Prime Cut

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"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."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer