I’ve been photographing female bodybuilders and physique athletes since the 1990s. I always thought these women looked cool, like real-life superheroes (I collected comics as a kid), but it wasn’t until one of my friends at school asked me to shoot her at a bodybuilding show that I really started to pay attention to these strong women.

Since that first shoot, I’ve seen the female bodybuilding community grow from a small subgroup that participated in one big bodybuilding contest to a worldwide community of a variety of athletes who compete in different divisions and categories, including bikini, figure, fitness, and physique. Physique is the closest to bodybuilding, but athletes who compete in physique have less extreme levels of muscularity. In both types of competitions, judges look for muscularity, symmetry, and conditioning. Figure competitors are less muscular, as are fitness competitors – both reward shape, balance, conditioning, and poise. As the category name suggests, bikini contestants wear two-piece swimsuits and are judged by balance and shape. Figure, fitness, and bikini athletes usually don’t flex in competitions, but they do perform a series of poses.

Female bodybuilding and physique training is a pretty neat subculture and one that’s often misunderstood. Even liberal, open-minded folks in the Bay Area have preconceived notions of muscular women, and often, they are way off-base. Like anyone who pursues a passion, these women just choose something that many others will never understand but that also takes over their entire lives.

Here are seven Bay Area/Northern California women who compete as bodybuilders, physique, and fitness athletes whom I’ve met and photographed over the years.

Carla Rossi

Competes in: Bodybuilding

Lives in: San Ramon, CA

Height: 5'1"

Weight/body-fat percent:

I’ve never had hydrostatic testing done, but if I had to guess, I’d say 15% in the off-season and 3% at competition time. My weight is around 150 pounds in the off-season and 129 pounds at competition.

How much can you lift?

Anytime someone asks me this question, I always tell them, “I lift for contractions, not for ego.”

How long did it take for you to get this body?

I got my first gym membership in 2006, started competing as a figure competitor in 2007, and switched to bodybuilding in 2008.

Is bodybuilding lucrative?

Bodybuilding doesn’t pay you; you pay bodybuilding – with your time, your money, and your soul. There is no other sport (that I’m aware of) that demands so much and gives so little in return.

How many calories do you eat a day?

I aim for around 2,500–3,000 per day, but I don't always hit that. I just do the best I can each day.

How does your body affect how other people interact with you?

People who don’t know me oftentimes are a little standoffish. They don’t really quite know how to react to a woman who looks this way. I’ve seen firsthand how my physique has cost me jobs, relationships, and various other opportunities, but I’ve also seen it open doors.

Kristy Hawkins

Competes in: Bodybuilding/Crossfit

Lives in: Oakland

Height: 5'4"

Weight/body-fat percent:

140 pounds in contest shape and 165 pounds in the off-season. I don’t really know my body-fat numbers; I just go by how I look.

How much can you lift?
I just started training for powerlifting and hit a 400-pound squat.

How long did it take for you to get this body?

I’ve been weight training seriously for 18 years.

How many calories do you eat a day?

About 2,500–3,000.

How does your body affect how other people interact with you?

I’ve been told I can be intimidating, but I’ve really never had a negative reaction.

What’s a surprising thing you experienced by having the physique that you have?

I always thought it was interesting how bodybuilding gave me the opportunity to get my hair and makeup done and feel very glamorous, do photo shoots, etc. I never would have seen myself that way otherwise.

Renee West

Competes in: Physique

Lives in: Anderson, CA

Height: 5'9"

Weight/body-fat percent:

6–7% body fat onstage, 12–15% off-season.

How much can you lift?
I never one-rep max; I usually get at least 3–5 reps at the heaviest weight.

Squat 245 pounds, bench 185 pounds, dead-lift 275 pounds, rack-lift 315 pounds, and leg-press around 600 pounds.

How long did it take for you to get this body? Four years of very diligent and consistent training and diet.

How many calories do you eat a day? Usually around 1,500–1,800.

How does your body affect how other people interact with you? It’s a conversation starter, for sure. I always get approached about fitness. Most people are very kind and compliment my physique and respect the hard work that goes into it.

What’s a surprising thing you experience by having the physique that you have? I forget that the way I look isn’t “normal,” so when I go somewhere new, the reaction on some people’s faces makes me laugh. All in all, I love the way I look, and most people receive me well with respect and admiration or kind words, which motivates me to keep doing what I do.

Katelyn Hasley

Competes in: Physique

Lives in: Oakdale, CA

Height: 5'3"

Weight/body-fat percent:

I weigh in at about 122 pounds before cutting water, and off-season I stay at around 140 pounds.

How much can you lift?

I am not a powerlifter, so I never lift for max weight, but for reps. The heaviest I have ever squatted was 225 pounds. I train to develop muscle – not for strength – so I focus on form and try to keep my ego out of it.

How long did it take for you to get this body?

I’ve progressed to where I am now by training consistently and dieting over the past four years. It took me about four months of strategic training and dieting to get ready for my first show. Now I tend to diet 12–14 weeks to get in contest shape while training consistently year-round.

How many calories do you eat a day?

I don’t count calories; I count macro-nutrients. I take in about 210 grams of protein and about 90 grams of carbs and about 40 grams of fats per day while I’m dieting.

How does your body affect how other people interact with you?

The way people interact with me varies. Most people whom I speak with compliment me and respect what I do. Some ask for advice, and others just express that they recognize the hard work it takes to achieve what I have. It always feels great to hear positive feedback and encouragement.

What’s a surprising thing you experience by having the physique that you have? I have a hard time finding clothes that fit my body. I have to spend extra money getting things tailored, so I tend to live in my gym clothes most days. I’d have to have size 2–8 and everything in between if it weren’t for elastic and spandex.

Shawna Walker

Competes in: Bodybuilding

Lives in: Livermore, CA

Height: 5'8"

Weight/body-fat percent:

Off-season: 165–170 pounds; 14–16% body fat

Competition: 140–145 pounds; 5% body fat

How much can you lift?

I wasn’t a powerlifter, so I wasn’t interested in maxing out on lifts. I wanted to sculpt my body so it looked aesthetic and symmetrical. But I remember three major lifts I did: a 315-pound squat, a 225-pound bench press, and a 315-pound dead lift.

How long did it take for you to get this body?

Well, I was tall and skinny all through high school and most of college, so it took a while to gain any kind of size. I trained for five or so years before I felt confident enough to compete. At my first competition, I weighed in at 132 pounds. During the following five years, with eight shows under my belt, I entered the nationals in New York weighing in at 145 pounds. So I would have to say that it took me 10–12 years to get the physique I continue to maintain.

How many calories do you eat a day?

Off-season calories add up to 2,500–3,500 calories per day; contest-prep calories are between 1,200 and 2,000 per day.

How does your body affect how other people interact with you?

Over the years, as I gained more muscle, the more stares and comments I got – mostly positive, but I hear the whispers when I walk by. It’s funny because I always thought I wasn’t that big compared to other female bodybuilders out there. People would want to touch my arms (with and without my consent) and would say things. After a while, I just got used to the stares and attention.

My dad always told me to be proud and to take things as compliments. There aren’t too many females out there who have bigger muscles than the average woman, so we do stand out a bit. I think that’s what I was going for partially. I wanted to be different and show that women can still be feminine and have muscles. I didn’t want to be just another skinny plain Jane. Plus, I wanted to enter one of the hardest sports out there. No one knows how hard it is until you go through it yourself. Being a competitive athlete my whole life, I knew I would really test my limits with this sport.

I have a love-hate relationship with it, and looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.

What’s a surprising thing you experience by having the physique you have?

From the beginning of my competition years, I was always surprised and honored every time I was approached and asked to do a photo shoot or video or an appearance, or was featured in different magazines. In my head, I was still just a normal woman who loves to work out and be healthy. I was always surprised every time I won a competition. All I was trying to do was to look better than I did in the prior contest.

There is always someone bigger and better than you, so you just have to try and look the best you can look and train the hardest you can train and know that you gave it your all and enjoyed the process. And that’s what I did.

Colleen Fotsch

Competes in: CrossFit

Lives in: San Francisco

Height: 5'8"

Weight/ body-fat percent:

I don’t have a specific competition weight for my sport. This year at NorCal Regionals I was 167 pounds and 9% body fat.

How much can you lift?

Clean and jerk: 223 pounds

Dead lift: 330 pounds

How long did it take for you to get this body?

I started playing sports at a really young age and pretty much played every sport imaginable. I was always on the muscular side. I was a swimmer at UC Berkeley and really enjoyed the lifting program and knew I wanted to continue lifting in some way, shape, or form after my college career was over. I started CrossFit about a year ago and, within a few months of consistent training, started noticing a big change in how I looked and felt.

How many calories do you eat a day?

I don’t count my calories, but I eat very clean. But I have a huge sweet tooth, so I enjoy desserts every now and again.

How does your body affect how other people interact with you?

Since I started doing CrossFit, I get a fair amount of questions about what I do, both training and nutrition. I always get asked if I play a sport and what it is or if I compete as a bodybuilder. It’s usually when I’m at the grocery store that I get the most comments and questions.

What’s a surprising thing you experience by having the physique that you have?

What I love about my body now is that it is the result of setting various training goals, such as squatting a certain amount of weight, mastering certain gymnastic skills, and being the best competitor I can be. CrossFit is extremely humbling and tests my limits day in and day out, and I love learning new skills that at one point seemed impossible for my body to do. I love being able to do something that I have so much fun doing, and it keeps me in shape and strong.

Miranda Brownlow

Competes as: Bodybuilder

Lives in: Eureka, CA

Height: 5'7"

Weight/body-fat percent:

Currently 160 pounds. It’s been several years since I’ve competed, but the last time I stepped onstage in the bikini and figure division, my weight was around 135 pounds. I have been training hard in the gym (and eating, haha!) the last couple of years, so I have put on significant size and would no longer suit either of those categories!

My main focus these past couple of years has been to live a healthy, maintainable lifestyle. I figured out a while ago that I didn’t need a show mapped out to keep me motivated to go to the gym. I’m dedicated to lifting weights, eating clean, and trying to live as healthy as possible – it’s what I’m most passionate about. I may do a show again down the road, but for me, life isn’t all about competing. I have a job, family, friends, and other hobbies that I like to spend time doing too. I think I’ve found out a great way to manage it all. I’ve always agreed with the quote “If it’s important, you’ll find a way; if not, you’ll find an excuse.”

Training style:

I typically never plan out my workouts. I train mostly by feel. This includes what exercises I choose to do, my rep ranges, how heavy I go, etc. I have found that my body responds best with higher volume and moderately heavy weight. I am able to squeeze and contract the muscle I’m training better that way, rather than just trying to hoist up heavy weight.

Strength is impressive and all, but when it comes to the sport of bodybuilding and building a shapely physique, strength doesn’t always correlate to size. I follow a pretty typical bodybuilding split, training one body part a day. I don’t plan days off; I just listen to my body and take one when I feel it’s necessary. I do believe giving my body adequate rest plays a critical role in recovery for me and keeps me injury-free.

How long have you been training?

I’ve been an athlete my entire life but started lifting weights in 2011.

How many calories do you eat a day?

I don’t keep track of calories; I mainly just focus on consuming roughly 25–30 grams of protein every few hours, which on average ends up being 5–6 meals per day. Lately, I have been incorporating a lot more vegetables and even juicing once a day. I do feel it’s not only important to fuel your body with protein for lean muscle but to also fill in the gaps with all the micronutrients that vegetables have to offer. I encourage people to stray from the typical bodybuilding meals of chicken and rice – add color in your diet!

How does your physique/lifestyle affect how people interact with you?

I have found that my lifestyle inspires people, for the most part. Of course, I get the occasional harassment about not eating a slice of birthday cake at a party or not wanting to go out and drink on the weekends, but I’ve learned to stand my ground. I do let loose every now and then, but on my own terms.

This lifestyle may seem extreme to some, but it makes me happy, so that is all that matters! I think I look better than I ever have, and more importantly, I FEEL the best I ever have. I only hope to be fortunate enough to stay healthy and to keep at it for as long as possible. There is no finish line for me; I will forever be trying to improve physically and mentally. I’m in it for life!