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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."