Photographs by MARY ELLEN MARK

Somewhere between bodybuilding and the Victoria's Secret catalog lie fitness pageants, where feminism wears a string bikini.


BEHOLD THE SUPERBUFF Smaller than bodybuilders but more ripped than the average gym rat, fitness competitors sculpt their physiques, adding muscle and carving away fat. Then they go shoe shopping.

A late afternoon in Clearwater, Florida Outside, the air is trapped in that sultry lull preceding a tropical downpour. Inside the air-conditioned city auditorium, the final round of a fitness pageant is poised to start. It's been along day for the 22 competitors in the Florida Fitness America Pageant hours spent staring critically and/or adoringly in mirrors, noshing on skinless chicken and parading in front of judges in swimsuits so minuscule that simply attaching the small competition numbers takes unwavering concentration. Now the contestants mill around backstage, psyching up for the fitness round, a two-minute dance performance that is equal parts gymnastics routine, aerobics class and Vegas floor show. 'This is such an adrenaline rush," one competitor pants to another. "Don't you feel like you're living?"

Sherma Dullard, 30, a former cheerleader from Florida State University, certainly does. She scored high marks in the "physique," or swim suit, round, in which judges "look for fit, toned, feminine physiques that display definition and proper conditioning," according to pageant guidelines. Now she's exchanged her three-inch heels for sneakers and her bikini for a bright-yellow bodysuit with shorts hemmed to look like flames. When her music starts, Dillard launches into her routine: endless back handsprings and toe touches, round offs and split leaps, combined with displays of strength such as one arm push-ups, all tied together with fly-girl dance moves. Dillard swivels her hips provocatively throughout, showing, as she calls it, "a little fever."

The 2,000-plus-seat auditorium is only half full, but on the unofficial applause meter, Dillard is clearly the darling. The judges whittle the field to 10, and then to five; Dillard finds herself in a three-way tie for third. One hurdle is left: the interview round. To the other four competitors, the MC poses straightforward no-brainers like "How did you train?" Dillard, however, steps to the microphone and gets the Big One: "What is your description of the role of femininity in sports?"

Dullard starts with the time-honored stall "My description of femininity in sports is ...." Then the flop sweat starts. She is devastated. She quickly finishes, flashes her wide smile and marches off. Backstage, Dullard's stage smile melts into tears. "Femininity in sports?" she sputters. "What's that about?"

Good question. Dillard was somehow supposed to unravel the dichotomy within the enigma that is a fitness competition. This small, cult-like sport is a beauty pageant one minute and a sports competition the next. Competitors are judged on both appearance and athleticism. Breast implants coexist with taped ankles, and pedicured feet are squeezed into towering Plexiglas heels that RuPaul would deem excessive.

"Fitness is a halfway house between bodybuilding and a beauty pageant," says Bev Francis, a former world-class bodybuilding champion who now judges fitness and bodybuilding contests. Cosmetic surgery (especially breast augmentation) is rampant, she adds. The Fitness America Web site cautions that the pageant "is not a bodybuilding event, so extreme condition, muscle mass, striations and vascularity are discouraged." Call it bodybuilding lite: The contestants sculpt and diet to hit an elusive mark-muscular, but not too.

MIRROR, MIRROR... Aesthetics and athleticism carry equal weight. Anna Merchan (above) gives herself one last once-over before the fitness round. The two-minute routines demand endurance, strength and the ability to do back handsprings while smiling. Janese Trimaldi (right) demonstrates.


The bodies are something to behold: the rock-hard shoulders with each deltoid muscle in bas-relief; the cobblestone abs; the taut, rounded glutes, impervious to gravity; the cellulite-free quads; the razor-wire hamstrings; the shapely calves. A common denominator among these women is the almost fetishistic desire to control their appearance: assessing flaws and strengths, treating the body as if it were a piece of stone, carving away fat, adding muscle. Their bodies are their creations.

Fitness pageants have a voyeuristic component (the TV audience is predominantly male), but there is a strong athletic overlay. Many of the competitors are veterans of gymnastics, basketball, swimming figure skating, track and field, and cheerleading. Competitive opportunities dry up after college, and fitness contests offer a new outlet. The routines require strength and agility; training takes dedication and perseverance. Still, Deb Zinovoy, promoter of the Florida Fitness America Pageant, readily admits that faces matter. Physique and dance routines each account for 45 percent of the final score; the interview makes up the rest. Although no appearance score is given per se, makeup, hair and costume weigh heavily in the judges' decisions.

While beauty queens are anachronistic today, these fitness divas could exist only in a postfeminist era. There is something unnerving about fitness pageants: They don't fit neatly into a feminist time line. They are both a throwback to a more sexist era and a peek into a future where women will be prized for their strength. The best way to consider them may be on a physical time line. After all, Miss America contestants have evolved over the decades from pleasantly soft to sleekly toned. Fitness competitors, with their showy, prominent muscularity, represent the outer limits of acceptability for what a woman's body can look like and still be deemed feminine. The question is, Is this what we'll all aspire to look like in 2020?

The degree of muscularity that is appealing in women is highly subjective. Cultural tastes change. In the '70s, Lisa Lyon, who became one of the first women to weight train at the sport's mecca, Gold's Gym in Los Angeles, was considered revolutionary. She won the first World Women's Bodybuilding Championship in 1979 and became the gold standard for women and weights. Her powerful arms and broad back were immortalized in a series of black-and-white photos by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and later published in a book, Lady Lisa Lyon. The foreword struck a feminist note, calling Lyon's body "her Houdini act to escape the shackles of womanly stereotype." Today the photos seem quaint; Lyon's physique can be seen on fit women lolling around country club pools.

In the '80s, many female bodybuilders started taking steroids, which inflated their muscles to sideshow proportions. Mainstream America cringed. Other bodybuilders refused to take drugs, and fitness pageants were created to give these less-muscled women a competitive venue. The first one, Ms. Fitness, was born in 1985 at the National Fitness trade show in Las Vegas and included an evening gown segment. Louis Zwick, then the producer of American Muscle, a bodybuilding show on ESPN, did a segment on the pageant. The number of contests was proliferating, and Zwick himself launched Fitness America in 1989. It is essentially a made-for-TV event.

When ESPN aired the 1998 national championship against the Super Bowl, it garnered a 0.9 Nielsen rating, more than many other prime-time programs in that slot After the Fitness America Web address is flashed, the site gets at least 30,000 hits. The scene even has its own magazine, Oxygen. It boasts the slogan FOR EXTREME SEX APPEAL and is heavy with Cosmo-speak: "How to Market Your Hard Bod (You've Got It, Flaunt It)" and "Breast Implants... Everything You Need to Know."

The backstage dressing room, 7:30 A.M. This is how the day begins: with competitors primping and prepping in front of mirrors framed with caged light bulbs. Curling irons, lipstick and body makeup are heaped on the counters. Sweats are replaced by minuscule swimsuits in neon bright colors that highlight otherworldly tans. Some suits are custom-made, others are off-the-rack numbers inlayed with sequins or plastic jewels. "Mine's from Victoria's Secret," confides personal trainer Jean Deferrari ("spelled like the car," she purrs).

In one corner Katie Uter is finishing up her ritual application of Bikini Bite, a glue stick for human skin that keeps her suit in place. A rising fitness star, Uter, 21, won an event in Miami the weekend before. A personal trainer, she describes herself as a single, working mom with a 5-year-old daughter who suffers from cerebral palsy. "I see how far she has to work to do the littlest thing," says Uter. "What I do is nothing. She's got a motorized wheelchair now. Mentally, she is real smart. She is the happiest, most outgoing little girl. I take her to the gym, and she lifts one-pound weights." Uter's trip to Miami was underwritten by the "girls at the gym" (Franco's Athletic Club in Mandeville, Louisiana), who raised $350 at a garage sale. (Few fitness competitors make any money until the national level, where the winner takes home $25,000 and a Corvette.) Uter aspires to be as successful as 1997 Fitness America national champion Tsianina Joelson, who has been a regular on MTV, worked on an NBC magic show special and is the spokesperson for an L.A. fast-food chicken chain, KoKoRoo.

"Hi, I'm greasy," says a lanky woman by way of introduction. Her name is Elizabeth Boone, and she seems to be ignoring the rule forbidding the use of body oil to highlight muscles. (Pam cooking spray is a popular skin glosser.) Boone, 31, a part-time aerobics instructor and paramedic firefighter in Clearwater, Florida, was spurred on by her three children, who saw a televised competition and said, "Mom, you can do that!" Her coworkers at the firehouse said, "That's a girl contest! You can't do that!" Boone is not a bona fide hardbody; look past the Native American dream catcher tattoo on her hip and you'll spy a little cellulite.

Ashley Macko is a dimpled blonde in a blue sequined suit and matching sequined pumps. A triathlete, she's also the director of a corporate fitness center in Tampa. The irony of segueing from triathlons to fitness pageants isn't lost on Macko. "I had diarrhea and vomiting [during the triathlon]," she recalls. "Now I'm saying, 'I'm so tired of fixing my hair. I don't wear makeup to work, and I'm globbing it on!' "So why the switch? She wanted to see how much muscle mass she could put on.

Building muscle mass takes intensity, consistency and a genetic predisposition. Daily weight training is essential, but precision eating is the real secret. "Seventy-five percent is diet, all the time," says pageant veteran Suzie Hunt, a onetime trapeze artist at Cypress Gardens amusement park. It is a diet of skinless chicken breast snacks schlepped around in Tupperware and supplemented by protein bars and shakes. Hunt's advice: Carry a cooler.

Unlike bodybuilders, fitness contestants don't flex and pose, they turn and pivot. During the physique round, as each competitor crosses the stage, the announcer gives her vital stats: age, height, weight and a fun fact such as GPA or favorite quotes. One woman hopes "to be a major influence on women all over the world in fitness and health."

The crowd responds with appreciative claps and a few wolf whistles. Then, behind closed doors, Zinovoy and another judge tally the scores and review the judges' written appraisals while adding their own commentary. One competitor gets praise for a new hair color and cut, another gets dissed: "I don't like her hair with that dark wash." Another name, another comment "Who would wear white?"

By the start of the fitness routine, the competitors are anxious-this is the hardest part. The fresh infusion of former gymnasts into the fitness arena has raised the level of competition. The judges look for flexibility, cardiovascular endurance, strength, creativity and showmanship. The basic aesthetic is a jerky dance style informed by bouncy aerobics steps and accompanied by rampant lip-synching. "You wanna touch me?" mouths Stacey Adams, apart-time aerobics instructor with a pierced tongue, while lying on her back, one leg behind her ear. Ashley Macko gamely lipsynchs the words -to "Drop the Beat" while straddling a chair a la Bob Fosse. She loses her footing and mangles the end. Another smile. Backstage, she is comforted by the other girls, who diagnosed her problem as not eating enough.

FINISHING TOUCHES Backstage, former trapeze artist Suzie Hunt helps with wedgie control on Becky Hoholski's bikini. Fitness competitors don't throw bodybuilding poses, but Linh Cole, a registered nurse (far right), can't resist

Afterward the contestants change back into swimsuits and heels. Zinovoy has sent them a huge cookie with "Congratulations!" scrawled across it in white icing. One competitor tilts her head back and stuffs some in, laughing, "This sport will give you an eating disorder!"

Eventually the competitors are called back out. They strike their stage pose: one foot forward, shoulders squared. The top 10 finalists are named, then the top five, followed by the quick (but pivotal) interview round. Finally the winners are announced to beauty-queen squeals: In first place, as expected, is Uter, the single mom. Amy Kilgo, a national aerobics competitor, finishes second; Erika Meyer, a Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleader, third; and Hunt, the former trapeze artist, fourth. Dullard, the gymnast stung by the "femininity in sports" question, falls to fifth. In record time the women change back into sweat suits or shorts, their heels and sequined costumes puddled on the floor. (It's as if The Supremes have melted.) Outside, the sky is black, and the rain falls in gusty waves onto the parking lot. Someone remarks on how cool the air feels, and then everyone sprints madly for their cars.