Prime Cut

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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