Dan Levin, ‘Here She Is, Miss, Well, What?, Sports Illustrated, 17 March (1980), 64-75

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We always knew women could never build muscles, at least not, uh, real women. Muscles belonged on men, and women didn’t want any. They didn’t need them, either, not for typing 70 words a minute, not for staying at home all day baking cakes for honeybun. But we also always knew women could never run marathons, and now we have Grete Waitz breathing down Bill Rodgers’ neck. Even more unexpectedly, we have Laura Combes’ sensational double biceps pose.

It’s a ghastly portent to some: bodybuilding for women, one more step on the road to androgyny. It raises complex questions, and it strikes at deeply held values. Should women be bodybuilders at all, and if so, should they strive to look like firm Miss Americas or female versions of Arnold Schwarzenegger? And, of course, there is the concept of femininity—are large muscles feminine, does that matter, and what does “femininity” mean, anyway?

Last August, at the conclusion of the $5,000 World’s Best Woman Bodybuilder competition in Warminster, Pa., the judges were in a quandary. Eight of the 10 were men, and one said, “I like the girl with the big——.” Another said, “But what about the one with the nice——?”

The winner of the $2,500 first prize. Patsy Chapman, a 21-year-old communications student at Michigan State, turned out to have both. It was her first bodybuilding competition. “My goal is muscle tone,” she said, “not muscle mass.”

Another contestant had even bigger——and a nicer——than Chapman. Twenty-four-year-old April Nicotra has been a perennial winner in the eight years she has worked with weights and entered competitions. These haven’t been bodybuilding competitions exactly, but muscles have been allowed, as long as they weren’t too large, as long as no one displayed them dramatically. The word for Nicotra, who manages the Olympus Gym, a weight-training center in Warrington, Pa., is voluptuous, and most of the male judges voted her No. 1.

The head judge at Warminster was Leroy Colbert, 46, acclaimed as one of the world’s best developed men in 1960 and the first bodybuilder to develop 20-inch muscular upper arms. When the competition was over, he said, “We were amazed at what we saw. Those women were much more shapely than the ones you see at beauty pageants. Some of them were really well trained—feminine, but a little muscular, too. What I mean is, they had hourglass-type figures with some firmness. That’s what we wanted—a little curve in the leg biceps, a back with slight muscularity, a little separation between the deltoid and the arm.”

But Schwarzenegger, the special master of ceremonies, has long said, “Judges sometimes look for the sexiest women, but they should forget that. What counts is: Who is the best female bodybuilder? What do her muscles look like? They confuse muscles with masculinity, but women are the same as men. They have fewer male hormones, so their muscles won’t grow as large, but they work the same. They grow larger from being trained and fed, just as men’s do. I’m not proposing that all women be bodybuilders, but those who are should be judged exactly as men are judged, on the symmetry and proportion of their physiques, on their muscularity and definition, and on their posing routines.

“People say it’s O.K. to have women onstage, but that they shouldn’t pose like men. But the point is for them to demonstrate their physical development, to show it off in a dynamic way, and if someone says, ‘It turns me off to see a woman hit a muscular shot.’ well, who cares?”

But even Schwarzenegger was not prepared for something he saw at Warminster. He had never met Tampa’s Laura Combes, 26, whose upper-body musculature and dynamic posing routines—especially her clenched-fist double biceps pose, which is almost never done by women—have made her the most controversial figure in women’s bodybuilding and the subject of much innuendo. For the record. Combes has a boyfriend, and she claims she does not use anabolic steroids, which would enhance any woman’s muscle mass. “People always ask me, ‘Do you take drugs?’ ” she says. “Well, that infuriates me. I’ve heard stories of guys falling over, holding their livers, from steroids. And muscularity can be achieved without them. I didn’t even take vitamins until recently—I’m just a mesomorph.” (Actually, no female bodybuilder admits to using steroids, though Mandy Tanny, a writer for Muscle Builder Magazine and niece of spa impresario Vic Tanny, says, “Of course they use steroids. I hate to see it, but some of the top women do. It gives them a much more exaggerated musculature. But raising the subject with them is like asking an aging beauty queen how old she is.”)

Combes seriously injured her left knee in a 1972 water-skiing accident and after surgery she turned to weight training for rehabilitation. She already had broad shoulders from water skiing, and as she continued with the weights, she developed prodigious pectorals. When she came onstage for prejudging at Warminster, she was told, “Let’s see your best-side chest pose.” So she pressed her palms together away from her body, which flexed her pectorals and showed the unusually deep striations at the top of her chest. In the audience, Schwarzenegger gasped. “Oh, my God,” he said.

Combes says she had been told by the meet director, “Please don’t make a fist when you do your chest pose. We’ve got TV here, and we don’t want a bad image.” After prejudging. Combes approached Schwarzenegger and said to him, “Arnold, they don’t want me to clench my fists, and I’m afraid if I do, it will hurt my chances.” Schwarzenegger replied, “Do it anyway. Why shouldn’t you? Your posing is an extension of your personality, and no one should tell you what to do onstage.”

When Combes began her routine in the finals that evening, she could hardly hear her music, the theme from Shaft’s Big Score, because the audience was so excited by the sight of her. “The judges had said no, but the audience was saying yes, so I went with the audience,” she says. She flexed one biceps, fist closed, to whistles and stomping. She threw up the other, and the room began to vibrate. And she concluded by breaking the ultimate taboo of female bodybuilding by doing “the crab,” an awkward, unlovely hunching forward of the shoulders. It showed more muscle, though, than anyone present had ever seen on a woman—more, too, than the judges wanted to see. Combes finished sixth.

One judge said Combes had not shown enough definition in her legs (she has been warned not to do squats in training, a key leg exercise, because in 1978 she had injured her other knee), that her failing was a lack of symmetry and that she had not been marked down for the crab or double biceps. “She wouldn’t look bad at all,” he said, “if she just stood naturally.”

What Combes had shown the audience at Warminster were 14-inch upper arms and a 38½-inch chest; more than anything else, the chest measurement reflected the size of her back. Combes is only 5’2″, and muscles that big are unusually large for a woman her size. But, “You say ‘bodybuilder’ to the public,” she says, “and then people look at women and think, ‘They don’t have any muscles, why call them bodybuilders?’ Well, I think building means to build. I think it means to have muscles that show. I’m doing this to prove a point. Once women weren’t allowed to vote, to smoke or to have good jobs. People always said we couldn’t develop muscle size, too. Well, seein’ is believin’.”

The following day a local paper published its coverage of the contest. There had been 40 women entered, and five of them had scored better than Combes, but one of the two pictures the paper published was of Combes’ double biceps pose. The contest promoter, George Snyder, owner of the Olympus Gym, said, “We were trying to pick the best woman bodybuilder. It wasn’t a male bodybuilder impersonation contest. I’m afraid that picture scared a lot of women away from weight training. They’ll be afraid of looking like that. I got negative feedback from a few of my members, and I can assume it hurt my business.”

Snyder has owned the Olympus since 1975, and each year the number of women working out with weights has increased substantially. He now has from 150 to 200, though no more than six have competed in a physique contest. A similar pattern is evolving all across the country. More women are pumping iron than ever, and, most significantly, no one is objecting to their doing so. In 1936, when Jack LaLanne opened the country’s first weight-training facility for women in Oakland, he was not a popular man. Both sexes were being warned about hernias and heart attacks, but LaLanne persisted. “We produced such great bodies that those girls caused a sensation on the beach,” he says.

LaLanne’s “girls” even met for an occasional “beauty contest,” as they were called, but women’s bodybuilding, 1980 style, was unimaginable, and weight training for masses of women was still decades away. Even a men’s bodybuilding lineup in those days was likely to be a motley gathering of weightlifters, gymnasts and boxers doing handstands. Weightlifters soon became preeminent. but as late as 1947 Mr. Europe contestants were required to do flips and specialized yoga positions; in bodybuilding, difficulty in figuring out the rules is an old story.

By the early ’60s men had stopped flipping and enough women had started lifting that the Miss Americana contest for bodybuilders was begun. Nicotra won it in 1974 and ’75. Showy muscles weren’t encouraged, but it wasn’t a burlesque show, either. In 1975 Henry McGhee Jr. of Canton, Ohio—a controversial figure of whom more, much more, later—decided to stage a contest of his own, “a beauty contest for women bodybuilders,” as he described it. Women’s gyms were still equipped with vibrating belts and rollers, passive exercise equipment, but that was changing fast. As Schwarzenegger recalls, “Women’s bodybuilding seems to have developed right along with the women’s movement. More women were feeling secure about doing things that only men had done. They were going to gyms and asking how to build bigger biceps, and some of them were even entering contests. They could never have gotten away with it 10 years earlier.”

After the Warminster contest last year Combes went home to Florida, and the following weekend won the Miss Tampa bodybuilding competition. The audience was screaming her name, and the Florida judges, who had seen her before, were not put off by her musculature.

That contest was the fifth sponsored annually by Tampa’s Superior Physique Association, an organization founded by Doris Barrilleaux, a 48-year-old grandmother and head stewardess for Red Carpet Airlines, who has been training with weights for 24 years. “I never understood why they had bodybuilding competition for men and not for women,” she says. “All they had were beauty contests, and I thought there should be recognition for women with healthy bodies as well as for those with pretty faces. I believe there can be a happy medium between women with extreme definition and the body-beautiful type.” Barrilleaux tends toward the latter; she may have the best 48-year-old grandmother’s body on earth, and is also the oldest woman currently competing in her sport. She took third in two of the five SPA contests and won Best Presentation in another, but she says, “I sure wish they’d put some old ones in, so I’d have a chance.”

On the day Combes became Miss Tampa, another women’s contest was being held, in Los Angeles—the Robby Robinson Body Building Championship. And it appeared that a rivalry was about to be joined, a meeting of two rising female bodybuilding stars with divergent styles. It would be a test, of sorts, for the new sport. One, a tiny blonde named Stacey Bentley, 23, of Venice, Calif., who had been third at Warminster, showed up complete with a mischievous smile and a flower in her hair. The other was Claudia Wilbourn, 28, of San Juan Capistrano, Calif. No smile, no wiles, just muscle. In June, Wilbourn had placed second in the first Women’s World Body Building Championship, also held in L.A., in which Bentley had finished fourth. The winner had been 26-year-old Lisa Lyon, who hasn’t competed since. At the Robinson Classic, Bentley was “feminine,” and, to a lot of people, Wilbourn was scary. She wasn’t pretty enough, some observers said, to get away with showing all that muscle. She had added several pounds of it since June, and her abdominals and pectorals—abs and pecs—were far more defined than any other woman’s. But the promoter assured her the judges were looking for muscle.

The promoter was wrong. One judge said of Wilbourn, “If we’d wanted a woman who looked like a man, then the one with the big pecs and the deep striations would have won.”

Another said to a bystander, who turned out to be Wilbourn’s boyfriend, “Everyone was grossed out by her muscularity. And she wasn’t pretty enough, either.”

Bentley, who was pretty enough, won. To be fair, she was now also one of the best of the female bodybuilders, getting leaner and more muscular by the week. She had worked very hard, goaded by John Balik, her training partner, who would shout “Explode!” as she cleaned an Olympic bar from the floor or help her curl or press a dumbbell one more time and let her lower it alone. And Bentley had refined her posing routine; it displayed muscle, but more obliquely than before—”conveying power,” she said, “though never at the expense of grace.” She received 40 points for it. Wilbourn, who forgot about the grace, according to the judges, received one point for her routine and finished sixth.

Many people in bodybuilding, men included, were disturbed by what happened at the Robinson contest. Few found fault with Bentley’s victory, but they saw something grievously wrong with the treatment accorded Wilbourn. “Not winning is one thing,” said Bill Dobbins, who’s collaborating with Schwarzenegger on a book entitled Arnold’s First Book of Bodybuilding, “but to be told you can’t even play the game because someone doesn’t like the way you look, well, that’s another.”

Consider the sentiments expressed by one of the judges, Jim Morris, Mr. America of 1973. He owns a Hollywood gym, and he knows something of women’s bodybuilding. When he volunteered to be a judge, he had a good idea of what he would be seeing at the contest, so it was surprising, to say the least, to hear him say afterward, “I think female physique contests should be discontinued. I’m no more in favor of them than I am of male beauty contests. To me, one is as repulsive as the other.”

Which brings us finally to McGhee, 29, associate physical director of the Canton YMCA. After staging a number of “beauty contests,” beginning in 1975, in 1978 he organized the country’s first women’s bodybuilding competition—the first, that is, in which the entrants were judged purely on their muscularity. Almost immediately, all those connected with the sport were united in disagreement with his views. As Balik puts it, “If McGhee has a hand in the sport, it will remain in the freak-show category.”

McGhee is an amiable man who seems puzzled by such comments. “Most people say I’m trying to make men out of women,” he says. “Well, I know the two sexes are different, but they do have certain similarities. Men don’t monopolize strength. If they did, you wouldn’t see fillies winning horse races. Women are incredible. We’ve just never seen them reach their potential. When I was a high school track coach, the girls would leave the team when they started getting muscular, and that was frustrating to me. I decided that I wanted to promote muscle on women as beautiful. I think that using traditional standards of femininity in a bodybuilding contest is like having a spelling bee only for those spelling on a fifth-grade level or less. We don’t know the ultimate potential of women, and already they want to limit it.

“I feel that beauty-oriented physique contests will disappear the way the old minstrel shows did when the blacks decided they were a disgrace. I feel the whole concept of beauty contests runs counter to the interests of women.

“Every woman has the same capacity for starving to death, but before she does, she’s going to be very lean and muscular. That’s what we want in our competitions, muscularity, with proportion. Anything we feel is hereditary we don’t consider—facial features, size of breasts, width of pelvis—and we’re not concerned with traditional standards of femininity, either. Take the example of a really high calf muscle. Well, I don’t want to hear a judge saying, I think high calves are ugly.’ I just want to know, ‘Is the muscle developed?’ It’s like a basketball game. A shot may be graceful or unorthodox, but either way, if it goes through the hoop, it counts for two points.”

It seemed the Women’s National Physique Championship in Canton last November might be a good place for Wilbourn. In fact, there was no other place left. California and Florida were not ready for her. She had written Barrilleaux about competing in Florida, and received the reply, “Oh, Claudia, we’re not looking for your kind of muscle.” At least, Wilbourn thought, the nationals would have well-defined judging standards. She phoned McGhee. She says he told her, “You can pose any way you want, but don’t get up there and look like a man. You’ll look like a monkey if you do.”

Wilbourn replied, “I couldn’t look like a monkey if I tried. Or a man.” And she says now, “He couldn’t give me any concrete idea of what his standards were. I was surprised. He just rambled and rambled. So I decided to save my air fare.”

Combes had also been thinking about going to Ohio, but a phone conversation with McGhee changed her mind, too. “His ideal woman sounded like a Neanderthal man to me,” she said. “He gave me this line about basketball shots, how some are graceful and some aren’t, but they all count for two points.”

Chapman had gone to McGhee’s first Annual U.S. Women’s National Physique Championship in 1978, but had withdrawn before competition began, explaining, “I don’t think women should be as muscular as he wants them to be.”

Nicotra didn’t give Canton a second thought. Bentley did, but quickly put it from her mind. Twenty-one-year-old Cammie Lusko, third at the Robinson contest, spoke with McGhee many times and told friends, “I don’t know where he’s coming from,” but decided to take a chance. She was the only woman at Canton who had ever placed in a major bodybuilding competition outside of Ohio.

Though this was the second annual national championship McGhee had staged, an hour before it was scheduled to begin he still did not have a list of entrants. He did have four judges, though two of them had never judged a women’s bodybuilding contest and one admitted, “I don’t have the slightest idea what he’s looking for.” McGhee overheard this and unrolled a large piece of paper on which a female of menacing proportions was drawn. She had broad shoulders, heavy legs and looked, from the front, like a cross between Bigfoot and Sonny Liston. McGhee explained that this was an artist’s rendering of his ideally proportioned woman. Someone pointed out that she was neither lean nor muscular, qualities McGhee claims to like in women bodybuilders, she was just large. McGhee admitted, “The drawing shows proportion. Muscularity is something else. We were supposed to have a drawing for that, too, but the artist didn’t finish it in time.”

McGhee said that the drawing he did have was based on research he had carried out last summer at Case Western Reserve University. “I had the faculty recommend a student from the department of medical illustration, and this is what we came up with. We decided that the calf should be 20% smaller than the thigh. Remember that figure: thigh to torso, forearm to upper arm, and upper arm to shoulder—the first should be 20% smaller than the second.”

He pointed to the drawing. “For example, if I take this thigh and stick it right up here in the torso, not including the breast—you’ve gotta throw out the breast—I’d have about 20% of the torso showing underneath.”

At 2:40 p.m., 10 minutes after the scheduled starting time, McGhee still could not say who would be competing. Approximately 100 spectators were in the YMCA auditorium when a curtain suddenly opened onstage and an extremely slim woman of about 20 came out in a brown bikini. She was one of four entrants, it turned out, in the under-112-pound class. The judges sat at a long table, and McGhee knelt on the floor in the narrow space between the table and the stage. The girl stood sideways to the audience while McGhee whispered to the judges, “Remember, everything is 20%. First compare the right calf to the right thigh.” The judges began juxtaposing various body parts, holding up their thumbs and forefingers and quickly looking down to make notes. The process took longer than it should have, because the judges were still learning, and after 15 minutes of standing absolutely still, the woman began to tremble. McGhee said, “Point your toe.” She did, flexing her calf mucles. “Remember,” McGhee told the judges, “there are four distinct muscle groups in the calf, and each group is worth 12 points.” By this time he might as well have been speaking Hindi. A man who had been taking notes nearby sat with one hand over his eyes, shaking his head; he was Mandy Tanny’s father, Armand, Mr. U.S.A. of 1950, on assignment for Muscle Builder Magazine.

After 23 minutes, competitor No. 1 wobbled off and another woman came out. She was in her forties and, it turned out, was the mother of the first contestant. “She’s got fantastic abdominals,” McGhee promised. “Serratus like you’ve never seen!” And they never were seen. Apparently she had checked them at the desk. She turned, revealing dimpled thighs. Egads, cellulite!

Bodybuilder No. 3, Marilyn Schriner of Chicago, was also slim, but at least she showed some muscle. She had wide shoulders, almost like those of the woman in the drawing, and the audience loved her triceps. Someone shouted, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” McGhee looked up at her and whispered, “Buttock.” “What?” she replied, glancing down. “Buttock,” he said, louder. “What?” she repeated. “Buttock!” McGhee yelled. “Parkay,” came a voice from the audience.

Things picked up with the judging of the 112-pound-and-over class, in which Lusko was competing. A physical consultant at a Chatsworth, Calif. gym, Lusko wants to be a Hollywood stunt woman and may be the strongest woman bodybuilder around. She never touched a weight until February of last year, but seven months later she could jerk a 100-pound dumbbell over her head with her left arm. During her three-hour workouts, she lifts something like 30 tons of iron. For four days before heading east, she ate no solid food, reducing her weight from 140 pounds to 133, melting off the fat so the muscle beneath would stand out.

Now she waited backstage to go on. Some children’s paints and brushes stood on a nearby table, and she picked up a dry brush and began to dab playfully at the stomach of Kay Baxter, who had been 10th at Warminster after only two months of weight training. “Right there,” Baxter said. “I need another ab.” The atmosphere backstage was relaxed. There was none of the gamesmanship often seen at men’s competitions. (The story is told of one male newcomer who was advised of a little-known technique for impressing the judges with his intensity—”scream your guts out as you pose.” He did, and was laughed off the stage.)

Lusko was the first to pose. When she pointed a toe at the audience, flexing her calf and frontal thigh muscles, or thrust out her abs, exclamations such as “Incredible!” and “That’s it, baby!” erupted around the room. Otherwise, things were relatively quiet. One woman had lost 100 pounds after a year of weight training and diet, and the skin of her midsection was loose, as if it had failed to keep pace with the shrinkage beneath. But there she stood in her bikini; McGhee should consider establishing a special award for bravery. Baxter, it turned out, did not need another ab. The three months of training since Warminster had built a lot of muscle, and a classic bodybuilder’s diet in the previous month helped to display it. Smaller and less imposing than Lusko, Baxter was still the most muscular woman in Canton; her calves and deltoids seemed ready to split her skin. But the audience failed to appreciate this. Devotees of women’s bodybuilding have a lot to learn about what matters in contests. Everybody does.

The women’s freestyle posing routines counted much less than the afternoon’s compulsories but could be decisive if point totals were close. McGhee kept saying, “The routines must be original, and every muscle must be flexed.” Some of the women seemed more impressive than they had been earlier, but that was their originality—not their muscles—showing. One yoga expert produced a lovely flowing scramble of arms and legs with a split thrown in, but she failed to show much muscularity. Lusko’s routine was far more dynamic, and she flashed what may be the sport’s most infectious smile, a sure sign of confidence, but good for no points in Canton. Baxter, an outstanding gymnast at Kent State in the late ’60s, was the evening’s star. Toward the end of her 70-second routine she went into a front straddle support; she rose on her palms from a sitting position, legs and torso forming a shallow V in the air. She hung there under the lights for at least three seconds, muscles gleaming.

Afterward she said, “I could have done the crab, but that’s ugly, and the straddle support brings out the same muscles, especially the trapezius, shoulders and thighs.”

Finally it was time for the winner to be announced. Baxter had her partisans, as did Lusko. Someone tested the microphone. All conversation in the room ceased, and the winner was announced: Schriner, the Parkay lady.

A lot of mouths dropped, but very few words came out. Steve Wennerstrom, assistant women’s track coach at UCLA and the Western representative of McGhee’s U.S. Women’s Physique Association, said, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. But I guess it goes along with what he wants, a string bean.”

Off in a corner, a surprised and bewildered Schriner was speaking with reporters. She said she had been lifting weights for two years, that she had started “from fear of living alone. Every time I was frightened I started doing push-ups.”

Other bodybuilders stood around with friends, talking about their sport and its future. Some spoke of efforts by the AAU and International Federation of Bodybuilders to train female judges and codify judging standards. There appeared to be a consensus that the future and the standards were not unrelated.

Ten minutes later a chagrined McGhee brought word of what he called “a slight mistake. We got the winner wrong. It should have been Kay Baxter.”

The announcer had read the wrong scores. Schriner had led her weight division coming into the evening, McGhee explained, and Baxter had led hers, with two fewer points. But Baxter easily won the posing competition, making Schriner second and Lusko third. “It wasn’t the announcer’s fault,” McGhee said.

Someone ran to retrieve the winner’s trophy from Schriner, catching her as she was leaving the building.

Baxter was telling people, “This is real bodybuilding. The one in Pennsylvania was just a beauty contest for athletes. They didn’t want men’s poses, but you can’t show muscles without them. I guess they don’t think muscles are feminine, but that will change as we become more familiar with what athletic women look like.”

That statement served as a fitting conclusion to the second Annual U.S. Women’s National Physique Championship, the last women’s bodybuilding competition of the decade. Now the sport could have a brand-new start.

It needed one.


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