Strong Women

July 16th, 2006 by Tim Barkow

Words and images from an awesome world of female muscle
by Kristen Kaye

Iron Maidens: The Celebration of the Most Awesome Female Muscle in the World chronicles my real-life exploits plunging into the world of women’s bodybuilding as the playwright and director of a theatrical extravaganza featuring 25 of the world’s strongest and most muscular women at New York City’s Roseland Ballroom. My job was to turn the one-night-only “Celebration of the Most Awesome Female Muscle in the World” into a high art happening that exalted women’s strength in both the physical and intellectual realms.

Although I was too naïve and young (23) to worry that I had only six weeks, little budget, and wouldn’t see the performers until two days before the show, I did start to get a bit concerned when I realized that my adaptations of writers like Alice Walker were going to follow skits like the “White Lace Affair,” featuring a smoke machine and a bodybuilder in a white lace thong bikini. I also began to wonder what, exactly, was the nature of female strength anyway? Could Alice Walker and the “White Lace Affair” come one right after the other? We would soon find out.

There was so much I didn’t know: for instance, the controversy over judging women’s bodies that threatens to split the sport in two (is it better to have muscles big and hard, or soft and feminine?); the effects of steroids (not good!); and what it’s like to wrestle men for a living (more common than you might think-and so readily available on video). But with performance night fast approaching there was no time to reconcile the tangle of contradictions-the show must go on. And on it went, evolving into the most complex, unbelievable expression of female strength I’d ever seen. Here are some excerpts from the book and images from the night of the show.

All photos by Bjorg Magnea. Captions by Kristin Kaye.

Linda Wood-Hoyte as Cleopatra posing with Marc Antony
On trying to plan the show:
“I lay back on my bed trying to imagine how the whole thing would turn out. I pictured a single spotlight on a black-clad actress reciting an Alice Walker poem. Then I saw Norman Rockwell’s poster of that scrawny little boy standing before a Mr. Atlas poster and wondered what image we could use for a girl. Was there one? A nice little homey scene, a bedroom, cozy lighting, a girl longing to have muscles, in front of her mirror? Should we start the show with that?”

Christa Bauch as the “Ice Princess”
On finding the essence of female bodybuilders:
“If I had to help these women offer the essence of their being and express the true voice of female power, then I first had to find it. Without actually seeing them until just before the show, I had to get each interviewee to reveal an aspect of herself that even she rarely glimpsed over the phone. I’d gotten the idea for the question I asked them from my conversation with [the show's producer] when she explained that I had to help the women transmit the magic of their femaleness. The question: ‘What is your femaleness?’ ”

Paula Suzuki in “Control”
Bodybuilder Dawn Whitham on “femaleness”:
“Everyone thinks having muscles destroys your femininity. My muscles make me hot. But femaleness and strength is not just a physical thing. It’s a combination. Mostly it’s just something you are. I’m very independent, smart, and business-like. I have a career. I’m a personal trainer. I can bench 400 pounds and fix my own car. I also ride a Harley. Sexy things and the mind can go together too.”

Hannie Van Aken as a “Biker”
On an oft-heard performance theme:
“Hot. She wanted to be hot. Who was I to say that wasn’t her true inner nature? What was I supposed to do as a director? Make her hotter? Advise for red lighting rather than pink? I didn’t know what to do. Wasn’t I supposed to come up with new images of female strength?”

Karla Nelson as “Miss America”
On the dilemma of the perfect female muscular physique:
“One hundred pounds and 500 cc breast implants later (giving her about a D-cup), Dawn found herself placing well in competitions, but outside the Top 5. Judges told her that her look was perfect, but her breasts were too big. She would fight with them about what the right size of breasts was, exactly, and found that flat-chested and big-breasted women alike were not considered winning material. Neither was considered an example of perfect symmetry.”

Doughdee Marie and Fritz perform a duet
On trying to plan the show:
“Standing before my show chart with 20 spots empty and five filled-White Lace Affair, Red Riding Hood, Biker Chick, Stripping Miss America, Lifter-I began to wonder was this really the voice of female power? Did stripping constitute strength? Could men be in the show, even if they did get beat up?”

Thea Bennington as “The Godfather”
Bodybuilder Dawn Whitham on reactions from others:
“A part of her got off on the attention-whether positive or negative-because at the end of the day she never wanted to be the person in the crowd whom nobody noticed. Most of the time she could hack it, but there were days when, say, she just wanted to go to the Stop ‘n’ Shop and get some half-and-half for her coffee, when a person with an ‘Oh my god, look at her!’ would tick her off. ‘I don’t get pissed about what I’ve done to my body. I get pissed about how unintelligent people can be reacting to it. You’d think by now the world could accept that everybody is different, but people are afraid to be different. At least allow others the freedom to push their own boundaries.’ ”

Colleene Colley setting a national lifting record at the show
On what it was like competing as a girl:
“Colleene had been a pioneer competing against boys at the age of 15 in 1980 in Georgia. She beat them, but felt guilty because she knew they were humiliated to be beaten by a girl. She started training with weights to make herself stronger for basketball, but found she had a natural gift for lifting, a gift that wasn’t nurtured at her own school. She had to go to a gym 23 miles away to train because when she went into the weight room at her high school, the boys’ weightlifting coach eyed her and warned, ‘I hope you don’t plan on lifting any weight.’ By 1993, Colleene had already won ten national titles and three world championships.’ ”

Paula Suzuki in “Control”
On seeing a group of female bodybuilders:
“One look at the group and you saw people reveling in being reunited. A second look, and you saw mythic images of strength. Literally larger than life, they seemed untouchable, powerful in being exceptions to the rule. Yet look again, and you saw the hint of nervous girlishness that lingered in their ever-ready smiles and eyes that quickly scanned each other’s bodies; you could have mistaken the scene for a high school bathroom on prom night.”

Millie Carter as herself
On industry reaction to female bodybuilders:
“To say female bodybuilders have “enjoyed” exposure might not be exactly accurate. Industry magazines and webzines have had a history of confusing female muscle with sexuality. In the August 2002 issue of the prominent bodybuilding magazine Muscular Development, Colette Nelson, the then two-time U.S. champion, was featured in an article called ‘Extreme Sex.’ The writer wanted to know what her favorite position was and whether anything was ‘off limits, like her ass.’ He also confirmed that Colette had a ‘hot, phat body primed for either pumping up or porking or both.’ Not all articles have such a provocative slant, but when journalists aren’t extolling the virtues of female muscle, they tend to debate its value.”

Paula Suzuki in “Control”
On fans at competitions:
“Crowds gather at bodybuilding competitions for the same reason that crowds gather at any other kind of event where something unique is on display: to view fine specimens that have been cultivated to rarefied levels. At the National Physique Committee Nationals in Miami in 2003, competitors could just as easily have been a fine porcelain dish at an antique auction or a cat in a cat show or a horse at the track. The crowd exhibited the same zeal for competition, obsession with sporting details, and passion for judging fairness. But instead of shiny, fluffy coats on cats with a refined skeletal structure or one-of-a-kind pieces of old china from a special collection with only a few remaining pieces in the world, bodybuilding fans happen to think perfectly proportioned bodies with exquisitely large and delineated muscles are next to godliness.”

Gabriella Szikszay as the “Egyptian Princess”
On female bodybuilding bonding:
“They were no longer anomalies toiling away alone in the world. Instead, there was a palpable sense of relief and jubilation in being united with others like themselves—and not under the mantle of a competition. Together, they were celebratory victors of their daily small battles with dieting and lifting that weight one more time, while wondering if they look like what the judges want and suffering people’s stares and remarks. Together, these women were a mighty clan.”

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