The Perfect "Figure"

Bethesda’s Nancy Accetta will starve herself and train her body beyond the limits of normal endurance—all in a quest to achieve the physical perfection prized in the sport termed ‘bodybuilding lite’

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Nancy Accetta stands in the corner of a nearly empty exercise studio in downtown Bethesda, sporting exercise tights rolled up to mid-thigh, a bikini-style top and open-toed shoes with four-inch heels. The New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” blares from a nearby iPhone.

Accetta strides past a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows looking like a runway model, though at 5 feet 7 inches she’d never make it on the catwalks of New York.

Despite the low light cast by a gloomy September sky, her muscles can be seen rippling beneath her taut skin: horizontal ribbons across her stomach, V-shaped divots below her shoulders, curves in her biceps and vertical grooves along her quadriceps. Her manicured hands move with a dancer’s fluidity.

At the room’s midpoint, she pivots and approaches a mirror spanning the front wall. “The judges will be out here,” she says, nodding toward the mirror. She strikes a pose that reveals more chiseled musculature, and smiles in the direction of the imaginary judges.

“If you get up there and can’t look confident and like you are having fun, it’s really bad,” she says. “You want it to look like this all comes naturally, like you were born to do it.”

Accetta, 44, may well have been born to compete in “Figure,” the decade-old discipline sometimes referred to as “bodybuilding lite.”

Figure combines elements of bodybuilding with aspects of a beauty pageant, and prizes grace and definition over brute strength and bulk.

In 2008 and 2009, her first two years of competition, the Bethesda resident garnered six first-place amateur finishes and two overall titles, one of which qualified her to compete as a professional.  

On this particular day she’s three weeks from her seventh competition—the Cape Cod Natural Bodybuilding & Figure Championships in West Barnstable, Mass., where she hopes to place in the top half of the Pro Figure division and thus qualify for the prestigious International Fitness & Physique Association Yorton Cup Pro World Championships in Laurel a few weeks later. Yorton will mark her final competition, assuming she qualifies.

Accetta has come to Equinox, where she normally works as a personal trainer, for a posing rehearsal to be followed by an hour-long weightlifting routine and 30 to 40 minutes on a stationary bicycle.

She turns sideways in front of the studio mirror and places an index finger on the back of her thighs, just below her buttocks. “I still have work to do,” she says, though a casual observer would be hard-pressed to see even a dimple of fat.

Hers is a sport of perfectionists. Rare is the individual who can handle the austere diet and rigors of conditioning for months on end. Rarer still is the athlete who can excel while working two jobs, as Accetta did before accepting a full-time position at Equinox.

She adjusts her eyeglasses, which make the Johns Hopkins University graduate look more professorial than athletic when she’s not in training gear, and glances at her watch.

“I have to go eat before my workout,” she says, slipping out of her heels. She wiggles the toes of her right foot and sighs. “My feet are killing me and I need a pedicure.”

Accetta used to read her father and brother’s muscle magazines when she was growing up in Belle Mead, N.J. “I thought the women were really cool and had the most gorgeous bodies.”

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