THE CULT OF THE L.A. BODY : Portrait of a Dropout : Susan Snyder Once Worked Her Body to Perfection at Gold's Gym. Today, She's a Confirmed Fitness Backslider.

SUSAN SNYDER, 41, sits in an old patio chair and madly scribbles notes as she watches two actresses run through a play she is directing at the Burbage Theater on Sawtelle Avenue. Her face is drawn and she looks tired from the 12- to 14-hour days she has been logging in her role as producer and director of the play "Messages" by John Ford Noonan. She frequently dabs at her nose with a ragged white tissue, a sign her allergies are acting up. She is wearing an old, baggy brown sweater, black stretch pants and well-worn Reeboks. She is thin, pale and intense.

Four years ago Snyder was a sinewy, sexy, iron-pumping actress. Her goal was to obtain the perfect body--the lean, firm, subtly muscular appearance Snyder calls "that California look." Approaching 40, she hoped that exercise would put the aging process on hold. Her obsession ruled her life--until two years ago, when she burned out on barbells and dropped out of the Los Angeles fitness scene.

According to studies, it's a fact of the fitness revolution that fully half of those who begin an exercise program abandon the activity within six months of their first workout, leaving Exercycles untouched and health-club memberships unused. However, Snyder's story is special because it was her workouts that gave her the confidence to take control of her life and the courage to change her career. She changed her life by changing her shape. Once the transition was complete, she no longer needed the perfect body.

In 1979, Snyder moved from New York to Los Angeles with her husband and 6-year-old son. In New York, she had worked primarily as a stage actress, including a part in the long-running off-Broadway production of the Lanford Wilson play, "The Hot L Baltimore." In Los Angeles, her goal was to find parts in film and television. But Snyder, 5 feet, 7 inches, 118 pounds, found that she was just one more thin, blond actress. She did perform in episodic television, but the roles were small and unsatisfying. "The two 'Hs,' hookers and housewives, are big on TV," Snyder observes.

Like so many New York transplants, she loved the fact a person can enjoy the sun year round in California. She also realized that L.A. directors and producers are a lot more body conscious than those in New York. "I thought I might get more work if I worked out," she says. Roller-skating, because she could do it outside, became her first California fitness experience. Every day she would skate on the Venice boardwalk for at least an hour. After a few months of skating, including a serious crash into a chain-link fence, Snyder wasn't happy with the results. So, at 35, she took a significant step toward achieving the California body. She joined Gold's Gym, a Venice training center that is aptly nicknamed "the mecca of body building."

"I had been eating at the Rose Cafe (near Gold's Gym). I would see these women and they had no fat on them. They were totally in shape. I could skate from here to Santa Barbara and back and still not be in shape," says Snyder. "I put my roller skates over my shoulder and went to Gold's."

Gold's Gym is training home to some of the world's best and biggest body builders. Muscle superstars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno train there alongside Mr. T and Hulk Hogan. Even the unknowns at Gold's are awesome and intimidating as they strain, red-faced and roaring, against huge stacks of iron weights. On a busy day the place looks and sounds like a factory--a muscle factory.

Snyder says she was intimidated the first few times she trained at Gold's, especially because only a handful of women lifted weights there in 1981. (Today about 30% of the 3,000 members are female.) One of those women was Reggie Bennett, a competitive body builder whom Snyder hired for $40 a week to be her personal trainer. Bennett says she and Snyder trained at Gold's together two hours a day, five days a week, for four months. Bennett taught Snyder the science of body building, including "split-training"--one of body building's commandments. Snyder "split" her body, training her arms, chest and back one day, her buttocks and legs the next. Before long, Snyder was immersed in the world of squats, reverse tricep press downs and dips. Her goal was to shape her body, not build massive muscles, and in a few weeks she saw results. Bennett says she noticed that Snyder was changing psychologically as well as physically. "She changed her body a lot. But what it did more is that it made her more self-confident. She cared more about herself."

The body builders at Gold's shared some of their radical ideas on dieting with Snyder. "The weirdest thing I ever saw a body builder eat was a lunch consisting of a can of tuna fish in water and Rice Krispies with Diet 7-Up on them," says Snyder. While she didn't go this far, she cut out all red meat, chicken and fat. For almost a year, she ate mostly boiled whole-wheat pasta, steamed green leafy vegetables, brown rice and steamed fish. Her weight dropped to 112 pounds, and muscles popped out in places that used to be flabby and soft.

To burn even more fat, Snyder also ran up to nine miles a day. She was driven to keep her body young and firm; she believes that along with wanting to succeed in acting, she was trying to stop the aging process. "I did actually turn the aging process around for a while. I had a body that was almost unnatural, but it was perfect. I never looked that good even in my 20s, even when I was 16!" In 1984 she entered and won a beauty contest called Miss L.A. Over 30.

"She was pretty jazzed," recalls Bennett. "She came beaming into the gym saying, 'I smoked them all.' "

But Snyder still wasn't earning a living as an actress. At the time of the contest she was working as a limousine driver. In addition, dieting and training were putting a strain on her body. Her shoulders hurt all the time from hoisting barbells overhead. One day she pinched a nerve and wound up in an emergency room. The pain in her shoulder was so severe she couldn't go to work or the gym. Snyder hadn't had an allergy attack in more than a year, but the shoulder pain caused her to doubt the health benefits of her workouts. Her menstrual cycle also had stopped for several months, a reversible condition called athletic amenorrhea, believed by researchers to be caused by low body fat and high physical stress. Her obsession was also causing tension between Snyder and her husband. "He didn't work out at all. We were really in two different worlds," Snyder says.

About the same time Snyder won the beauty contest, she began thinking about changing her career. She wanted more control over her life and art and felt that she was capable of writing and directing her own material. "As an actress I felt trapped. Usually, unless you become very, very successful as an actress, you are really at the mercy of the writer, director and producer. You must fit in with how they see you. That can be very demeaning."

Snyder quit the limousine service and started doing production jobs for B-movie king Roger Corman as well as for TransWorld Entertainment and Orion Pictures. She was writing scripts and shooting short films on the weekends. In the transition from acting to production, she lost her concern about her appearance. Still, she says it was the physical training that gave her the confidence to make the change in her career. "Training does enhance your self-esteem. It changes your view of your 'self.' "

In 1984, more injuries and her new dedication to film production caused her to stop going to Gold's. For a year she took aerobics classes, but by the end of 1985 she had stopped exercising.

"I just started developing other aspects of myself. I became interested in writing and directing. I spent so many hours a day doing that, I didn't have a lot of time and energy left over for exercise."

Since she has become a sedentary person, Snyder still appears thin at 120 pounds, but she says her body is soft compared to what it was like during her days at Gold's. She jiggles when she moves, and her abdomen is starting to protrude ever so slightly. She doesn't care, although she hopes to someday start a sensible exercise program. "I believe in fitness, but I don't think I was into fitness. I think I was beyond fitness. I was obsessed and addicted to that sort of life and the California look."

What Snyder is sure of is that she no longer feels the need to have the perfect body. "In the 40s," she says, "you must face the fact you are growing older and age makes its mark on the body. Either you spend your life in a plastic surgeon's office, or you accept aging."

Now separated from her husband, Snyder lives with her 13-year-old son in West Los Angeles. She recently worked as an assistant director on a psychological thriller called "Midnight Cabaret" that will be distributed by Lorimar next fall. She has just signed with the Playboy Channel to produce and direct a script she co-wrote.

A confirmed fitness dropout, it's been two years since Snyder exercised with regularity. Her allergies have returned, but her shoulders don't hurt anymore, and she can tuck into a nice juicy steak without feeling guilty. She says her career and raising a teen-age son make it impossible to fit exercise into her schedule. "When I reach the end of a day, I just want to relax. I just want to go home and sit down with a glass of wine or the newspaper and relax."

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