Muscle magazines boast new features and departments for women.
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On the evening of May 23rd, the occasion of the 1981 Mr. and Ms. California bodybuilding contest, I stood concealed behind the side curtains of Mandeville Auditorium at UCSD. In the center of the stage stood the five women finalists, all wearing the skimpiest of bikinis. Spotlights reflected off the oil glistening on their tanned bodies.

Jan Bowden found she loved watching her own muscles tense and work.

Jan Bowden found she loved watching her own muscles tense and work.

The full house of bodybuilding fans was clapping and hooting and cheering, and yelling things like “Go, Number Three!” and “Show those abs!!” As the winners were being announced it suddenly occurred to me that at that moment people elsewhere in the world were studying medicine, writing operas, leading political movements. It was a disjointed thought. But it momentarily made me wonder. What are these women doing here? Just as swiftly as it came, the question vanished. I knew the answer.

Mae Sabbagh looked like a Barbie Doll lost in a football players’ locker room.

Mae Sabbagh looked like a Barbie Doll lost in a football players’ locker room.

I got my first inkling of it several months ago at the little Point Loma Health Club on Voltaire Street, which is run by Donna Leger and her husband Ted. Donna has fluffy golden hair and big blue eyes. She first got interested in diet and physical fitness about eight years ago. “I was really fat when I was twenty or twenty-one, a little Irish potato,” she says. Over time, she eased into working out with light weights. But the very thought of the bulky forms developed by male bodybuilders scared her away from heavier workouts. She says only about two years ago did she begin to question her assumption that heavy weightlifting would necessarily lead to grotesque muscles. She began to wonder if the activity might not instead affect the female body differently. Curiosity finally got the best of her and she decided to experiment.

And indeed, as she hoisted heavier and heavier barbells, she says she found herself growing slimmer and firmer, rather than more massive. Her muscles did develop, but only moderately, never to the point of bulging, even after she reached the point where she could bench-press more than the equivalent of her own 110 pounds. The changes prompted Donna to begin reading up on physiology, and there she learned that it’s the male sex hormone, testosterone, which acts on men’s muscles to increase drastically their size in response to work.

Maylen: “Like an artist might go to Greenwich Village, I went to Muscle Beach.”

Maylen: “Like an artist might go to Greenwich Village, I went to Muscle Beach.”

“So if you ever see a very heavily muscled woman, either she has a lot of men’s hormone, which is very, very rare, or she’s taking steroids [synthetic male hormones].” Soon Donna began encouraging other women to lift heavy weights. “It’s the best way I know to really sculpt your body. It takes a ballet dancer years to sculpt her body. But a women who lifts weights, even just three times a week, and really works hard, can start seeing changes within a month.”

Karen Thompson:“If someone looks at me and says, ‘She’s not that cut up,’ well, maybe that person will feel encouraged to get in a competition.”

Karen Thompson:“If someone looks at me and says, ‘She’s not that cut up,’ well, maybe that person will feel encouraged to get in a competition.”

Donna wasn’t the only woman drawing these same conclusions at about this time, and interest and participation in women’s bodybuilding has since been born, has left its childhood, and has shot into the manic growth of adolescence — all within just the last two years. You can see it in the muscle magazines, which boast new features and departments devoted for the first time to women. You can see it in the competitions: the very first major one to include a women’s division was held a year and a half ago in Santa Monica.

Terry Caldwell, Jan Bowden

Terry Caldwell, Jan Bowden

Now at least one women’s contest a month is being staged in California alone. Today Donna estimates that maybe twenty-five out of the hundred or so women members at her gym have begun serious bodybuilding. Most of those still aren’t entering the contests, including Donna, who says, “I think you have to have more of an exhibitionist-type attitude for the competitions.” Then she introduced me to one woman bodybuilder who's both a seasoned competitor and an exception to that generalization.

Virtually nothing about Jan Bowden would tip off the casual acquaintance to her all-consuming pastime. She’s five feet four and a half, and her 122 pounds look well-proportioned. At first glance she seems more delicate than muscular, but at second glance her legs and arms look unusually sinewy and firm. Bowden is twenty-six, but her waist-length hair — very straight and pale blonde — and her reticence make her seem much younger; she reminded me of Gretel from the fairy tale. She explains that she first started lifting weights when she was about twenty years old and was a student at San Diego State.

Back then she had already begun to pursue the fascination with human anatomy she retains today. Initially a physical education major, she changed her major to biological science; the two fields of study simply seemed like two sides of the same coin. She came upon weightlifting by chance. The only part-time job she could get on campus was as supervisor of the men’s weight room at Peterson Gym. To fend off boredom, Bowden began lifting the weights herself, over the taunts of some of the bemused football players.

She found she loved watching her own muscles tense and work under the stress of the exercise; she marveled as they began to change shape. When she graduated and got a job as a pathology assistant at Scripps Memorial Hospital, she continued daily workouts at a succession of gyms around town. That first women’s bodybuilding contest in Santa Monica naturally commanded her attention, despite its inconsistencies. “Some of the women went out and copied six or eight men’s poses like biceps, double biceps, and the crab. Some of them just did a ballerina-type thing. Some did a combination.” Then Bowden learned that the Family Fitness Center on Balboa Avenue in Clairemont was planning a women's competition in March of 1980. Suppressing her feelings of timidity”, she entered.

She was one of only five women to do so, and she easily captured the top prize. Encouraged, she entered the Miss Golden San Joaquin competition in April of 1980 in Fresno and took a second place there. She won a third place in the Ms. California contest held in Santa Monica last year and she became Miss Pacific Shores last October in San Diego. When I met her, she shyly insisted that she didn’t much like the competition; bodybuilding appealed to her because it was something she could do without depending on anyone else. Still, she admitted she was thinking of entering the South Counties Bodybuilding Championships to be held April 12 in San Clemente.

So I drove up to see her compete there — and arrived too late to catch the “prejudging” of the women bodybuilders, the heart of any bodybuilding competition. All the real decisions are made in these daytime sessions; it’s then that women pose on the bare stages and the judges eye them critically, comparing woman against woman, muscles against muscles. All the music and glitter and hype of the evening shows are just so much show biz, directed at the audiences who pay up to fifteen dollars a ticket. At night the only real suspense springs from the announcement of the winners, who have already been determined as a result of the prejudging. But the prejudging schedules are often loose. Bowden drove up to the Miramar Theater in San Clemente, the site of the contest, and arrived by 8:00 a.m. to be sure of not missing anything — and wound up waiting until about two that afternoon. The prejudging had lasted only twenty minutes, and Bowden had then gone to the beach. When I arrived, moments later, the only San Diego competitor in the throng at the theater parking lot was Mae Sabbagh.

All around us milled beefy male bodybuilders, slathering themselves with baby oil, pumping up their muscles in the blazing afternoon sun. In their midst, Sabbagh looked like a Barbie Doll lost in a football players’ locker room. At four feet eleven and ninety-five pounds, she had improbably voluptuous breasts, a tiny waist, narrow hips, and a dazzling smile. She was glad to talk about how she started bodybuilding; it was all still quite new to her.

She explained that she was twenty-two years old and a student of international relations at the University of San Diego. Born a Lebanese Christian, she and her family had fled from Lebanon to London around 1973, at the beginning of the civil war there. Sabbagh had been athletic at her London high school, running both the 100-and 200-meter dash, but when she entered college, her physical activity had dropped off. Then she transferred schools, moved to San Diego, and met a boyfriend who encouraged her about a year ago to undertake a general conditioning program. The two of them attended their first bodybuilding competition last winter at the La Paloma Theater in Encinitas — but the event had turned them off. “It was really rinky-dink, and the women looked bulky,” Sabbagh says. She shrank from the thought of becoming like them, and her lawyer boyfriend, Mark Mollica, confides, “One of the things we were really worried about was whether it would make her lose inches in her breasts.” So they dismissed the thought and probably would never have reconsidered it — were it not for Maylen.

Maylen (he only uses the single name) is an almost legendary figure on the San Diego health club circuit. He himself began lifting weights in 1948 when he was “the smallest guy at Salinas High School.” Starting with mail-order barbells, he built himself up to win the “Mr. Salinas” title three years in a row. Then, he recalls almost reverently, “Like an artist might go to Greenwich Village, I went to Muscle Beach.” The Santa Monica bodybuilding mecca was his academy. There he pumped iron alongside the greats of the sport like Steve Reeves. When he left, he was ready to open his own gym on La Jolla Boulevard in 1963. He ran that for seventeen years and served as the strength coach for the Chargers from 1963 to 1972. Finally tired of the grind, last year he sold the gym and his $400,000 home in Del Mar and moved to Mexico for several months. Only upon his return did he discover the entry of women into bodybuilding. “I felt like my life had^been reborn,” he says with childlike fervor. Here was an aspect of muscle building he’d never worked on before. Here was a new challenge! A whole new muscle-building frontier!

So he took a half-time job in 1980 at a small gym in Ocean Beach. It happened to be the same place where Sabbagh had begun her conditioning program. Maylen was coaching Sabbagh, though not in bodybuilding, when he received a call from a friend at the Sun-Up television show early this year. The friend explained that the program was taking a week-long look at unusual women’s activities — mud wrestling, flame-throwing, and so on. Could Maylen supply any lady bodybuilders? the friend asked. Without hesitation, the coach assented. Then he convinced Sabbagh it would be fun to appear on the show and fake it — even though she’d never struck a bodybuilding pose in her life.

She got her first lesson in one of the washrooms at Channel 8 studios at 7:30 on the morning of the program. As her boyfriend, Mark, guarded the doors, Maylen showed her how to flex and tense her arms, her back, her legs, professionally. By showtime, she was poised before the cameras like a miniature female Arnold Schwarzenegger. In response to Maylen’s preshow prompting, she told the interviewer that she would be entering the upcoming Miss Southern California contest in Encinitas, something she had no intention of actually doing. But she hadn’t anticipated the reaction to her appearance on the show. “I got so much feedback! People called me up at the gym and asked me how I got into bodybuilding. One photographer called and asked me to do some pictures. It was incredible!”

Exhilarated by all the attention, she decided to enter the Encinitas show this past March 28 — where she bagged the second-place title, although she only trained seriously for two weeks. That unlikely success led her up to the San Clemente contest. Sabbagh’s new interest in bodybuilding was to receive further encouragement there on the evening I first met her. When the winners were announced, Sabbagh claimed the third-place trophy, in contrast with Bowden, the veteran, who only placed fourth.

I didn’t catch up with Bowden for another month, but she still looked depressed bv those results. “The girls who won second and third were really inexperienced, but they had really big boobs,” she told me one night at Leger’s gym. “You can never tell what the judges are going to do. When I was in Miss Pacific Shores, one of the girls had silicone boobs, but I still got first and she got second." Perhaps buoyed by that memory. Bowden had decided to try for the title of Ms. California, the contest in which she had taken a third place last year and which was to be held on the UCSD campus on May 23. Ten days before that event, Bowden was deep in the throes of training. For several weeks she had been lifting weights in split shifts: showing up at the gym six days a week at 6:00 am, working out for two hours, driving to the hospital and putting in her eight hours amid the cadavers in the pathology lab, then returning to the gym after work and lifting weights for another hour and a half. Now her concentration had shifted to the final stages of preparation; in particular, to losing as much weight as possible as part of the crucial process that bodybuilders call “getting cut up."

The body of the average American woman who’s not overweight is composed of about roughly sixteen to twenty-five percent fat, fat which lies like a coat of insulation between the skin and the muscles and veins underneath it. But the last thing a female bodybuilder wants is for anything to obscure the world’s view of the muscles she has worked so painstakingly to harden and define. One gets the impression that if they could, bodybuilders would shed not just their fat, but their skin as well, to better show off their handiwork. Failing at that, the women strive to reduce their body fat to only five to ten percent of their total weight, a layer of fat so thin that the lines of striated muscle and throbbing veins appears to “cut" patterns into the surface of the skin.

So three weeks before the Ms. California show, Bowden had gone on a diet: cottage cheese and a piece of fruit or vegetable for breakfast; a small amount of fish or chicken, a vegetable salad, and maybe some cottage cheese for lunch; some fruit in the afternoon; then nothing more until the morning. “Normally I never eat red meat, ’cause where I work the people smell like that, just the same as a big raw steak,’’ she told me. But she does normally drink milk and eat carbohydrates like cereal and bread, items she had to shun while on the diet. “It’s bad for the first few days. But as I get close to the contest I get psyched up and at the end I almost don’t want to eat anything.”

When I saw her, a week and a half before the contest, Bowden had also varied her routine, working out with the weights only two hours every other day, and devoting the alternate days to aerobic exercise or running, designed to speed her weight loss. She was also practicing her poses for about a half hour a day. “When I first started in the contests I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I found out that some of the girls were going to choreographers and paying them to have routines worked out for them.” Instead of doing that, Bowden had sought advice from an old coach at San Diego State. They had gotten together for about five hour-and-a-half-long sessions, culling out the unflattering poses and establishing a routine.

“His theory is that it’s better to have a routine that’s a little on the short side. . . . That way it makes the judges want to see a bit more.” For this contest Bowden wanted to overlook no details; she was also devoting her weekends to developing her tan, and maintaining it during the week with short exposures to ultraviolet radiation at the hospital.

Her only uncertainty was over how much weight to lose. The organizer of the UCSD contest had indicated that he’d have two weight divisions: one of women weighing up to 114 pounds and another for those over that. For the San Clemente competition in April, Bowden had dropped from her normal 122 pounds down to 113. “So I figure I can go into either division this time,” she told me. She planned to make her choice by waiting until the entry deadline and then asking how many participants had signed up in each weight division.

That’s one decision Mae Sabbagh never had to fret about. When I checked in on her the following week, she weighed ninety-two pounds and was hoping to drop down to just ninety for the contest, then just three days away. After her surprisingly good showing in San Clemente, Sabbagh had decided to dedicate herself to serious bodybuilding in preparation for the big Ms. California event; she’d been spending at least four hours a day, two in the morning and two in the evening, with the weights. “I’ve really been working on my legs and thighs, and I think that's where I’ve lost the weight. Which is good, because that’s where I need the cuts to come through.”

The previous weekend Sabbagh had received some indications that the work had paid off. On Saturday she had driven up to Bakersfield to participate in the Miss Central California competition — and had been judged first out of the eleven contestants. Then the next day she’d gotten a taste of the puzzling inconsistencies which still characterize the sport. She had entered another contest in Garden Grove and had failed to place at all. Furthermore, one of the girls she had just beaten the previous day took a second place in the Sunday contest. “It was just amazing to me,” she commented. “It just shows how much the judging is really going to vary, and I can’t get bummed out.”

That judging varies not only because women’s bodybuilding is still somewhat disorganized, but also due to a basic philosophical split. Since the goal of bodybuilding is to develop the body as fully as possible, the entry of the women into the sport has inevitably posed the question: just what should the ideal woman’s body look like? Through the fluke of genetics or the use of chemicals, some women do manage to develop real muscles, Popeye-style muscles that rear up and snarl at you. Should they have the competitive edge? Some judges have said yes, like those who awarded the title of Ms. America last September to a brawny Floridian named Laura Combs. Sabbagh sniffs, “If that’s what bodybuilding is, then I don’t want any part of it.” She voices the other position in the controversy, which asserts that the ideal woman’s body should be lean and strong, but still feminine, still shaped by a distinctive waist and breasts.

It’s time for Sabbagh to run through her morning program. Her training partner, Karen Thompson, has arrived. Thompson is even newer to bodybuilding than Sabbagh is, but she’s good-naturedly planning to compete in the Saturday contest even though she knows she’ll never drop to her desired weight of 105 pounds by then. “I think the sport needs the women,” she explains. “If someone looks at me and says, ‘She’s not that cut up,’ well, maybe that person will feel encouraged to get in a competition.” The two women do a quick series of stretches to warm up their muscles. Then they begin following the list of exercises prepared for them this morning by Maylen.

There are “toe raises,” in which they sit at a bright yellow machine and use their calves to lift a weight resting on their knees. These they alternate with sets of jumping lunges, made more strenuous by holding five-pound weights in each hand. Then Sabbagh and Thompson take turns placing a forty-five-pound bar on their shoulders and periodically squatting to build up the muscles in the front of their thighs. They lie on their backs and work with dumbbells, moving the weights in preset patterns through the space around them. Each time Sabbagh finishes a set with the dumbbells, I can literally see the blood coursing through her forearms, raising up the veins and making them snake up her flesh like living creatures. “I hate them,” Sabbagh says shortly. “I don’t think they’re feminine.” She concludes the hour-and-a-half workout with a series of situps, which she does on an inclined board. Her feet go up at the high end and she clasps a ten-pound weight with both hands behind her neck. Each time she hauls up her torso and leans forward, waves of muscles in her thighs swell and shift with a motion which flows with incredible swiftness. It’s hypnotic, and for a while everything else fades — the noise of the gym, my awareness of Sabbagh as a whole human being — and all that remains is the sight of that brown flesh stretched like a surgical glove over the muscles, pumping and stretching, pumping and stretching, mechanical and yet an order of magnitude more complex than any machine.

It’s nine o’clock on the morning of the contest, a gray and misty day. Outside Mandeville Center, Paul Etney, who runs Gold’s Gym in Clairemont, sponsor of today’s Mr. and Ms. California competition, is struggling to pull boxes and papers and folding chairs out of his van. Most of the woman contestants have arrived and the majority of them wear stylish warm-up suits in a variety of hues. Only a few chat among themselves, subdued. Their loose-fitting clothing hides their muscles — but not the fact that they’re a group of remarkably little females.

They’re so small, in fact, that Etney soon announces he’s discarding the idea of separating the fourteen women into two divisions; only two or three of them weigh more than 114 pounds. The news comes as a blow to Karen Thompson, Sabbagh’s training partner. Although she’s sleek at 118 pounds, her body nonetheless is obviously rounder, softer than those of most of the other contestants. So she quietly tells Etney that she’s withdrawing from the women’s division, though she still plans to participate with a male partner in the “couples” section of the program. “I’m just too heavy,” she tells me with studied casualness. “And I’ll be in the couples, which is like the same thing anyway.” The check-in comes a few moments later, and it reveals that while this showing (thirteen women) isn’t overwhelming, the event has drawn competitors from throughout the state. The women come from Tulare, Stockton, Panorama City, Modesto, Berkeley, Venice, Sacramento, San Francisco. Besides Sabbagh and Bowden, two other contestants live in San Diego County. One is the wife of an Escondido chiropractor and natural foods advocate; he encouraged her to experiment with weight training, which she began about six months ago “just to firm up.” The second is a friendly brunette named Terry Caldwell. A “power lifter,” or competitive weightlifter, by training, she dropped from 130 to 117 pounds in five weeks in order to get a taste of bodybuilding at this contest. “I plan to enter another one in three months at Disneyland,” she says. “After that, I think I’ll decide whether I want to go on with bodybuilding or go back to the power lifting.” After the women finish registering, a pale, excitable man named Jerry introduces himself as the stage manager for this evening’s show and shepherds the contestants into the empty auditorium. “I'm the man responsible for making you the best looking that you can be. And ladies, let me tell you: Ummmmm!” he licks his lips in mock lasciviousness. “Now, this is the second most prestigious bodybuilding contest in the nation, ranked only after Mr. America. This is the first time in twenty years that San Diego has put on a Mr. California contest, and as far as I know all the major television networks are going to be here. The show's going to start at seven o’clock tonight, come rip, shit, or bust.” He proudly tells them that a special static-electricity machine has been trucked down from Los Angeles to help get the program off to a crackling start. “We are going to take you into the future. There is going to be a kinetic lightning storm on stage. This is a show. And you are not only bodybuilders. You are also actors! Now I have to weigh you in. Line up and I’ll give you all numbers.”

The weigh-in and dressing rooms are in the basement, where the thirteen women receive still more instructions from Claudia Wilbourn, a tall woman with white-blond hair who’s dressed in skintight black satin and black pumps. Last year’s winner of the title these women are now seeking, she's head judge today. She explains the compulsory poses that the judging panel will expect to see. “Here in this one you crunch your abs {abdominal muscles] and you can kind of flex your arms and show your pecs [pectoral muscles]. I know, I know,” she says in response to a groan. ”I hate it, too. But you can show some muscularity if you think about it.” As she talks she demonstrates the stylized gestures. “Now, on the side I want a side chest and a tricep.” Wilbourn instructs them to remove all jewelry and flowers. And for the prejudging, they must pin their hair up. (Most of the women have come with fancy hairdos.) “Because if it’s on your shoulders, you can’t see the traps [trapezius muscles]; you can’t see the deltoids. And you want these people to be looking at you as bodybuilders and really assessing your strength and your development and your charisma and everything else.” She finally dismisses them with the suggestion that they start oiling up by no later than 10:20 a.m. (The oil accentuates the muscles’ outline against the skin.) “If we don’t do this real fast, we’ll never get through, ’cause we’ve got a ton of men.”

When the women strip down to their bikinis in the clean, brightly lit dressing room, it’s obvious that these are — literally — tough contenders. I can spot only very few exceptions. One is a sexy Venice resident named Karen who tells me that last year she competed a few times and; then got disgusted with the sport. “I felt like I got ripped off a couple of times. Sometimes the judges want someone who’s all ripped up like a man. Sometimes they want a beauty queen. Sometimes they want someone who’s huge on top. You just never know.” She had changed her mind only three weeks before this competition, and the lack of hard training shows on her. Although she carries only ninety-five pounds on her five-foot frame, her pale skin looks soft and smooth. Dressed in a red-and-white striped bikini, she somehow reminds me of a piece of candy, a stark contrast to women like contestant number fourteen, a gaunt blond from San Francisco.

Her five-feet-seven inches (116 pounds) makes her the tallest woman here, and she commands a whole fleet of muscles. Even at rest she looks as if someone had carved their submerged outlines on her skin with a knife. She also has no waist to speak of and breasts so flat that she worries about her bikini top sliding off them during her routine. So she eyes with wonder Jan Bowden, who’s found an antidote to this peril of small-breastedness. Bowden has shed her elaborately tied brown bikini top and is spraying her own bare breasts with Mueller Tuffner and Clear Spray, a sticky chemical skin toughener used by athletes. The spray holds her bikini top in place. “I’m flatter than you!” the blonde from San Francisco says with excitement. “Can I try some?” Bowden graciously shares the spray can.

Bowden looks tense, grim faced. The day before she had sought to glamorize her straight hair by seeking help from a beauty college. But now she's not at all sure about the result, an asymmetrical combination of tight braids and long “com rows” studded with little feathers. Adding to Bowden’s discomfort is the fact that when she took off from work the day before to give her suntan one last dose of the beach, she ended up burning the skin newly exposed by the offbeat braids. Next to Bowden, Terry Caldwell, the power lifter, has a different problem: not enough tan. So she swallows a megadose of niacin. Within minutes the vitamin begins creating the desired effect of bringing blood to the surface of her skin. Although her knees and elbows and chest turn a splotchy bright red, the overall impression is that of increased pinkness, which will look better under the stage lights.

Resigned to the idea of not winning anything today, Caldwell is one of the few women here who seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves. Across the dressing room, Sabbagh is vigorously chewing gun and rarely removing her gaze from her own reflection in the mirrors. Today she’s wearing a minuscule, custom-made bikini, electric blue trimmed with gold. She looks otherworldly, so tiny, yet bearing these huge, swollen, melon breasts. Joining the other contestants, Sabbagh begins to lift weights, seeking to help dispel the jitters and at the same time to engorge her muscles with blood. Soon the sound of clanking iron mingles with the pants and grunts from the straining women, and the sweet perfume of cocoanut oil and feminine sweat floods the dressing room.

It’s sometime after 10:30 before the women finally climb back upstairs, where they line up on the stage like slaves at an auction. They face front, turn right, face back, turn left. Then they file off and prepare to return, one by one, to present the compulsory poses. Sabbagh is contestant number one and I can hear Maylen’s voice ring out from the audience, “Lookin’ tough, Mae. Lookin’ tough!” A few contestants later, the girl from Venice confuses the order of poses and stops for a moment, flustered, before continuing. After the compulsories, all return to the line-up again, wearing predatory, mechanical smiles and a look of all-consuming concentration.

It’s time for the first round of the comparisons, which, the contestants say, invariably reveal the judge’s preferences. First the panel asks for contestants number two and five, both out-of-towners, to step forward. “Ladies, why don’t you both hit your abs?“ Wilboum, the head judge, requests. “Give us the best shot you have for your abs.” When the women comply, their bodies tremble with the strain of flexing. The judges call out three more groups, one of.which includes Sabbagh, and as the competitors pose, the judges frantically take notes. They’re not alone in the auditorium. A sparse audience of loyal friends of the bodybuilders has paid for admission to the prejudging, and voices among them yell encouragement: “Twist it, Madeline. Twist it!” “Smile, baby!” “Elbows forward!”

After the contestants perform their individual posing routines, minus the music which will accompany them tonight, the judges decide they want to take one last look at the women before making their decisions. As the group prepares to enter the stage for the final time, one of the stagehands quietly warns the curvy girl from Venice that her hair has fallen down.“I don’t care,” she replies listlessly.

“You know, sometimes they mark you down for stuff like that,” the assistant says with concern.

“I don’t care,” she repeats.

This time the judges ask for three more comparisons, and Sabbagh is included in two of them. So now when she returns to the dressing room, she has reason to be hopeful. Bowden, in contrast, is clearly disappointed. “This will be the first contest in which 1 won’t even place,” she whispers. She doesn’t need to wait until tonight to discover the meaning of the judges’ ignoring her; she’s already certain of her coming mortification and hurriedly leaves the dressing room to spend the afternoon at her apartment.

• • •

It’s 6:30, just a half hour before the show is scheduled to start, yet no one has arrived back at the women’s dressing room except for Claudia Wilboum, the head judge, and one other woman bodybuilder, a nurse from Stockton to whom Wilboum is discoursing on the art of posing. “I told Chris Dickerson [a male bodybuilding star] last year, ‘Hey, there’s no passion in your posing. No passion.’ And you know, he changed his routine, and really practiced, and the next time I saw him I just got chills.” Her tone is that of the lofty counselor, and the nurse hangs on Wilboum’s every word. “You want to move your audience. You want them to cry or get ecstatic and you decide how to move them. I’ll even pick out one person in the audience and I’ll just play to them. It’s like acting, really.”

Other women slowly begin to trickle in, but by seven o’clock, when the auditorium is three-quarters full, stage crews are still hanging up glittery letters spelling Mr. and Ms. California behind the curtains. By 7:20 the women are ready to go on — and still waiting. Sabbagh confides to me that she’d be happy to land a fourth or fifth place, “because the level of the competition is so high. The women here are really good.” Jerry, the stage manager, finally herds the group of men and women bodybuilders, about fifty in all. up to the stage sometime after 7:30. He gives them last-minute instructions along the way. Moments later the curtains open to the blasting theme from Star Wars. The purple artificial-lightning machine is bathed in green light as it hisses and crackles; the master of ceremonies welcomes the audience to “a muscle odyssey in an age where we are exploring man’s capacity to extend his world.”

It’s time for the women once more to run through their individual posing routines, only now each contestant stands on a special platform in the middle of the stage, with music swelling up around her and the standing-room-only audience showering her with encouragement.

This is obviously an audience of bodybuilding cognoscenti. What ignites their loudest explosions of enthusiasm isn't the mere sight of the nubile, half-naked young women; it’s the muscles which pop out in the spotlight as those various women strike various poses. Here, a back . . . there, a leg . . . and now a shoulder sends them into a stomping, whistling orgy of noise.

It makes it all very clear to me what these women are doing here. Maybe they should be writing operas or leading political movements. But that’s a separate question which requires judgments irrelevant to this spectacle. Here they’re like beauty queens, only liberated, freed (or so they can hope) from the tyranny of breast size and facial structure. As bodybuilders they can take the sorry clay they were born with and stretch it and press it and end up with something that a Saturday-night audience in La Jolla will stand up and cheer for, something that surely must feel to them like a victory, however fleeting, of determination and discipline over flesh.

And now they await the more tangible, though more trivial, victory represented by the awarding of trophies. The master of ceremonies calls up Sabbagh and four other women (including the tall, flat-chested San Franciscan) to fidget on the podium. Backstage, there’s a sharp intake of breath as the San Franciscan takes fifth! There’s even more comment when the fourth place doesn’t go to Sabbagh but to a young woman in a lavender bikini. “Last Sunday she took third up in L. A. and number one [Sabbagh) didn’t even place,” a voice beside me hisses. Sabbagh wins the third-place trophy. The nurse from Stockton takes second, and an instant later Madeline Almeida of Tulare, the new Ms. California, is flexing her biceps jubilantly. “I don’t understand it,” I hear another disappointed loser comment on Sabbagh’s third-place ranking. “Last Saturday, she [Sabbagh] won in Bakersfield. But she doesn’t have any legs.” Bowden doesn’t understand Sabbagh’s victory either, and she dejectedly returns to the dressing rooms.

It isn’t to be Sabbagh’s only award of the evening. In the couples division, she and her partner, with whom she’d barely had time to improvise a choreographed routine, had managed to create the impression that they were having great fun; their contagious high spirits had allowed them to take second place, to nearly everyone’s surprise. The greatest disappointment befalls Sabbagh's training companion, Karen Thompson and her partner. Despite their hours of practice and preparation, despite their custom-made matching bathing suits, they don’t even place. It’s too much for the normally stoic Karen, and tears stream down her face. A moment later she slips away.

Sabbagh doesn’t see her go; she’s preoccupied with collecting her awards, and when I find her backstage, she’s jumping up and down. “I can’t believe it! I never expected to get third!” She holds the trophies aloft in an unbridled display of delight. She declares, smiling broadly, “I really did okay tonight!” She knows she will compete again.

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