Prime Cut

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"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.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer