It is a subculture that involves bulging biceps, protruding veins and never-ending workouts.
And for many of the women who take up the sport, bodybuilding can involve being stared at, whispered about, and insulted to their faces.
"They look at you like you're from outer space or something," says bodybuilder Yvette Williams.
"I remember people sneering and making lewd comments," says another woman. "'What is that? A man or a woman?'"
In the world of female bodybuilding, not only do women spend grueling hours in the gym pumping iron, pushing genetics to the limit, but many pay an even higher price for their 60 seconds on stage: The toll on their bodies can be irreversible, and the subculture can be all-consuming, obsessive and dangerous.
A Consuming World
"It's a horrendous sacrifice to make," says Katie Arnoldi, a former bodybuilder, referring to the hundreds of women who start out with big dreams but end up so desperate to succeed they may turn to performance-enhancing drugs. "But they're doing it."
Arnoldi started bodybuilding when she was 33 to get back in shape after the birth of her second child. But what started out as an innocent exercise plan quickly turned into an obsession as she fell deeper and deeper into the bodybuilding subculture.
"It's the opposite of anorexia," says Arnoldi, who wrote a novel called Chemical Pink about the world she left behind when she quit bodybuilding. "It's a compulsion. It's an obsession. And there is no satisfying that."
"Somehow it becomes an addiction," says Mimi D'Attomo, a former bodybuilder. "It's like an alcoholic."
Drugs That Transform
D'Attomo, who started bodybuilding when she was in her late 20s, became fanatical and her desire to win turned her to drugs. She started mixing chemical cocktails of steroids and diuretics after competing for three years.
"You can train as hard as you can," she says, "but realistically, it's almost impossible to make gains without anabolics, because anabolics help you recuperate so you never really feel the aches and pain."
Many women, she says, mix potentially harmful combinations of insulin, diuretics, human growth hormone, beta blockers, and anti-wasting HIV drugs.
"I feel to be a professional bodybuilder," she says, "you have to be a chemist. You have to know what to mix, what not to mix, or it could kill you."
Women can pay a devastating price for the advantages drugs offer them. The testosterone, for example, can cause disturbing male characteristics.
"They grow facial hair, their vocal chords thicken, their voices drop, they get hair on their chest and back, a woman's clitoris will grow into a male-like appendage," explains Arnoldi. "These bodies become what is normal to you. And then the real world is almost invisible."
D'Attomo knows all too well how that can happen.
"I didn't think I looked weird," she recalls. "It was normal for me … up until I went outside the gym and socialized outside with other people. Then I realized how different I looked. I said, 'Whoa, I'm freaky. I'm a freak.'"
Fortunately for D'Attomo, she stopped using the drugs before the side effects became irreversible, but it took her three years to recover. The hormonal withdrawal caused her to gain 40 pounds, her joints ached and she suffered from depression. But many women who take steroids for too long may never lose the facial hair or deep voice, and may have pregnancy difficulties.
Arnoldi says industry insiders know what goes on, but the sport is reluctant to test bodybuilders more strictly for steroids because big bodies draw big bucks.
Sandy Ranalli of the National Physique Committee, an organization for the bodybuilding and fitness industry, also says drug testing can just be too expensive.
"To be honest with you, we're such a small sport, it's just not financially feasible," says Ranalli of testing the athletes for drugs. She says they do, however, try to do random testing occasionally.
Ranalli adds: "There's steroids in every sport … But to say you're not going to get to the competitive level … without steroids, that itself is false.
The Sexual Subculture
Arnoldi, who says she quit after two years rather than take drugs, says chemical abuse is not the only dark side to the sport. Even more sinister, perhaps, is the strange sexual subculture that exists.
"There is this whole subset of men that would pay a lot of money to have a girl come over, get them in a headlock or wrestle with them," she says. "I've talked to these guys that are very excited by the idea of being overwhelmed by a strong female … by a big muscular female who can physically overpower them."
D'Attomo saw it, too. "I saw a lot of rich men sponsoring big women," she says. "They would pay for their everything in exchange for maybe a whipping."
But not all bodybuilders paint such a bleak picture of the sport.
For Lesa Lewis, a 33-year-old construction worker from Kansas City, bodybuilding is a challenge and a way to look and feel beautiful.
"I love the competitive part," says Lewis, who will vy in the prestigious Ms. Olympia competition this fall. "I love travel for the shows … I love looking in shape and looking fit."
Many women say it can be a liberating or empowering statement. But Arnoldi says despite the positives, the drawbacks remain.
"Nobody is making these girls do this," she says. "This is a choice … I don't see anything changing."