Iron maidens

Portland State graduate student Kristin Kaye had little interest in the world of female bodybuilding until one day during a job search she accidentally called the gym where bodybuilder Lori Fierstein was working out. 


One thing led to another, and Kaye was asked to be the playwright director for a show whose stars were the top female bodybuilders and powerlifters in the world.  


A master’s degree recipient in non-fiction writing from Portland State, Kaye is the first graduate from the program to publish a book. Her book, “Iron Maidens: The Celebration of the Most Awesome Female Muscle in the World,” is a chronicle of her 1993 Broadway production.


Although Kaye was an avid athlete, she had no experience with female bodybuilding before landing the job. 


“I was the typical, avant-garde, theater chick and was stepping into an entirely new arena,” Kaye said. 


She got her undergraduate degree as a drama studies major at the City University of New York in Purchase, a town about 30 miles north of Manhattan. Looking for employment in the Village Voice, she saw an ad needing an administrative assistant for an external women’s project. 


People either react to female bodybuilders as disgusting freaks, or are thoroughly impressed with the hyper-female figures, Kaye said, but she disagrees. 

“Their body is a product of their dedication,” she said. 


In her research for the show, Kaye became fascinated with the judging disparity of criterion used to evaluate men and women. Symmetry, size, definition, proportion and shape are used to judge both sexes, with the added criteria of femininity. 


One competitor told Kaye she was approached by a judge who said that if she ever wanted to win, she should consider getting breast implants because her female figure was compromised by her flat chest. 


Since men’s competition draws the majority of International Federation of Body Building (IFBB) prize money, some female bodybuilders finance their training through private wrestling sessions with male clients. 


These clients pay around $400 per hour for the service and as a result, some female bodybuilders make over six figures a year.


“The show was a huge culture class between this high-art production and female bodybuilders wanting to wear white lace thongs with dreams of being Miss America,” she said. “It was an intriguing look into how we view and feel about femininity and beauty.”


After the show, Kaye was working on her master’s in fine arts writing at the California Institute of Arts when her husband landed a job in Portland. Because the only similar degree program in Oregon is in Eugene, Kaye thought the commute was too far and applied to Portland State. 


Having already completed half of her coursework in California, Kaye was ready to begin her thesis on female bodybuilding when she arrived in Portland. 

Kaye said that much of her success at Portland State was due to her graduate thesis adviser, Michael McGregor. 


“He is so amazing, such a super professor.” 

Finding a publisher for her book was difficult, as she suffered through more than 40 rejections before being accepted. Most editors she talked to really liked it but marketing departments thought it would be impossible to sell. 


“The publishing industry bases a lot of its choices on how marketable a book is,” Kaye said. 


As for the future, Kaye is looking forward to taking a break from writing and spending more time with her seven-month-old baby.