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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.