still, she forces herself to shuffle through the pile. "I need to look at these to motivate myself," she says.

"The judges notice the smallest thing," she adds with a trace of irritation. "If you had your hair done but you have visible roots, it's like, You're not prepared; you're not polished.'"

The workouts and food deprivation are getting to her. This morning, on the way to the health club, she stopped at a green light, then drove through a red. Too few carbs will do that to you, she says; without them, you start to get foggy.

She's also tired of explaining why she does what she does to people who don't get it. "If my dad sees me and I'm crabby and hungry, he'll say, Just eat.' And I'm like, 'You don't understand. I didn't do all this for sixteen weeks just to eat.'"

"It's not as psycho as it sounds," she continues. "It makes my willpower stronger -- it makes me stronger as a person. There's always something to work on, and I think that's good. It keeps me working harder. I mean, I'm definitely happy with myself."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer