Prime Cut

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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.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer