It is a subculture that involves bulging biceps, protruding veins and never-ending workouts.
And for many of the women who take up the sport, bodybuilding can involve being stared at, whispered about, and insulted to their faces.
“They look at you like you’re from outer space or something,” says bodybuilder Yvette Williams.
“I remember people sneering and making lewd comments,” says another woman. “‘What is that? A man or a woman?'”
In the world of female bodybuilding, not only do women spend grueling hours in the gym pumping iron, pushing genetics to the limit, but many pay an even higher price for their 60 seconds on stage: The toll on their bodies can be irreversible, and the subculture can be all-consuming, obsessive and dangerous.
A Consuming World
“It’s a horrendous sacrifice to make,” says Katie Arnoldi, a former bodybuilder, referring to the hundreds of women who start out with big dreams but end up so desperate to succeed they may turn to performance-enhancing drugs. “But they’re doing it.”
Arnoldi started bodybuilding when she was 33 to get back in shape after the birth of her second child. But what started out as an innocent exercise plan quickly turned into an obsession as she fell deeper and deeper into the bodybuilding subculture.
“It’s the opposite of anorexia,” says Arnoldi, who wrote a novel called Chemical Pink about the world she left behind when she quit bodybuilding. “It’s a compulsion. It’s an obsession. And there is no satisfying that.”
“Somehow it becomes an addiction,” says Mimi D’Attomo, a former bodybuilder. “It’s like an alcoholic.”
Drugs That Transform
D’Attomo, who started bodybuilding when she was in her late 20s, became fanatical and her desire to win turned her to drugs. She started mixing chemical cocktails of steroids and diuretics after competing for three years.
“You can train as hard as you can,” she says, “but realistically, it’s almost impossible to make gains without anabolics, because anabolics help you recuperate so you never really feel the aches and pain.”
Many women, she says, mix potentially harmful combinations of insulin, diuretics, human growth hormone, beta blockers, and anti-wasting HIV drugs.
“I feel to be a professional bodybuilder,” she says, “you have to be a chemist. You have to know what to mix, what not to mix, or it could kill you.”
Women can pay a devastating price for the advantages drugs offer them. The testosterone, for example, can cause disturbing male characteristics.
“They grow facial hair, their vocal chords thicken, their voices drop, they get hair on their chest and back, a woman’s clitoris will grow into a male-like appendage,” explains Arnoldi. “These bodies become what is normal to you. And then the real world is almost invisible.”
D’Attomo knows all too well how that can happen.
“I didn’t think I looked weird,” she recalls. “It was normal for me … up until I went outside the gym and socialized outside with other people. Then I realized how different I looked. I said, ‘Whoa, I’m freaky. I’m a freak.'”
Fortunately for D’Attomo, she stopped using the drugs before the side effects became irreversible, but it took her three years to recover. The hormonal withdrawal caused her to gain 40 pounds, her joints ached and she suffered from depression. But many women who take steroids for too long may never lose the facial hair or deep voice, and may have pregnancy difficulties.