Girl Power

Originally published in the Sunday Telegraph, photography by Spencer Murphy

We’ve been speaking barely ten minutes when Sarah Bridges shifts her enormous upper body in the dollhouse dimensions of her chair and clocks a young man, kit bag in hand, framed in the doorway of the Dartford pub she runs with her husband Bill.

“That’s my three o’clock,” she says, smiling and waving at the newcomer, who it transpires has travelled from Dover for a physical appraisal from Sarah, one of the world’s most experienced female bodybuilders. Ten minutes later we’re crammed into the pub kitchen, invited to watch as the 26-year-old is ordered to strip and stand posing in his pants while Sarah points out his various strengths and weaknesses. At the bar, a trio of locals sip Kentish ales and pass around a bag of pork scratchings as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

Yet Sarah’s dedication to bodybuilding is out of the ordinary. Fewer and fewer women in the UK are taking part in the sport; of those that do, the majority are opting to adhere to more conventionally feminine classes like ‘figure’ and ‘body fitness’. By contrast, the bulkier frames of women like Sarah are seen as a throwback to bodybuilding’s 1980s heyday, when bigger was better and Arnie was king.

“She was eight stone when we met,” says Bill, limping his way across the pub on slipped discs and shot hips, dubious trophies of decades spent at the top of the UK wrestling scene. “She didn’t like being tall and gangly, so I encouraged her to hit the weights. I wasn’t expecting her to stick with it, but after three months she was showing a dramatic change in muscle tone, and was sounding more enthusiastic than ever. Soon after that she started coming to the gym with me and my wrestling buddies.”

Bill rummages behind the bar for a photograph of the couple in the mid-80s; Bill buffed and quiffed, Sarah impossibly pale and fragile. It’s a hard image to reconcile with the person who eventually returns from the kitchen and lowers herself carefully into her chair: at 14.5 stone, Sarah is now almost a third heavier than the ten-stone Rottweiler she walks between workouts in the run up to a competition. For all that, she remains profoundly attached to her femininity: in the height of summer, she takes pride in parading up and down Dartford High Street in the shortest skirt she can find, immune to the taunts of those brave enough to articulate their amazement.

“I’ve grown thick skinned,” she says, playfully rearranging her blonde hair. “I admit it was hard at first, and I found myself crying a lot of the time. People are still pretty backward when it comes to female bodybuilding in the UK. In America they come up and shake your hand, hug you and ask for advice. Here they bark snide comments from the other side of the street.”

America is somewhere Sarah has visited regularly since turning pro in 2003, a step that has left her unable to take part in the UK’s amateur-only competition circuit. Instead, she most regularly attends shows as a judge, a role that has given her a unique insight into a national community of female bodybuilders that she says is extremely close-knit.

Sarah Bridges

“I often go backstage before shows and stand around having a natter with the girls,” she says. “We chat about training and share a piece of chocolate – we eat chocolate just before going on stage to help bring up the veins. There used to be a lot of bitchiness, but that seems to have disappeared.”

Such closeness may well stem from the female bodybuilding community’s ever decreasing size. While last month’s UK Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation championships featured almost 200 male competitors across a range of disciplines – from juniors and over-50s to various weight divisions from under 70kg to beyond 100kg – there were just eight women standing in the catch-all female bodybuilding category, long ago conflated from light, middle and heavyweight divisions due to a lack of competitors.

More controversially, the federation recently introduced a new American-style bikini class division in what many see as a blatant attempt to appeal to the largely male audiences at bodybuilding tournaments across the country. It’s something that Lisa Cross, crowned UK champion at last months final, sees as a dangerous shift in principles.

“I’ve read forum posts by girls getting ready for bikini class contests, and all they talk about is teeth veneers, false nails and hair extensions. That’s a beauty pageant, not a bodybuilding competition. It’s another example of the authorities undermining the hard work done by women who treat bodybuilding as a way of life. Everyone knows that we’re a dying breed, and this is just another nail in the coffin.”

A former police officer, Lisa left work to pursue full-time the hobby that had brought her so much mockery on the force. Now 32, she struggles to empathise with the conversations about marriage and babies that define the lives of former co-workers, many of whom look at her as though she’s crazy.

“What I do with my life definitely alienates me from other women my age,” she says. “But I talk to other female bodybuilders and we get each other straight away. That week leading up to a competition when you drop carbs altogether, and then stumbling on stage and struggling to pull poses when you can barely stand up: it’s impossible to go through that and not feel a connection with other women who have done the same.”

At the same time, Lisa admits that it’s physical elitism that has proved to be bodybuilding’s ultimate undoing. It’s a sport that attracts very few women; of those it does, even fewer have the time, dedication or genetic makeup necessary to get past the early hurdles. On top of that, the lack of a national pro circuit means that there’s no prize money involved in what is, in itself, an expensive sport to pursue. Sponsorship is the traditional method of making ends meet; less traditional, but potentially more lucrative, is modelling for muscle worship websites, something Lisa has done in the past, and which has brought her into occasional conflict with her peers.

“Some people argue that it’s bringing bodybuilding into disrepute,” she says. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s putting bodybuilding on a pedestal, making it available to people who would never consider attending an actual show. It’s a huge industry in the US, and it allows me to spend 99 per cent of my time totally focussed on my career. The federation would probably have less of a problem with it if they were making money from it themselves.”

***

Hollie Walcott

For Hollie Walcott – sister of footballer Theo and poster girl for the more feminine figure discipline – the idea of muscle worship is something she struggles to take seriously.

“I find the whole thing pretty baffling,” says Hollie, sipping green tea in the café of her local fitness centre while kids tear around the crèche behind her. “I’ve always been aware that there are people who get off on the whole bodybuilder thing, but for me it’s so asexual. Even at competitions, when you’ve got all those men and women oiled up and standing around in the skimpiest of costumes, its more anatomical than anything. It’s a performance art, at the end of the day.”

Hollie’s success is all the more impressive for her being entirely self-taught. She fell into bodybuilding two years ago after settling on the gym as the best place to find space after the birth of her second child; she has no personal trainer, and no dietary regime save that she’s concocted herself through trial and error and a rough reading around the science of nutrition.

Despite this, she’s quickly become the best-known face in figure, which – like the affiliated body fitness discipline – serves as a respectable stopgap between conventional bodybuilding and the bikini contests bemoaned by traditionalists. She’s been on the receiving end of column inches and competition glory both at home and abroad (most recently winning the under-35s ‘short’ category at the US National Bodybuilding Championships in Washington DC), though she admits that there are still elements of the female bodybuilding community that look down on what she does.

“There are people who see figure as an easy alternative, but we diet just as hard, and we put in the same hours down the gym. The only difference is that we aren’t looking to build the same amount of muscle, or aiming for such a lean figure. It’s important to me that my look is completely natural, and I would never consider taking steroids: for me it’s about being healthy, and that’s a lifestyle choice. But nothing comes close to the feeling of competing. It’s impossible to put into words.”

The thrill of competition is something that 37-year-old body fitness contender Jo Griffiths understands only too well. Seated in her kitchen in the Welsh valley town of Aberdare, a drizzling fog shrouding the hills beyond the window, Jo describes how she won her first Welsh national after entering as a bet following only eight months of training. By the time she won her second – four years, a marriage and a separation later – she had qualified as a physical therapist and opened a sports massage parlour a few doors down the road.

“It’s easy to assume that there’s always a reason why a girl gets into bodybuilding – that she’s running away from an eating disorder or a disastrous marriage. That might bring a person to the gym, but it won’t keep them there. It’s a torturous sport, and you either enjoy it or you don’t. For those that do, it becomes an addiction, pure and simple. You take yourself right to the edge in the run up to a competition, and afterwards you swear you’ll never do it again. Then you get your strength back, and before you know it you’re back in the gym.”

True to her word, Jo followed her recent appearance at the British champs by announcing to her 1,500-odd Facebook friends that she was hanging up her costume to spend more time with her daughter, who she admits suffers from her mother’s exhaustion and occasional mood swings at the peak of her dieting. She’s also acutely aware of how much money she’s pouring into her pastime; she estimates that £4,000 this year alone has gone on costumes and heels, fake tans and travel expenses. Some of that she’s hoping to make back through legitimate modelling and TV work, though she’s constantly turning down less salubrious requests.

Jo Griffiths

“Obviously there are muscle worshippers out there, and you do get asked to take part in some pretty creepy things. And it’s not hard to see why some girls end up getting involved: a year’s worth of training and dietary supplements costs a fortune, and most girls wouldn’t think twice about spending £1,000 on a costume. There are times when I seriously consider calling it a day, but it’s so hard to let go.”

For all the hurdles facing the UK’s female bodybuilding community – from being undermined by bikini pageants to being unable to turn pro and win prize money on home turf – Jo believes that the biggest problem is a wider public misconception of what female bodybuilding actually entails.

“Some people think women’s bodybuilding is a watered down version of the men’s, when if anything we train and diet harder, because we don’t have testosterone to help us along the way. Other people think that we’re doing it to appeal to the opposite sex, that we’re actively encouraging all the wolf whistling and seedy forum advances. And that’s not true either. It’s a sport, and it’s one that I take very seriously. I just wish it wasn’t so difficult for me to do so.”