Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bikinis and biceps: the world of female bodybuilders

Female bodybuilding used to be big – like female bodybuilders themselves – but it was a craze that wasn't built to last. Now its devotees are an endangered species. Cyrus Shahrad reports

We've been speaking barely 10 minutes when Sarah Bridges shifts her enormous upper body in the doll's-house dimensions of her chair and takes in a young man, kit bag in hand, framed in the doorway of the Dartford pub she runs with her husband, Bill.

'That's my three o'clock,' she says, waving at the newcomer, who it transpires has travelled from Dover for a physical appraisal from Sarah, one of the world's most experienced female bodybuilders. Ten minutes later in the pub kitchen the 26-year-old is ordered to strip and stand posing in his pants while Sarah points out his strengths and weaknesses. At the bar a trio of locals sip Kentish ales and pass around a bag of pork scratchings as though nothing out of the ordinary is happening.

But Sarah's dedication to bodybuilding is out of the ordinary. Fewer and fewer women in Britain are taking part in the sport; of those who do the majority are opting to adhere to more conventionally feminine classes like 'figure' and 'body fitness', seeing the bulkier frames of women like Sarah as a throwback to the heyday of bodybuilding in the 1980s, when bigger was better and Arnie was king.

'She was 8st when we met,' says Bill, limping his way across the pub on slipped discs and shot hips, dubious trophies of decades spent at the top of the British wrestling scene. 'She didn't like being tall and gangly, so I encouraged her to hit the weights. I wasn't expecting her to stick with it, but after three months she was showing a dramatic change in muscle tone, and sounding more enthusiastic than ever. Soon after that she started coming to the gym with me and my wrestling buddies.'

Bill rummages behind the bar for a photograph of the couple in the mid-1980s – Bill buffed and quiffed, Sarah impossibly pale and fragile. It's hard to reconcile this image with the person who eventually returns from the kitchen and lowers herself carefully into her chair: at 14½st, Sarah is now almost a third heavier than the 10st rottweiler she walks between work-outs; she also protests that she's painfully out of shape, and allows herself to be photographed only reluctantly.

For all that, she remains profoundly attached to her femininity: in summer she takes great pride in parading down Dartford High Street in the shortest skirt she can find, immune to the taunts of those brave enough to articulate their amazement.

'I've grown thick-skinned,' she says, playfully rearranging her blonde hair. 'I admit it was hard at first, and I found myself crying a lot of the time. People are still pretty backward when it comes to female bodybuilding in Britain. In America they come up and shake your hand, hug you and ask for advice. Here they bark snide comments from the other side of the street.'

America is somewhere Sarah has visited regularly since turning pro in 2003, a step that has left her unable to take part in the British amateur-only competition circuit. Instead she attends shows as a judge, a role that has given her a unique insight into a national community of female bodybuilders, which she says is extremely close-knit.

'I often go backstage before shows and stand around having a natter with the girls,' she says. 'We chat about training and share a piece of chocolate – you eat chocolate just before going on stage to help bring up the veins. It used to be that there was a lot of bitchiness, but that seems to have disappeared completely.'

Such closeness may well stem from the female bodybuilding community's ever decreasing size, and that's as true of the number of contenders as their specific physical forms. Steroid use remains widespread in all but the drug-tested British Natural Bodybuilding Federation, but increasing concerns over its long-term effects have caused many women to shy away from pursuing more full-on figures.

As a result, while the UK Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation championships last month featured almost 200 male competitors across a range of disciplines, there were just eight women standing in the catch-all female bodybuilding category, long ago conflated from light, middle and heavyweight divisions due to a lack of competitors.

More controversially, the federation recently introduced a new American-style 'bikini' class division in what many see as a blatant attempt to appeal to the largely male audiences at bodybuilding tournaments. It's something that Lisa Cross, the newly crowned British champion, sees as a dangerous shift in principles.

'I've read forum posts by girls getting ready for bikini-class contests, and all they talk about is teeth veneers, false nails and hair extensions. That's a beauty pageant, not a bodybuilding competition. It's another example of the authorities undermining the hard work done by women who treat bodybuilding as a way of life. Everyone knows that we're a dying breed, and this is just another nail in the coffin.'

A former police officer, Lisa left work to pursue full-time the hobby that had brought her so much mockery in the force. Now 32, she struggles to empathise with the conversations about marriage and babies that define the lives of former colleagues, many of whom look at her as though she's crazy.

'What I do with my life definitely alienates me from other women my age,' she says. 'But I talk to other female bodybuilders and we get each other straight away. Some of the things we have to do are insane: in the week leading up to a competition we drop carbs altogether to make the body as lean as possible, which leaves us feeling flat and lethargic; the day before a competition we completely cut out drinking water, so that the skin looks smoother against the muscle.

'And to then have to stumble on stage and pull poses when you can barely stand up: it's impossible to go through that and not immediately feel a connection with other women who have done the same.'

However, Lisa admits that it's physical elitism that has proved to be bodybuilding's ultimate undoing. It's a sport that attracts very few women; of those it does, only some have the time, dedication or genetic make-up necessary to get past the early hurdles. On top of that the lack of a British pro circuit means that there's no prize money involved in what is an expensive sport to pursue. Sponsorship is the traditional method of making ends meet.

Less traditional, but potentially more lucrative, is modelling naked for websites catering to 'muscle worshippers' – fetishists (stereotypically weedy older men) who are sexually obsessed with the muscular female form. It's something Lisa has done in the past, and which has brought her into occasional conflict with her peers.

'Some people argue that it's bringing bodybuilding into disrepute,' she says. 'As far as I'm concerned, it's putting bodybuilding on a pedestal, making it available to people who would never consider attending an actual show. It's a massive industry in America, and it's one that allows me to spend 99 per cent of my time totally focused on my career. The federation would probably have less of a problem with it if they were making money from it themselves.'

For 26-year-old Hollie Walcott – the sister of footballer Theo and poster girl for the more feminine 'figure' discipline – the idea of muscle worship is something she struggles to take seriously.

'I find the whole thing pretty baffling,' she says, sipping green tea in the café at her local fitness centre. 'I've always been aware that there are people who get off on the whole bodybuilder thing, but for me it's so asexual. Even at competitions, when you've got all those men and women oiled up and standing around in the skimpiest of costumes, its more anatomical than anything else. It's a performance art, at the end of the day.'

Hollie's success is all the more impressive for her being entirely self-taught. She fell into bodybuilding two years ago after settling on the gym as the best place to find space after the birth of her second child; she has no personal trainer, and no dietary regime save one that she's concocted herself. She has learnt through trial and error that alcohol is off-limits, that treats like ice cream and pizza are acceptable out of competition season only, and that it's important to eat something small and nutritious every two hours.

Despite this she's quickly become the best-known face in 'figure', which – like the affiliated 'body fitness' discipline – serves as a respectable stop-gap between conventional bodybuilding and the bikini contests bemoaned by traditionalists. She's been on the receiving end of column inches and competition glory both at home and abroad, though she admits that there are still people in the female bodybuilding community who look down on what she does.

'There are people who see figure as an easy alternative, but we diet just as hard, and we put in the same hours down the gym. The only difference is that we aren't looking to build the same amount of muscle, or aiming for such a lean figure.

It's important to me that my look is completely natural, and I would never consider taking steroids. For me it's about being healthy, and that's a lifestyle choice. But nothing comes close to the feeling of competing. It's impossible to put into words.'

The thrill of competition is something that 37-year-old 'body fitness' contender Jo Griffiths understands only too well. Seated in her kitchen in the Welsh valley town of Aberdare, Jo describes how she won her first Welsh national after entering as a bet following only eight months of training. By the time she won her second – four years, a marriage and a separation later – she had qualified as a physical therapist and opened a sports-massage parlour a few doors down the road.

'It's easy to assume there's always a reason why a girl gets into bodybuilding – that she's running away from an eatingdisorder or a bad marriage. That might bring a person to the gym, but it won't keep them there. It's a torturous sport, and you either enjoy it or you don't. For those who do it becomes an addiction, pure and simple. It's a daily routine of cardio first thing in the morning, weights in the afternoon, then more cardio last thing at night.

'You're revolving low-carb and no-carb diets either to fill the body out or bring it in, depending on what adjustments are needed, and you're always exhausted. You take yourself right to the edge in the run-up to a competition, and afterwards you swear you'll never do it again. Then you get your strength back, and before you know it you're back in the gym.'

True to her word, Jo followed her recent appearance at the British championships by announcing to her 1,500-odd Facebook friends that she was hanging up her costume to spend more time with her daughter, who she admits was affected by her mother's exhaustion at the peak of her dieting.

She's also acutely aware of how much money she's pouring into her pastime; she estimates that £4,000 this year alone has gone on costumes and heels, fake tans and travel expenses. Some of that she's hoping to make back through legitimate modelling and television work, though she's constantly turning down less salubrious requests.

'Obviously there are muscle worshippers out there, and you do get asked to take part in some pretty creepy things. And it's not hard to see why some girls end up getting involved: a year's worth of training and dietary supplements costs a fortune, and most girls wouldn't think twice about spending £1,000 on a costume. So there was a point after the British championships when I seriously considered calling it a day, although now I'm not so sure. It's so hard to let go.'

For all the hurdles facing British female bodybuilders, Jo believes that the biggest problem is a wider public misconception of what it actually entails.

'I worry that people are never going to take what we're doing seriously,' she says. 'Some people think women's bodybuilding is a watered-down version of the men's, when if anything we train and diet harder, because we don't have testosterone to help us along the way.

'Other people think that we're doing it to appeal to the opposite sex, that we're actively encouraging all the wolf-whistling and seedy forum advances. And that's not true either. It's a sport, and it's one I take very seriously. I just wish it wasn't so difficult for me to do so.'


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