Breakout 1

Breakout

Collected Outbursts, in original form, both published and unpublished, in defense of the Sisterhood…

                                                

Volume One

THEY’RE HEADED OUR WAY!

(Women’s Physique World, Dec 99)

It will exist as one of those frozen moments, an impossibly happy micro-Camelot (because nothing so orgasmically fine can last longer than a synapse), sandwiched between the grim discoveries in Kosovo and in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard, when we all paused to breathe collectively: “Yes!” We knew it was going to happen, we’d been talking about it for weeks, but it went down too perfectly even to have been scripted. It united the whole country, connected generations, genders and races. And it was the finest day in women’s bodybuilding.

What else can you call it when the predominant image across America is an ecstatic female athlete, ripping off her shirt, and flexing triumphantly before the entire world, and no one questions it? The cover of Newsweek: “GIRLS RULE!” The cover of Time: “What a Kick!” The cover of Sports Illustrated -wait, isn’t that a MALE domain, where women rank only a sidebar?

But you can’t argue with the numbers: 90,185 fans (including the President) plus a billion via TV saw Brandi Chastain’s double biceps and Nike sports bra. Twenty three million dollars in tickets sold for the games. Two point nine million households watched the Brazil game on July 4th, a bigger audience than that for game seven of the NHL’s Stanley Cup finals. One hundred thousand girls took up soccer between 1990-1997, before Mia Hamm became a household word…

Significant as these figures are, they only begin to tell the story, which was unfolding in the media weeks before Brandi drilled that upper right past Gao Hong. Cheering alongside the usual throngs of painted pre-teen “mini-Mias,” were (gasp)…guys! And that gets the advertisers’ attention because young males are their prime demographic. Guys…women’s sports…soccer? What the hell’s going on here?

For as long as we can remember, women’s sports and soccer have never been taken seriously in the big picture. Tolerated perhaps. The prevailing attitude could be summed up by a sports-writer for the Philadelphia Daily News who sneered at any implications that the women’s soccer revolution was anything more than cute, a mere blip in sports, a “win-one-for-the-USA-go-girls-go snapshot.” Ho-hum. The hype had all been orchestrated, even to the busloads of bored male rent-a-fans. Women’s soccer would never crack the national consciousness, because there isn’t any national consciousness anymore, except for NFL football. “Good night” he woozed. “Good niche. Three weeks til Eagles camp…”

Funny thing about that: it echoes the big wheels in the bodybuilding politic. Can’t sell these women or their contests, but we’ll let ‘em languish along. Give the big bucks to the boys. Time notes the pay disparity with the soccer women, “some of whom earn less than $30,000 -coffee money for a male professional.” Sound familiar?

Try this for irony: while the women have brought finesse to bodybuilding posing, they’ve actually made soccer more physical and aggressive. Aficionados argue that women’s soccer is more exciting and offensive-minded than men’s, noting that “women are more likely to have one-on-one confrontations.” Women, adding mano-a-mano to a men’s sport? Dayamn! But that final shoot-out was absolute mano-a-mano.

However, to dwell solely on the games and the contests themselves is to miss the point. The true connoisseurs of female muscle must realize that the competitions are merely a pretext for getting these women together, out into the open, where they can be seen in a justifiable format. Bodybuilding contests have never been the final word, nor will they ever be, as much as we need them to keep some sort of dynamic going. Whether they knew or cared, Brandi Chastain and her cohorts have doubtless done more to advance the cause of female muscle than all (virtually unknown outside of bodybuilding) Ms. Olympias.

How else could you have U.S. News and World Report marveling “now you have big, strong, sweaty women knocking each other down… and thrilling fans,” and Time announcing “Now It’s Sexy to be Strong.” Or Newsweek telling us “…young, muscular women of surpassing skill…had become a new kind of national hero.”

You’ve got it all here in epic package: the “aging” lion(ess), airborne Michelle Akers, who expends herself heroically during the big game, but rips off the IV’s and oxygen mask to stumble back out to the finale; the reluctant idol, Mia Hamm, beautiful, modest (when she’s not challenging Michael Jordan “I can beat you” in multi-million dollar spots), her poster adorning countless girls’ (and boys’) bedroom walls, her jersey digit 9 the hottest number in town; the dark, enigmatic, unsung savior, Briana Scurry; and of course, the shot seen round the world, “I-ran-my-ass-off-for-this-body-I’m-proud-of-it,” Brandi Chastain… These women are household names. And that’s significant to us because their prominence is forever tied to straining, sweaty, muddy-specked quadriceps, bone-crunching collision and all-out exertion. It’s raw muscle, shown in function (always an Achilles for public acceptance of bodybuilding), and thus needs no excuses. Lady-like? Ha! You tell Mia she’s not ladylike!

And it can only get better; many of these women are more muscular, especially in their legs, than the McLish-era bodybuilders. Soccer is exhausting. Soccer is punishing. Soccer is all-out sprinting, leaping, diving, abrupt changes in direction, explosive kicks, thrusting yourself back up to your feet even before you hit the ground, long, pinpoint overhead throws. And now sports nutrition and weight-training are universally practiced; in fact the same issue of U.S. News and World Report which covered the game also carried an article espousing High-Intensity weight training for everyone.

What does all this mean? It means that within the next few years, you’re going to see these women get much more muscular as the standards of play-action ratchet upward and a new generation of Mias takes to the field, unencumbered by antiquated notions of physical correctness and sports-conditioning (read: squats are cool). We’ll have to do something about those baggy uniforms. It’s not Lenda or Andrulla; it’s not the appreciation of muscle for its beauty, rather than for what it can do. But it’s a soaring header forward for female muscle, and we’ll take it. We’ll take it!

NO APOLOGIES

(Muscle Elegance, Fall 1998; CURL Summer 2003)

Her name’s not really Pamela, but since she’s an IFBB bodybuilder whose name and body you know, and since she’d rather not see her name and “clueless” in the same sentence, and since there are many others of her, Pamela will have to do. And we can keep the conversation generic as well:

Charles- “Didn’t see much of you during Jan Tana weekend…”

Pamela- “Yeah, I stayed in my room to keep my focus.”

Charles- “Did it pay off?”

Pamela- “I dunno.”

Charles- “It wouldn’t pay off. Even if you’d won. It hardly ever pays off.”

Pamela- “Huh?”

No, she didn’t meet fans, sell photos, or network with heavy-hitters. For all she cared, they weren’t even there. The contest came first. Perhaps like thousands of others she really believes that winning one of these shows is a ticket to ride. Maybe if she’d talked to Yolanda Hughes, who’s won two consecutive Ms. I’s, while taking time to meet, sell and network between events… but then even Yolanda, despite her titles and her mesmerizing performances, gets shamefully little press. The truth is this: the competitions are profitable. But not for the competitors. Especially for the women competitors, who see their whole competitive world- the contests, the prizes, the coverage- slipping into Fitness.

You compete for the thrills and agonies of competition, not for the promise of stardom or financial reward. And you’d better love it or leave it; despite your regimen, diet and drugs, you’re still comparing what your mammy and daddy gave you to what other mammies and daddies handed out. How you stack up is being decided by a well-intentioned panel whose marching orders and dispositions are as resolute as those at the White House. Except for family, friends, and a few whose livelihood depends on it, not a whole lot of people really want to watch a starved, emaciated version of you standing in a line-up comparing biceps, no matter what this Olympics prospect promises. As necessary as they may be, the contests, with their extreme demands and apparently shallow purpose have done as much to invite public ridicule as have the enlarged mandibles, distorted proportions and the whole gamut of needle-nasties.

But some might argue that contests are all we’ve got, and that’s how you get into magazines. That’s how you get famous. Well, they’re partly right. After all, the 1997 Ms. Olympia afforded Denise Masino, who was not competing, a venue to sell photos to her fans. She didn’t get into the magazines that way. But she did earn more that evening than most of the competitors, not to mention all the IFBB men in the Beacon’s lobby combined. And her admirers weren’t buying stage shots either.

So much for contests; what about the magazines? Besides Women’s Physique World and Flex‘s “Power and Sizzle” layouts, who’s really celebrating female muscle in anything greater than infant portions? Faced with onslaughts of pneumatic swimsuit cuties, we’re lamenting the imminent demise of women’s bodybuilding, a keening we’ve heard since the Dunlap days. But women’s bodybuilding isn’t dead;

it’s alive and well…on the Internet. It’s outright booming on the Web! And that’s giving the Powers, the Gate-keepers of bodybuilding, all kinds of heartburn.

They can’t control this medium, not its content, nor the revenues it generates. Like the Federal government, also seething at cyberspace’s challenge to its hegemony, all the Powers (read: IFBB, NPC and the Magazines) can do is pretend to ignore it. But if they were smart, they’d learn from it. And one of the first things they’d notice is the Web’s unapologetic embracing of female muscle’s sensuality.

Of course any suggestion that muscular women possess sexual allure provokes self-righteous howls from militant feminists and bodybuilding purists alike. The feminists’ agenda is a no-brainer, as they attach malevolence to any male interest. The purists are well-intentioned, as they inevitably want female muscle to succeed artistically and athletically, but in some sort of impossible vacuum, devoid of sexual potency.

A fool’s errand; even if Freud exaggerated the influence of the sexual urge on everything we do, there’s no way we can deny a primal male impulse. That impulse is driven by visual stimuli. That impulse is inexorable. And yes, that impulse spends money. So if the competitive arena has failed her, the commercial arena ignored her and the public arena scorned her, the Physically-Advanced Woman must consider that impulse.

And she has. Fed up with having her gender questioned and her sex appeal denied (even as the swimsuit models have theirs hyped), she’s exercising her options. The marketplace is huge, but not discussed in the magazines, whose coverage of female bodybuilding represents only the tip of a titanic iceberg. It’s exotic dancing, private posing, domination and “muscle worship.” It’s mixed-wrestling, “lift and carry” and those videos you see advertised back on page 256. It’s many of the top names in bodybuilding, as well as big names in corporate America. Names and money you wouldn’t believe.

I contend that this market is far more highly-educated and affluent than that for the men’s sport. And most of this market does not come to the contests.

 

Nude photography, the sine qua non of this market, is presently its most visible aspect, thus its most controversial. We’ve already heard the howls of protest in response to Bill Dobbins’ and Robert Reiff’s superb sensual studies in “Power and Sizzle.” The most telling of these came from the young lady who complained that her husband tended to pay her less attention whenever the new “Power and Sizzle” came out. Call it praise with faint damnation. But isn’t this acknowledgment of sexual desirability overdue? The “Swimsuit Issues” have been making a killing (thus their accelerated frequency), but the female bodybuilder sees none of it. One of the muscle magazines recently trumpeted a long-sought Anja Langer successor with “Hail Jitka; Savior of Women’s Bodybuilding” on its cover and ran a nice piece on her inside. But even being a Savior apparently does not warrant a cover photo if you’re distaff and muscular; the blonde crouching here was an oft-touted Fitness Personality who’d already done the cover a few months earlier, perhaps in a crash-program to replicate Monica Brant’s ubiquity at the news-stand.

In her Bodymakers; A Cultural Anatomy of Women’s Body Building, Leslie Heywood (a self-described Third-Wave feminist) points out: “If bodybuilding industry magazines have taken on a sexualized focus that surpasses that of Playboy, it is clear that there has been a shift industry-wide from the presentation of female bodybuilders as athletes who also have a dimension of sexuality to the presentation of fitness women who are primarily sexual. In terms of how women themselves negotiate these conditions, marketability ensures that many women will construct themselves and be happy to have themselves constructed sexually since this in turn ensures their individual financial success.” Can you blame them?

 

Sexuality is the essence of femininity, and the desire to be presented as sexually-viable runs well into the ranks of the hard-core muscle. And why not? Is all hope for sexual desirability to be jettisioned as the price for physical advancement? Andrulla Blanchette, celebrated for her compact brawn, and Inna Uit, whose shredded glutes wowed ’em at the last Jan Tana, have both told me recently they abhor the magazines’ focusing on female bodybuilder’s freakishness while reserving sensuous depictions for Fitness and Swimsuit women. They’re aware there’s a huge demand for them out there too, that the magazines either don’t know about or ignore. And if, in addressing this market, these women were to expand the range of acceptable muscularity, to remold the ideal even a little, wouldn’t that be a good thing? Those photos of Lenda by Bill Dobbins cross all sorts of boundaries, yet I’ve heard nothing about them but admiration and awe (and the sound of tongues hitting the floor, including my own!).

So what about nudity? Is it really a compromise of bodybuilding’s “noble” purpose? Hardly. If it celebrates physical ideals, it’s no different from all that unclad Greco-Roman statuary. It appeals to the senses, and they’re all connected. I reserve the right to be aroused by whatever arouses me. Don’t lay your low-prole condemnation on my appreciation of a nude just because you’ve yet to come to terms with your own guilt complex. As long as the focus of the work is on the physique, rather than its reproductive fixtures, it should be judged on technical and artistic merits, not on someone’s rectal-retentive moral twitch. Our obsession with concealing the “naughty bits” is ironic if you consider the comparative infrequency of sex-crimes in European societies where nudity is no big deal. Just as ironic is the “acceptability” of the Victoria Secret/Frederick’s of Hollywood apparel which screams sex while intimating that the human body’s sensual appeal depends its entanglement in gauziness, lace and synthetics. I never cared for any of that stuff because it tries too hard, strains at being sexy. Similarly, most pornography misses the mark as well in its brainless lack of subtlety. Who needs 10X gynecological magnifications?

Yet some will condemn all nude photography as porn, while lamenting the public’s antipathy for female muscle on the basis of needle-nasties. They’re entitled to this stupidity. We’re entitled to ignore them. There’s plenty of room in the spectrum of muscle presentation for everyone, from the purists to those of us depraved enough to also find female muscle supremely erotic. I say “also,” since aesthetic, athletic, historic and erotic appeal are not mutually exclusive. As soon as we can all accept this, and stop squirming, the better off we’ll all be. Including the women. Especially the women.

But don’t expect any apologies. Not from the women, nor from those of us who would present them as they’d like to be seen, be it strong, proud and heroic, or soft and beguiling. They’re owed apologies. And like Yolanda, Andrulla, and Inna -like Pamela, grimly sequestered with her rice-cakes and distilled water in her darkened hotel room, hiding from her real benefactors- they’re waiting. They’ve been waiting for a long time.

 

VONDA KLINE: CLASSIC PHILLY

(Women’s Physique World, Dec 99)

It’s not much bigger than a cell-phone and she wears it in a pouch on her belt. She wears it quietly, unobtrusively, eight hours a day, five days a week. And she simply refers to it as the Pump, which is a nice way of referring to a humungous, battery-powered hypodermic which pushes a medicine called Deseferal through a tube into her gut all these eight hours. The Pump pushes iron. It pushes it out of her liver, just one of a succession of processes in her struggle, not just to maximal function, but to stay alive.

The 1998 Philadelphia Classic was well-run and well-attended, but though the Ms. Olympia show was born here, Philly’s not exactly a hot-bed for bodybuilding. Thus Vonda Kline might have gone unnoticed by the bodybuilding media, but for the presence of Lenda Murray as the MC. And you had to know something was up when Bob Bonham, the owner of the Strong and Shapely Gym, producer of the Women’s Extravaganza, and a connoisseur of female muscle, burst out into the lobby shaking his head: “I don’t know who the hell she is or where she came from, but nobody’s gonna touch her!” Later Vonda, surrounded by family and friends came out into the lobby, swaddled in layers of sweat-clothes and quiet in her triumph. Here was a fighter, wholly appropriate to a town famous for underdog scrappers, from Rocky Balboa, the Eagles, Flyers and Phils, who nonetheless rise to the occasion, apparently coming out of nowhere to do something big.

Vonda Kline never thought she’d matching muscle onstage against some of the amateur bodybuilding’s best heavyweights. Modeling would be her ticket from the outskirts of North Philadelphia; at 14, she began doing fashion shows and beauty pageants. Elite Modeling picked her as a “new face,” but she’d have to move to New York, a plan her father quickly squelched as unfitting for a young girl. So Vonda pushed on with modeling locally and performed as a background dancer in shows and videos for music groups. “It was a lot of fun, but I wanted more, something bigger, like acting. In high school, I played Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend in West Side Story. I was very convincing as a Latino woman. Everybody always told me I’d be a good actress.”

Valentine’s Day 1993: “I’m in Hahnemann Hospital receiving bags of blood, one after another. That night they ask me to sign my death certificate and organ donor card. I’m just sitting there with this big smile on my face and a slight laughter to my voice as I’m answering them and signing papers.” Vonda’d been bleeding, inexplicably, for five days, before checking into Hahnemann; now her platelet and hemoglobin levels were fractional. She was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a little-understood but often-fatal condition wherein the bone marrow stops producing blood cells. Unfortunately, neither of Vonda’s sisters could provide a match for a bone marrow transplant (itself no guarantee; Garrett Hamm, the brother of soccer superstar Mia Hamm, lived a highly-athletic sixteen years with the disease, then died of complications at age 28 after a “successful” transplant). The next step was a series of drug treatments, during which time Vonda sought a second opinion. But at Jefferson Hospital, the picture was no brighter. Dr. Scott Murphy put her on a drug called Epogen, which she had to inject three times a week for close to a year. It caused severe bruising.

“I’m walking around with bruises all over my legs because if I simply tapped into something, I’d be bruised –people were always thinking my boyfriend was beating me, but when I tried to explain about platelets and hemoglobin they thought I was just trying to cover it up.”

Finally the bruising went away, but Vonda’s condition wasn’t improving and she still needed the transfusions. Her white cell count was low, so her doctors tried Cyclosphorine, then a series of other medications. They put her on steroids which broke her skin out with severe acne. They gave her something called A-T-G which required a catheter into an artery on the left side of her chest for four days straight.

“I broke out in hives and my face swelled up like a blow-fish. I’m walking around with a tube hanging out of my chest. I lost a tremendous amount of weight, was very weak and disoriented. I’d sit motionless, staring at my family and friends. But on the inside I desperately wanted to show them I’d be better. I’d get by.”

Vonda got by. But she wanted more, a visible testament to her recovery. Like a young Laura Creavalle, she had thick legs topped by a thin upper body. Other than doing the 550 relay as a high-school senior, her athleticism hadn’t gone beyond dance. Bodybuilding had never been a consideration. It more of the Everywoman mantra (“tone up-tighten up”) which took her into the gym. Then a personal trainer named Jeff Brown saw her at a nightclub and was impressed enough to coax her to the Twelfth Street Gym. Results came quickly, impressing Vonda’s sisters and friends enough to start them training there as well. By 1995, Vonda was entering her first contest, the AAU Mid-Atlantic, where she took 1st heavyweight and overall. Ditto the following year at a local affair called the Philly Classic. It was promoted by a gym owner and trainer, Dr. Richard Brown, who unbeknownst to either of them, would soon play a major role in Vonda’s life.

She swears she’s not shy, even though she maintains the low-key appearance, and says very little. Perhaps it’s modesty; at the Arnold Expo, she vanished from the booth where she’d been exhibiting her pictures, outright hid from her potential fans, because she didn’t feel she belonged alongside Renita, Andrulla, Jitka and Dayana. Of course this shyness intrigues fans even more. And you can’t miss her, even full-swathed, because there’s something about her dimensions which catches your eye, that “who is she?” factor which registers on the faces of the lobby lizards watching her chat with one of the magazine scribes at the Hotel Roanoke during the Jan Tana. If she’s shy, reserved, or aloof, all trappings of that restraint vanish when she’s onstage. Vonda comes alive.

Meanwhile, she’d lived with the disease for four years, receiving regular transfusions, and in 1997 her doctors embarked on another course of treatments which left her unable to walk, or even dress herself. Her mother and her sisters, Lillian and Vanessa, as always were there for her, around the clock. They took her to the hospital in the middle of the night. They provided the blood for her transfusions. They watched her alternate between bursting energy and basket case. But hadn’t they been there all along? Hadn’t they stood up to the other girls from the ‘hood, enduring the taunts (“your sister be losin’ her hair, wastin’ away ‘cause she got AIDS…that’s what she gets”) and the physical scuffles? “I just want to thank God for my family who were always there for me.” Vonda says. “It’s times like this you find out who really cares about you. I wouldn’t have gotten through this without them.”

Dr. Brown was there for her too. She’d heard of his expertise in nutrition, training and wellness. IFBB pros like Alq Gurley and Nancy Lewis had sought his counsel. He’d seen something special in this quiet girl, and now, at his River’s Gym, he took Vonda under his wing. The regimen was brutal, something Vonda would never prescribe to her own training clients, a violation of every “overtraining” precept in bodybuilding lore: upwards to six different exercises per bodypart, four sets of six to eight reps each, with little rest. A workout usually lasted two hours. Hard medicine, but Vonda found it to be just the thing. Not only did it make her grow, but it took her mind off all those needles which kept her alive.

Vonda has one of those trademark poses/movements, an archival thing every bodybuilder dreams of establishing, much as Sharon Marvel’s thigh flap and Lenda Murray’s lat spread. This one raises a few eyebrows. But some who were at the 1999 Junior Nationals where Vonda took 2nd Heavyweight will tell you it brought down the house, and left a previously nonchalant audience yearning for more. Amidst the flaring display of a rear lat-spread, Vonda flexed, churned her glutes, one at a time, with the exquisite control of an exotic dancer. She denies any experience in that occupation, but credits her prior stage-work as a model and dancer. “I’m a performer,” she says. “Put me onstage and I can cut loose.” Did someone say Vonda’s shy?

If she’s had any idol in the sport it’s been Lenda Murray. Appropriate, since she invites comparisons to Lenda from many, including Steve Wennerstrom, who’s seen a quite a few remarkable women pass through the portals in the past twenty years. In fact Lenda made such an allusion herself, telling Vonda backstage: “You remind me of me.” That’s heady. A girl can grow on such stuff. “I want to be Ms. Olympia.” Vonda says. “I want to continue in her style.”

But she has other inspirations, and one of them is only a memory. As she was getting ready for the Pittsburgh Championships earlier this year, her father lost his long struggle with cancer. His travails ended the day before her birthday, nearly six years after hers had begun. But he remained with her, steeling her on, and she dedicated her winning performance in Pittsburgh to him. Even at eighty-four, he’d been vital and active as one half his age -a fighter- and the disease hadn’t taken him without a struggle. Struggle is something Vonda understands. We can only thank her for doing it so well, for offering us her visual treat, but far more important, her example.

(The Aplastic Anemia Foundation of America seeks any and all support. Please write P.O. Box 22689, Baltimore, MD 21203 or call 1-800747-2820.)

 

 

A BREATH OF OXYGEN IN THE FRENCH WEST INDIES

(Oxygen, 1999)

By four o’clock the side-street opposite Pointe-a-Pitre’s Hall des Sports is jammed with cars and people, the crowd queuing quietly in the courtyard by the entrances. Mainly young, all quietly dignified in the manner of the French West Indies, they pay their 50 francs (about ($9), and jam into hard bleachers, stand in the aisles, or kneel on the main floor. And they wait. The Fitness Championships of Guadeloupe should be underway, but won’t kick off for another hour. The crowd numbers well over a thousand, and no one will leave until the event ends nearly five hours later. During that time they’ll see about as much muscle and “fitness” as you’d find on a U.S. college cheerleading squad. Yet they’ll get more, so much more for their centime than all of us who see the Ms. International or Olympia. We both have a lot to share.

The French never really have taken to muscle, and Guadeloupe (like her sister island, Martinique, a departement of France) reflects this same sensitivity regarding the vulgarity of brawn. Athleticism is a male thing. Soccer and bicycling rule. Women may play tennis. No matter either that Serge Nubret, Marie Mahabir and Murianne Nicolas came from this island; they fled it. That’s a shame, not only in the lack of acknowledgement they suffered, but in the loss of what they might have inspired in a population with the genetic raw materials for some spectacular incarnations.

Writers like Lafcadio Hearn, who spent two years in Martinique a century ago, were fascinated by the strength and beauty of les porteuses, the half-breed women who carried heavy burdens for great distances over mountainous terrain: “their ethnological characteristics had become blurred in two hundred years by all those indefinite powers that shape the mold of races -blending of blood, habits, soil and sun. Now they were a race apart …firmly-built thoroughbreds epitomizing grace, force and economy of strength.”

Modern living, combined with a French culture disdaining muscle while embracing a diet laden with bread, cheese and sugary confections (and short on proteins), has done a lot to erase reminders of such potential. From Marie Mahabir herself (who confided to me the repugnance she sensed) to my Guadeloupan friends and hosts, who describe muscle as “disgusting” while wondering aloud at my silly dietary habits (“More than one egg for breakfast…pourquoi?“), there seems little hope. “So many exotic and beautiful faces here,” I respond to their jibes, “but the legs resemble carrots.”

Signs of a breakthrough! On this last visit I’ve brought along the Issue #9 of Oxygen. At an open-air hotel gym by the marina, breezes waft through an always near-empty weight-room while women politely and mechanically follow step-and-aerobic-dance sessions on the adjacent hardwood. Their instructor, Christine is far from the picture of fitness, though energetic and outgoing. And she’s enthralled by the pictures of Monica, Penny et al. even while shocked at the shots of these same women doing pull-ups, lifting serious weights, showing visible muscle.

Several of her charges gather around to look at the pictures. In my fractured French, I try to explain form and function. Of course they want to know about shaping the derriere. The hyper-extension for glutes, with the hips slid forward of the pad is a huge revelation to them all, including Christine. Suddenly they’re joyfully taking turns at the hyper-bench, children with a new plaything.

That night it’s on to Body Form, a more serious facility in the commercial zone. But ‘serious’ is a relative term down here; I enjoy the attention an IFBB pro would get in a Ballys, though the manager, Justin Jospitre, resembles Thierry Pastel and is a bodybuilding champion in the Caribbean. He and the gym members, male and female, all gather around to look at the Oxygen photos. Justin points proudly over at a poster on the wall: Debbie Dobbins. They have no way of knowing Debbie died four years ago and it wouldn’t matter. She’ll always be an inspiration and a fantasy. But there’s space on the wall for more inspirations and fantasies, and I promise to send Justin a magnifique poster of Renita Harris as soon as I get back.

The last gym I visit is the most “serious” of them all, which is hardly surprising considering that “Shape-Up Nubret” is named after one of bodybuilding’s great legends. The gym has a dark, dungeon feel to it, but it’s well-equipped with free-weights and a line of selectorized machines similar to Bodymaster’s. They even sell supplements here, something I haven’t found elsewhere in Guadeloupe. Then I see why; after shipping and tariffs, a jar of Designer Whey Protein costs about $70.

Serge Nubret’s daughter, Keyza runs the gym. Alert and attractive, she responds immediately to the photos in Oxygen, and when I show her a snapshot of my friend, Min Kim, Keyza offers to fly her down to Guadeloupe for the next contest to exhibit and give seminars. “We need to change things,” she fumes. “Real fitness. There’s too much dance (aerobics) here. We need to see women like this!” Alleluia!

It’s a team thing, and not confined to age; some of these girls are no more than ten years old, and they are sporting Gold’s Gym shirts over their glittering suits. The teams line up en masse on the floor in various outfits for an opening ceremony replete with glittering pomp and cheer, then rotate back on for their performances. Most of these routines are little more than synchronized exhibits of aerobics, stretching, stepping, cycling, and dancing. There’s even a segment where numerous reps of overhead presses and squats are performed with light barbells. The older-age teams include a few males, who are well-built, though not muscular enough to be mistaken for bodybuilders. There’s one exception to this and he’s also a martial arts champion of local renown. He wows the crowd with a nunchuka kata then a choreographed street-fight where he takes down half a dozen opponents.

And female hard-bodies? None of the physiques here would grab your attention. Not one! But these girls give it everything they’ve got and the crowd appreciates them. No boos or dissent.

There’s a bonhomie here, a small-town communality, good-natured and clean, and after everything concludes with the awards and presentations, the spectators come out of the stands to mingle on the floor, much as you’d see after a hometown basketball game here in the States. It’s a precious thing.

I can’t help wondering if something might be lost here with the introduction (were it likely) of a new culture- the advanced physical standards which are individually-oriented and, some might say, inherently selfish. But I’m hoping that such a fear is significantly more naive than my expectations for the introduction itself. I’m counting on it. I sense a strong interest down here, even a hunger, for what is shown in the pages of Oygen, and it would be a thrill to see these women hoisting the iron, getting hard, becoming aware of their power to shape their physical destinies. Especially the ones who grimaced at Marie Mahabir.

We’ll see.

 

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