Fitness, She Wrote
Laura Dayton’s fascinating world of fitness publications, muscle building, movie stars and her “Be An 11” promise to young women
By Kim Goss
Published: Summer 2004
aura Dayton is one of the most prolific writers in the field of fitness. For the past three decades she has written literally thousands of articles for magazines dealing with health and fitness, including BFS magazine, along with several books and numerous chapters for books. Currently the editor of Fit Body magazine, Dayton will soon be opening a women’s-only health club in her hometown of Napa, California. She is also involved in the BFS Be An 11 program, and is working on a special women’s edition of the Be An 11: Guidebook for Success.
Identified at a young age for her exceptional intelligence, Dayton graduated from high school at age 14. Attending college on a scholarship, a few years later she earned her master’s degree in journalism from San Jose State University, considered to have one of the finest journalism programs in the country.
Dayton is an avid weight trainer who has also participated in several forms of martial arts for fitness and self-defense. She began writing articles for national publications on bodybuilding, martial arts and strength training when she was just 14. She’s never stopped writing.
In 1986 Dayton founded her own company, Dayton Writers Group, which expanded her freelancing business to include art production, marketing and management services to the health and fitness industry. In 1996 with a change in the company name to Dayton Publications, she expanded services even further to include book production and distribution, and Internet services.
Laura Dayton has three brothers, Bill, John and Mike, all of whom chose different career paths. Bill graduated from the University of Berkeley with a degree in business, worked for Donald Trump and appeared on the cover of Inc. magazine, and eventually opened his own production company in Las Vegas. John obtained a doctorate in biology and is presently a professor at San Jose State University. Mike is an accomplished martial artist, professional strongman and former Mr. America (and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s roommate in his younger years!) who has been involved in sports promotions.
Dayton’s vast experience in virtually every aspect of fitness gives her a unique perspective about the evolution of the fitness industry, especially how it relates to women. In this exclusive and frank interview, BFS takes a look inside Laura Dayton’s world.
BFS: Were your parents instrumental in your choice of career?
Dayton: My father, who was an engineer, and my mother, who taught grade school, placed a tremendous value on education. There was never any doubt in our family that we would go to college. My father told us that each of us would work every day of our lives, so we’d better find something we enjoyed doing. My parents’ encouragement helped me pursue a perfect career blending writing and fitness.
BFS: Your brother Mike was a Mr. America. How did he become involved in sports?
Dayton: When he was 13 he got a front tooth knocked out in a fight, and after that he became involved in wrestling and was encouraged by his coaches to lift weights. A few years later he met Jack Dillinger, a former Mr. America, who helped train him for bodybuilding competition. Mike won the Teenage Mr. America when he was 16, the youngest ever to win this title.
BFS: Why did you start lifting weights?
Dayton: When Mike became successful, he was asked to contribute to bodybuilding and martial arts publications. I helped him write these articles, and I thought it would be best to train to better understand what I was writing about. I worked out hard, and in those early years I could out-bench-press most of the adult women in the gyms where I trained. As I learned more about weight training, I started writing my own articles. Of course I had to write under pen names, because I doubt that many bodybuilders were interested in reading an article by a 15-year-old girl about the best way to build 22-inch biceps!
BFS: Where did you train?
Dayton: At a European health spa, where at the time they had separate hours for men and women. But that all started to change very, very quickly, as women started to get more involved in lifting weights.
BFS: At first did the health clubs resent women lifting weights?
Dayton: No, the fact is most health clubs were men-only because no women wanted to train there. But gym owners loved it when women started getting into weight training because that meant more memberships for them.
BFS: You were involved in promoting the sport of women’s bodybuilding from the very beginning, even becoming the editor of a magazine strictly devoted to the sport called Strength Training for Beauty. What was your interest in this activity?
Dayton: With three brothers I grew up with the injustice of male and female inequality continually in my face. The guys poured the cement and built the fences while I brought lemonade to them. Being the odd one out, I wanted to build the fence!
I got involved in the women’s awareness movement very early, trying to find out why so many avenues were unavailable to women and where we fit it. Even after I acquired my master’s degree, I found it difficult to find work not only because I was so young but also simply because I was a woman. For me, women’s bodybuilding was just part of the sociological search by many women to find out who they really were, and at time I found it fascinating. I didn’t view it as being a jock; I was coming from the academic world.
BFS: What was the appeal of bodybuilding contests for women?
Dayton: They were opportunities for women to get into a beauty contest and not be judged on their genetics or how blond their hair was or how big their eyes were or how much money their parents had—at least that is how I and a number of other women viewed it. For a moment in time, it brought the beauty contest into reach of every woman in the world. That was a very magical, wonderful and empowering moment.
But it turned out to be just a moment. Eventually Doris Barrilieua was tossed out as the token Weider female and the women’s contests fell under the control of the men in the industry. Male judges picked the women they would most want to sleep with, rather than the women who most deserved the title.
BFS: Is that why the sport didn’t catch on?
Dayton: Women’s bodybuilding would have caught on fine as just another excuse to show T and A. But what happened was the women got serious about training. They wanted to see how strong they could become.
Not knowing any better, they trained side-by-side with the men, not only training with them and following the same diet but also eventually taking the same drugs. The women became freaks, just like the men. They didn’t know that steroids have a permanent effect on women—because they don’t on men. Women bodybuilders paid a terrible price for this knowledge. They also lost sight of any sociological impact they might have had and became like the men, obsessed about their own egos and muscle size. What choice did they have?—they couldn’t go back to being feminine. The public withdrew their support, the sport faded, and the men in the Weider organization replaced women’s bodybuilding with women’s fitness, which is just an excuse to watch women perform sexy dances and parade around for the men. They just happen to be very well-built women. The best contests for women today are the tri-fitness contests that involve a strength component, judged on a woman’s lifting ability or her speed on an agility course, or both. When this is combined with a beauty component, the contest has meaning for the women to feel that they are athletes judged on their training and dedication.
BFS: Your first publication, Natural Bodybuilding, was quite controversial, as it was devoted to athletes who did not use steroids. Did you find any resentment among the bodybuilding community?
Dayton: I was naive. When I first heard about steroids I thought, “