Paper Magazine

March 2001


Novelist Katie Arnoldi’s Gym Grotesques
by Allison Xantha Miller

In the durable tradition of California noir writers who examine the dark side of the Golden State, Katie Arnoldi uncovers a universe of corruption in a sliver of body fat. Her first novel, Chemical Pink (Forge Books), is set in and around her home community: the vibrantly sleazy Los Angeles neighborhood of Venice and Gold’s Gym, which she calls “the capital of bodybuilding.”

Arnoldi, 41, speaks freely and laughs easily, even while describing the culture of lats, delts, and other truncated Latin anatomical terms. While her children were small, about 10 years ago, she started training seriously, and in 1992 won the Southern California Bodybuilding Championship. “I competed on a really low level. That’s the only title I ever won,” she says. “I found out pretty quickly that you can’t go any farther without taking that next step, which is jumping into taking drugs.”

You can, however, use your experience to write a really sick book. Arnoldi’s main character, a Georgia ingenue who calls herself Aurora, arrives at thong-pinched Muscle Beach with daydreams of competing in national shows. She is spotted by a Svengali named Charles Worthington III, who promises to make her a champion if she will “[k]eep him happy on a daily basis.” Aurora doesn’t realize that Charles illegally injected his previous “project” with so many hormones and steroids that her voice changed, she grew a beard, and her clitoris grew into a “hard, budding little penis.” “She relied on Cytomel to keep her metabolism fast, to keep her lean, and diuretics to prevent water retention. It worked for almost two years and then it didn’t work at all…. Her metabolism shut down and she blew up like a walrus.” Whether Aurora will come to her senses before reaching walrus-hood is the book’s backbone of suspense, especially when keeping Charles happy means bizarre sexual encounters and alienating her 12-year-old daughter. Even though it can be as trashy as the Venice Boardwalk, Chemical Pink relentlessly fuses (and confuses) attitudes about food, body, gender, sexuality, family, celebrity, and ambition until everything from a plate of steak to another human being becomes an object of consumption.

Although none of the major characters in the book is based on a real person, Arnoldi takes her character through a program of training, drugs, and diet that a real heavyweight might use, as outlined by “two of the best-known experts in the field,” whom she does not name. (When asked if these experts are physicians, she laughs deeply as if to say, “Don’t be naive.”) They told her how Aurora would respond physically and emotionally to the battery of steroids, insulin, diuretics, and hormones, as well as six protein-packed meals a day. “[B]ecause steroids are a controlled substance, and no one admits that they’re using, very little research has been done about the long-term effects on women,” Arnoldi writes in the afterword. So instead of medical studies, the bodybuilding community relies on its own shared sub-rosa experience with drugs with names like Dianabol, Clembuteral, and Deca-Durabolin.

Arnoldi is very outspoken about the consequences. “I don’t think competitive bodybuilding is at all healthy, especially for women,” she says. “Women aren’t meant to be 9 percent body fat.” Furthermore, “If you grow a beard and a penis and the facial hair, none of that is going to leave,” she continues. “You’re going to be stuck with it the rest of your life. You’re going to have your deep voice and your beard and your dick.”

She nonetheless loves lifting weights and speaks with awed affection about the baritone ladies of the gym. “Some of the women dress like superheroes, in capes, and there’s a lot of girls who will show up in the morning in these wild outfits,” she reports. “The bodybuilding’s very serious, but there’s a lot of humor in the clothing. I mean, fishnet stockings and leather belts with these huge, incredible bodies, kind of parading around.”

Arnoldi says the title Chemical Pink is an abstract description of this “extreme” femininity. As Aurora becomes harder on the outside and develops male secondary sex characteristics, she compensates by letting Charles humiliate her more. Her powerful appearance becomes an end in itself, not a way to get the confidence to make changes in her life.

Such narcissism is fertile ground for Arnoldi, who says she had written for years but was unable to produce anything worthwhile until she became less self-centered. “I think I had to go out and get a life, and get a little perspective, and finally get over myself,” she says. “And I think that’s what made a difference in my writing.” She is now working on her second novel, “about the overprivileged people on the West Side of Los Angeles and the effects of their behavior on their very troubled children,” she says, perhaps alluding to her own background (“I’m fifth-generation Californian, so I’m really from here”). Oh, and she surfs and snowboards too.

Copyright © 2001 Paper Magazine. All Rights Reserved.