Jodie Marsh turned heads when she hit the gym and transformed her physique, but she’s just the latest in an increasing line of female bodybuilders. Rod McPhee considers the attraction for women.
SURROUNDED by geraniums and gypsophila, petite florist Joanne Dudley seems, to most of us, like the most unlikely of bodybuilders.
She’d strongly disagree.
While we expect a gym-honed female to look more than a little masculine, she knows from personal experience that it can help mould a body closer to Nicole Scherzinger than Arnold Schwarzennegger.
Joanne discovered as much three years ago when she admired the sculpted frame of a friend who’d already been bitten by the bug. Said friend explained that natural bodybuilding wasn’t about steroids, strange diets and gym obsession, it was about discipline, healthy eating and a greater focus.
“I’d always gone to the gym to try to stay in shape,” she says “but the truth is that we never really know what we’re doing when we go there. Then one day I saw my friend’s physique and I was just like: ‘Wow! I wanna look like that!’”
Fast forward three years and Joanne, 34, is juggling running her own business, Joanne Dudley Flowers of Redbrick Mill in Batley, with intense training to take part in the national bodybuilding finals of the Natural Physique Association (NPA).
The competition sees the elite of bodybuilding lock horns. But fake tan, baby oil and bikinis aside, the most important rule to adhere to is the no-drugs policy, namely steroids.
The NPA is one of the organisations leading the charge for natural bodybuilding, a drive which has burgeoned over the last decade since the pastime became tainted with the association of enhancing substances.
And it is this association which, perhaps more than anything else, alienated many women from bodybuilding. Rather than just gaining a better physique, there was always the fear of being embroiled in a culture encouraging freakish, overly masculine results. It’s a misconception that’s slowly being dispelled by the NPA and its growing membership.
“That’s the kind of attitude adopted by people who don’t really now anything about it,” Joanne says. “Bodybuilding, at least my classification of body building, isn’t about being super muscly or super huge, one of the most important aspects is being feminine.
“I certainly don’t have huge biceps or anything like that, in fact with my clothes on you would never know I did what I do. If anything my kind of bodybuilding is more about accentuating existing feminine characteristics – it’s good to have curves and a narrow waist.”
Joanne has remained a size eight and, at 5ft 2ins, tips the scales at nine stones when she isn’t in competition, and is actually half a stone lighter during competition time.
She does follow a strict diet, but it’s one that’s not as unusual as you might imagine. Crucially (unlike so many conventional diet plans) it’s not about undereating or overeating either. Nor does it preclude anything but the more unhealthy foods.
“I eat about every three hours,” she says “And I might have a kind of flapjack made out of oatmeal and egg whites for breakfast, then a protein shake and piece of fruit mid-morning, then a jacket potato with meat in it for lunch – so it’s often big, filling meals.
“And they are all well-balanced. Just good, clean food, nothing processed or tampered with. I don’t even set myself a calorific target. My diet is all about being healthy, not anything weird.”
So although the bodybuilding requires application it doesn’t require obsession. On average she visits the gym three or four times a week. And aside from building a better body perhaps the greatest appeal for women is the sense of achievement and building confidence.
“Naturally I’m quite a shy person and I find going on stage in the competitions scary,” admits Joanne. “But being in good shape gives you the confidence.”
These days she has a personal trainer, expert Ian Duckett, and trains up for competitions on a regular basis. She entered three last year alone, and her mantelpiece now carries multiple trophies to prove it.
After four years of competing Anna Middleton has lost count of the trophies she has brought home, suffice to say her cabinet creaks under the weight of her wins.
The 38-year-old firefighter from Eldwick, near Bingley, also cites the confidence- boosting element of body building as huge motivation.
“It gives you a vision,” she says “It makes you believe in yourself, and that’s a big reason for people not achieving their goals, because they don’t really have a goal and a vision.
“But by having a target and working towards it I feel so much better about myself, I feel more attractive and healthy and I know it gives me a better body shape.
“I think that’s why more and more people are getting into bodybuilding, particularly women.”
But she also acknowledges that bodybuilding has previously had an image problem.
“People fear you’ll turn into a man,” says Anna, who started hitting the gym at the age of 14.“That’s what family and friends said to me. But it’s a load of nonsense. You would have no idea I’m a bodybuilder if you walked past me in the street.
“And I think a lot of the stigma did surround the issue of steroids, but that’s why natural bodybuilding is particularly enjoying growth at the moment. People have realised it has started to really change now.”
That change has been fuelled, she believes, by a higher public awareness of health issues, an increase in fitness facilities and, perhaps more importantly, by changes in the media.
“For women in particular the idea of a changing body shape has helped,” says mother-of-one, Anna. “That hourglass figure has gone out of fashion but so too has the skinny model figure, none of which was about healthy eating or healthy exercise – thank goodness the fit frame has come back into fashion.”
Among those benefiting from a fitter frame has been female bodybuilding’s most high profile of ambassadors in recent months – and perhaps another unlikely candidate – glamour model Jodie Marsh, who actually competed alongside Anna last year.
But Anna has mixed views on such a notorious individual becoming bodybuilding’s pin-up.
“It was good initially because it felt like she was bringing a very positive limelight to the sport,” she says. “But, partly because of the media and the way public images get exaggerated by the media, it perhaps didn’t help to diminish one or two preconceptions about bodybuilders seeming like ‘freaks’ and not seeming natural. Still, that’s not really her fault.
“She also hasn’t helped matters by saying things like she can live off protein shakes all day if she wants to. Then it stops being just about healthy exercise and healthy diet. But, in the main, it doesn’t matter. I think the message has got through and more and more women are finding out the amazing results they can achieve through bodybuilding.”