Warning! Women Under Construction

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Warning! Women Under Construction

"Touch my abs," Lee Seong-nyeong told the reporter.

Ms. Lee, wearing a tight grey tank top, was on the floor, her legs propped up on a bench, doing crunches. Another female bodybuilder, Jang Jeong-hee, sat on the bench, holding Ms. Lee by the calves, helping her maintain correct form.

"Press harder," Ms. Lee instructed. Her abs were like stones on a street. And with each sit-up motion, the muscles tightened even more.

After 20 crunches, Ms. Lee stood up, lifted the bottom of her tank top to reveal her stomach and squinted at her reflection in the mirror. "The skin on my stomach has to be as taut as the skin on my forearm," she said with slight dissatisfaction before switching places with Ms. Jang, 27.

On almost any given day, Ms. Lee, in her late-thirties, can be found at World Gym in Sinsa-dong, her hair pulled back, her Nike shoes untied. Ms. Lee, Ms. Jang and two other female bodybuilders work out from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week, taking off only on Sundays.

Bathed in sunlight that streamed through the large windows at the fitness center, the four women exercised their backs and abdomens all morning, napped briefly, worked on their biceps, then ended their regime with an aerobic routine.

Ms. Lee, who weighs less than 52 kilograms, is one of Korea's top bodybuilders. She already had been an aerobics instructor for 15 years when she met a bodybuilder who encouraged her to try the sport. She began competing nearly two years ago. In her first competition in April 2000, she placed sixth; since then, she has entered six contests, winnng them all.

The Daehan Bodybuilding Association has taken notice, hand-picking her to train for the Asia Bodybuilding Contest in September, an international competition in Pusan. Her biggest rival is another Korean, Kang Hye-young. "After Kang, I have the best body," Ms. Lee said.

Ms. Lee is creating a sort of a legacy by training other women. The three women under her are getting ready for the YMCA competition Friday, the last big national competition this year. At the Spring Nationals, Park Eun-ji placed first in the under-55 kilogram division. Ms. Jang placed first in under-52 kilogram. Yang Bong-seok placed first in under-49 kilogram.

The four, all darkly tanned and tightly muscled, are part of an elite cadre of women in the disciplined world of amateur bodybuilding.

Female bodybuilders trade Olivier barrettes for ponytail holders, A-line skirts for gym shorts and for some, restaurant dates for no dates and little food. "I don't let my girls go on dates until the competition season is over," Ms. Lee said. "Most dates revolve around eating, and even drinking tea can throw off your regimen."

Being in the gym all day, they have to find other ways of making an income; many teach aerobics in the evening.

By the end of a typical workout day, each woman will have consumed four chicken breasts, 10 to 15 egg whites, four potatoes and several cucumbers, spread out over five meals. "Sometimes we stop in front of a bakery or a street vendor, gaze at the food and ask each other, 'Remember when we used to eat that? Remember how good it was?'" Ms. Lee said. "There's a lot of crying for our past lives."

The few who have chosen to commit hours and days to sweating at the gym are breaking free of the stereotypical image of the "Korean princess" - scrawny limbs, flat butt and pale skin. Korean women who trade a flabby body for a highly muscled one are challenging the definition of "feminine."

Not all of these muscular woman are cultural revolutionaries, however. While many of them gaze into the mirror, mentally sculpting a championship body, one of sharply defined hard muscle, some reject that strong image when they leave the gym and walk with a not-always-adoring public.

Not all men find the muscled body type attractive. "I'm embarrassed at times," Ms. Lee admitted, "but I feel healthy and beautiful."

Her percentage of body fat is 10 (the average woman's is between 21 and 32 percent) and she can squat 100 kilograms. Lines of muscle stand out across her back, legs, shoulders and chest. "I want some guy who'll make me feel secure," she said, "but I'm stronger than most men."


Shaping Up: From Beauty Pageants to Bigger Pecs

Until six years ago, there were no body building competitions for women in Korea. Occasionally, a female bodybuilder did show up on the circuit, but only as a male competitor's partner. But since the acceptance of women as contestants, their ranks have been slowly growing throughout Korea. There are now 40 to 50 female bodybuilders in Korea, including a former beauty pageant queen, Jung Young-joo.

"It's the 21st century and skinny is not beautiful," said Ms. Jung, who goes by her legal name, Jung Young-soen, when competing. (She says Young-soen is an unlucky name and will legally change her name to Young-joo.) "Most Korean women try to appear soft, not strong. I'm going to change that."

When Ms. Jung won the title of Miss Seoul in 1984, she was a soft 49 kilograms. Like many beauty queens before and after her, she tried to break into the entertainment world as a singer. Her records flopped, but then her life changed.

In 1993, while recording a demo at Ray Parker Jr.'s studio in Los Angeles, Ms. Jung saw a toned woman at a restaurant and found her beautiful. "Her body looked good." When asked how she got her figure, the woman told Ms. Jung, "You have to work out."

Ms. Jung enrolled in a gym and began sweating herself into shape. She put on muscle weight and now tips the scales at 55 kilograms. Her beauty pageant days are far behind her and bodybuilding competitions are her life. Ms. Jung talked with the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition about her before-and-after life.

IHT-JAI: Did you feel different as Miss Seoul versus competing as a bodybuilder?

Jung: I feel strong on the stage as a bodybuilder. My body and my mind feel stronger now than they did before. I'm so proud of myself. I feel better now.

IHT-JAI: What was it like being Miss Seoul?

Jung: I didn't do anything for the beauty pageant. Sure, I felt pretty and feminine, but all I had to do was dress up and smile. For body building competitions, I have to train, and train hard. It's 100 times harder. My body changed, and then my mindset followed.

IHT-JAI: Why did you go from simply working out to bodybuilding?

Jung: I wanted to keep my body in shape. I was also afraid of getting older. Most women don't realize how good working out is for you. There is no need for women to be treated like a weak person. Women should be more selfish and take care of their bodies.

IHT-JAI: How do people react when they find out you are a bodybuilder?

Jung: Most people think bodybuilding is for men. Young people think it's cool. The old generation, they think it's strange. Society will change. I will make it change.

by Joe Yong-hee

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