Female Guns: A History of Women in Strength & Physique Sports

I enter the large room for the second time today. I am done with my classes for the next few hours and long for a deserved break from the stresses of being a freshmen college student. I look around and take in the sights and sounds of my favorite building on campus: the gym. It seems to be split in half. The weight lifting equipment positioned to my right and cardio machines to my left. There is no denying that that the area is more or less segregated. The male specimen commands most of the lifting area and can be found admiring their bulging muscles in the mirror as their faces twist with the effort required to pump out those last few repetitions. To my left I observe the women. Every elliptical machine is in use as sweaty fingers flip through the latest issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine. Their heads are bent down as they focus on articles such as, “50 New Ways to Satisfy Your Man”. I look back over to the weights, and gladly move in the opposite direction of the turning elliptical machines and whining Stairmasters.  For my place today, at that moment is with the iron.

When I first started lifting a few months ago, I had no idea that women’s bodybuilding was such a recently developed sport. I had no idea that it didn’t even exist 50 years ago and that the sport is still being modified and changed today. But, the truth remains that developments in women’s bodybuilding have made it more acceptable for me to lift, as I am a woman. Women’s bodybuilding had prompted my personal trainer to ask me, “So, what are your goals? Do you want to gain muscle or do you want to lean out?” I took this option for granted and never considered the history behind this new concept of women striving to become not just skinny, but muscular.  Over the past 4 decades, women’s bodybuilding has developed through the ideals of men and, more importantly through women’s exploration of their own bodies and capabilities. This movement is continually challenging the rules of women’s muscular social acceptance in an effort to redefine the relationship between femininity and strength.

Bodybuilding was and still lies in the hands of the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB), and the National Physique Committee (NPC). More than any other person, a man named Joe Weider can be held responsible for the growth and success of bodybuilding. In 1946, Joe and his brother Ben, founded the IFBB in Canada. The IFBB was the first organization to offer prize money to the winners of its male bodybuilding contests (Lowe 56). The Weiders’ goal was to develop bodybuilding as “a respected, organized sport on the amateur level” (Lowe 56), as Olympic weightlifting was overshadowing bodybuilding at the time. Joe Weider also began one of the first bodybuilding magazines titled, Muscle Builder: The Magazine of the Champions (Lowe 56), which is now known as Joe Weider’s Muscle and Fitness.

Rachel McLish Source: “Rachel McLish’s Page.” IFBB Hall of Fame. N.D. IFBB. 10 May 2008

Rachel McLish
Source: “Rachel McLish’s Page.” IFBB Hall of Fame. N.D. IFBB. 10 May 2008

In the 1960s the first female fitness contest occurred, sponsored by the FIBB. However, these contests were really more like beauty pageants with no real emphases on muscle.  The contestants were made to wear high heeled shoes, jewelry and make up. Winners received titles such as “Miss Body Beautiful, Miss Physical Fitness, and Miss Americana” (Lowe 57). In 1977, Henry McGhee founded the United States Women’s Physique Association (USWPA), and persuaded the National Physique Committee (NPC) to sponsor the first official women’s bodybuilding contest (Heywood 27). The victor was a very skinny, but only slightly toned Gina LaSpina. She in no way resembled a bodybuilder by today’s standards but her efforts put the wheels of women’s bodybuilding in motion. In 1978, the IFBB sponsored the first women’s bodybuilding contest that awarded money to the top competitors. The winner received a grand sum of $2,500 (Lowe 58). Though still, this event could hardly be called a bodybuilding contest as the women were still required to wear heels on stage and were judged mostly on beauty as compared to muscular symmetry and development. George Synder, organizer of the 1978 “Best in World Contest,” said of the event, “. . . it is definitely not a “physique” contest, where women do men’s muscular posing. As you can see . . . the contest is based on overall appearance, figure, proportion, tone, etc. If you would like to call it a beauty contest you could, however it is a beauty contest for women bodybuilders” (Lowe 58).   In 1980, the NPC also created and sponsored the event Ms. Olympia. Rachel McLish (See Figure 1) was the first Ms. Olympia and her athletic but moderately developed body became the one of the first standards of the sport (Heywood 28).

Carla Dunlap Source: “Carla Dunlap’s Page.” IFBB Hall of Fame. N.D. IFBB. 10 May 2008

Carla Dunlap
Source: “Carla Dunlap’s Page.” IFBB Hall of Fame. N.D. IFBB. 10 May 2008

As both men’s and women’s bodybuilding started to grow, so did the IFBB and the NCP. These two organizations were able to work together and weed out any other smaller bodybuilding organizations. The IFBB includes a congress with members from 160 nations, each with delegates from their respective countries that vote at annual meetings on various topics (Lowe 60). This group of males (less than 2 percent of the chairpersons from the NCP are women) develop all the rules for the sport of bodybuilding. For an athlete to become a professional bodybuilder with the IFBB, the most efficient way is to first prove themselves as an amateur in the NPC (Heywood 62). The IFBB and NCP also work together in that many of the same people are on both committees or are judges for both organizations.  For example, Jim Manion is the president of the NPC and the North American vice-president of the IFBB. In addition, 80 percent of business owners of male pro shops and 33 percent of female shop owners sat on at least one of the committees (Heywood 60). Since business owners made up the majority of both organizations, the IFBB and NCP were, and still are able to offer more prize money than any other organization. Such differences in prize money lead many bodybuilders to claim that, “the IFBB is the only game in town. (Lowe 60). Basically, the entire sport of women’s bodybuilding is monopolized by a wealthy group of men who are consistently changing their judging criteria for preferred body type of a woman bodybuilder.

Bev Francis Source: “Bev Francis’ Page.” IFBB Hall of Fame. N.D. IFBB. 10 May 2008

Bev Francis
Source: “Bev Francis’ Page.” IFBB Hall of Fame. N.D. IFBB. 10 May 2008

In 1985 a controversial documentary called Pumping Iron II, on four women bodybuilders was released. The film, Pumping Iron II, pivots around an actual bodybuilding contest, the 1983 Caesar’s Cup for Women Bodybuilding Championship, staged at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and put on by the IFBB. Though the contest was a real event, it was only held for one year with the purpose of providing a contest for the bodybuilders to prepare for. The director, Jacques Lacan, hand selected each woman to represent a different type of body within women’s body building. He first selected Rachel McLish, as she was had proven herself the current bodybuilding champion, and thus had set the current standard for a “feminine” but fit body. Lacan also choose Carla Dunlap (see Figure 2).  Dunlap represented the more muscular version of McLish and was also the only competing African American. Next, was Loft Bowen, who represented the novice bodybuilder as the Caesar’s World Cup was her first contest. Rounding out the diverse group of women was the powerful Bev Francis (See Figure 3). Lacan recruited Francis for his documentary specifically because Francis was the biggest and strongest woman alive. Francis was originally an Australian powerlifter whom Lacan convinced to turn bodybuilder. She had the body of a male bodybuilder and thus made for the most controversial subject in Lacan’s film (Aoki).

The documentary’s goal was to expose women’s bodybuilding, the training, the competitors, the dieting, and most of all the controversy of femininity in women’s bodybuilding. Femininity will always be a topic of women’s bodybuilding as the judges are continually changing their definition of “feminine.” From 1977 to the present it is clear that the judges do want the female athletes to maintain a “feminine” look, though they go back and forth between what constitutes as “feminine” through their selection of champions. In 1990, Harry Crew wrote a novel entitled Body, where he accurately describes the thoughts of the women’s bodybuilding judges:

Nobody knew or could agree on what women wanted or needed to be. Not even women themselves. With men it was easy. . . . But where did that leave women bodybuilders? Again, nobody knew. Everybody thought they knew when Rachel McLish won the world. She was muscular, and also perfectly symmetrical and coordinated, but most of all she could be put in a dress and taken home to mother. But in a short period of time following Rachel McLish’s reign as world champion, if you put a world-class female bodybuilder in a dress, she could not be taken home to mother or many other places because they looked like men tricked out in women’s clothing. Out of posing briefs and off the stage, they were monsters to behold. The judges and the fans that followed the sport as well as the competitors themselves could not decide what the ideal women ought to look like. It was a dogfight. One year a women in one of the lighter divisions would take the overall; the next year a women bigger than most men could ever hope to be, one that only looked human as long as she was under posing lights, would take it. Up close and dressed in anything feminine, female bodybuilders started looking like something God had made suffering from a divine hangover and caught in delusional terrors beyond human imagination (Lowe 99-100).

Corey Everson Source: “Cory Everson’s Page.” IFBB Hall of Fame. N.D. IFBB. 10 May 2008

Corey Everson
Source: “Cory Everson’s Page.” IFBB Hall of Fame. N.D. IFBB. 10 May 2008

The controversy then, becomes defining the acceptable amount of muscle that should be allowed on a woman in order for her to appear muscular yet feminine. All judges, men and women alike, agreed that the female bodybuilder still needed to appear feminine, as did the athletes themselves. When being accused of trying to look like a man, Bev Francis says, “I feel very much a woman…. I have female sex organs, I have female responses, I have female hormones in my body, female chromosomes, or whatever. I can’t change that and I don’t want to.” She also adds, “I want to show them that a woman can develop muscle and still look like a woman.” (Aoki). Yet, when she appeared on stage at the Caesar’s Cup for Women Bodybuilding, the lone female judge Anita Cohimbu, physically shook in horror and disgust (Aoki).

This may bring about the question, why do female bodybuilders compete? Why would they consciously make the decision to be judged on how “feminine” they are? Why shouldn’t female body builders be content with existing as they are? This is especially curious when it’s common knowledge in the bodybuilding world that many contests are fixed. For example, in the 1991 Ms. Olympia contest, Joe Weidner single handedly made sure that Bev Francis did not win. One of the regional judges recollects:

I was at the Ms. Olympia in Los Angeles and . . . Bev Francis was leading the contest after two rounds in the morning and she was ahead by seven points. They flashed it up on the screen at the night show and one of my friends was sitting behind Joe Weider and he said that when he saw that he immediately got a scratch pad and wrote on that scratch piece of paper and called the head judge over there and the piece of paper says “under no circumstances shall Bev Francis win this contest.” So, for Weidner, of course to him it’s all about marketability and money. He doesn’t feel that a muscular woman is as marketable as somebody like Cory Everson (See Figure 4) or Lenda Murray (Lowe 71).

Clearly, women’s bodybuilding is not being judged on who has the biggest muscles. What the judges are looking for, is the “perfect woman”. They examine the whole package, hair, skin tone, muscular size, muscular symmetry, nails, and face. The judges don’t want to pick a women that scares the pubic, because as the judges from Pumping Iron II say, “We don’t want to turn people off; we want to turn them on” (Steiner). Here in lies the problem. What “turns people on”, is constantly changing as time changes. It seems that when the public was first introduced to women’s body building the early 1980s, they preferred a very small framed woman with a few muscles to go along. Then, they quickly accepted a slightly more muscular woman bodybuilder, through McLish, but were not ready for huge women, like Francis.

Lenda Murray Source: “Lenda Murray.” Pro Profiles. N.D. Body Builders. 10May 2008

Lenda Murray
Source: “Lenda Murray.” Pro Profiles. N.D. Body Builders. 10May 2008

In the mid 1990’s, extremely muscular women could be found in most all the fitness and bodybuilding magazines. In fact, the mid 1990’s gave way to the “soft core” pornographic stage of advertising women’s bodybuilding. Major bodybuilding magazine, Flex, featured layouts of female bodybuilders that showed the sexier side of the athletes.  The layouts were called “Power and Sizzle”, and were captioned with comments from the bodybuilders themselves (Heywood 34). Female bodybuilder Laura Creaville was quoted, “You can be sexy, feminine, and muscular. I feel sexy today because I am responsible for how I look” (Heywood 34). Skye Ryland adds, “I am feminine but I’m strong; I’m a women but I’m not weak” (Heywood 34). Six-time Ms. Olypmia Lenda Murray says, “There has been some controversy in the past few years about whether or not some of the photos I’ve posed for are ‘too sexy’. This is really ironic, because it wasn’t long ago that people were claiming that highly muscular women weren’t sexy at all” (Heywood 34).  Clearly these women are fighting to defend their femininity and sense of being a woman. Women also achieved this look of femininity through breast implants. By the late 1990’s about 80 percent of the top U.S women’s bodybuilders had breast implants (Heywood 35).  The magazines had changed their marketing technique. Magazines, such as Flex, started out with the intentions of displaying the female bodybuilder as a work of art (see Figure 5), but this quickly changed to a more provocative style of photography which seemed to present the message that bodybuilders are sexy, but this is despite the fact that they have muscles. Bodybuilders were featured in high heels in seductive poses wearing dominatrix style outfits (Heywood 80-81). This type of display of the female bodybuilder was extremely disappointing to most women who looked up to the female bodybuilder for inspiration and a source of power (Heywood 129). Many women wrote letters to Flex, complaining of the nudity, and pornographic-like qualities of the pictorials. One woman wrote, “Why do you have to have these women appear in such provocative poses (straddling chairs, bathroom scenes, etc.) in order to see their beauty? You can just tell how lovely these women really are by looking at them in their competition outfits” (Heywood 101-102). It is here that we get to the heart of women’s bodybuilding.

Women look up to women bodybuilders because, as retired IFBB bodybuilder, Lisa Bavington says:

Female athletes across the board can serve as role models and give women another option to aspire to: to build up rather than break down, and to become strong rather than remaining weak. It has nothing to do with becoming a man or wanting what a man has, it’s about having the freedom to choose the physique I want and the opportunity to be able to do it (Scott-Dixon).

It is this spirit that has driven women to support women’s bodybuilding. Women bodybuilders such as Kay Baxter have encouraged women to explore their muscular potential by sporting mottos such as, “Get Built without Guilt” (Kay Baxter’s Page). Baxter competed in the early 1980s and was consistently told by judges that she was too big. Her “I do what I want attitude” made fans adore her. They respected Baxter for going against what the judges wanted in order to stay true to her own desires (Kay Baxter’s Page). This same attitude is seen in 49-year-old bodybuilder Karen Surman Paley. Of lifting she says, “When working out, I set and meet my own challenges. I choose to lift in spite of the fact that I can hear a chorus of collegial voices telling me I’ve been appropriated by bourgeois individualism, the backbone of capitalism. You know what? This is one instance where I don’t mind” (Paley).  When lifting, women are allowing themselves to feel power, to challenge the rules of society. An anonymous elite female bodybuilder was quoted, “Bodybuilding has helped to transform my sense of self. The world doesn’t control me anymore. I finally have a mind and body of my own” (Castelnuovo, Guthrie 49). This quote is very ironic when compared to the quote by Lisa Bavington who says, “For female competitors, bodybuilding is a sport that is not about performance, it’s about deciding who fits the criteria of acceptable womanhood. I’ve competed as an athlete in many sports, however, it was not until I became a bodybuilder that I felt I was limited by my gender” (Scott-Dixon). But, this explains why women respond positively to athletes like Kay Baxter, who was judged as too muscular. Women’s bodybuilding revolves around conforming to the ideals of the male judges. However, women’s bodybuilding as a whole is about defying what society says a woman can be. This is the irony of being a professional women’s bodybuilder. Women’s bodybuilders are caught in a catch-22. Their first option is mold themselves to the ever changing “perfect woman”. Their second option is to develop their bodies exactly how see fit and risk placing lower in contests than they would like to. Therefore, the women’s bodybuilder must either conform or lose.

In 1992, a very controversial event took place at the Ms. International competition. Contestant, Paula Bircumshaw, was easily the most muscular and symmetrical competitor. But, instead of placing first, or even in the top three, the judges ranked Bircumshaw at sixth place. This meant that she would be kept backstage for the grand finale, as only the top four were included in the final face-off. In response, Bircumshaw walked out on the stage even though her name was not called and yelled obscenities at the judges. She then proceeded to run through the aisles straight up to Joe Weider and held her arms up. The crowd of four thousand people rewarded her with a standing ovation (Lowe 148-149). Supporters, both men and women, love to see that the athletes are being true to themselves. Fans want to see that the athletes are in charge of their bodies and will develop them to their full potential, no matter what the judges say.

Let us now examine possible reasons behind this ever changing “perfect woman” that the judges are so stuck on. Why should the acceptable amount of female muscle constantly be changing? The debate of too much muscle has made to such ruckus in male bodybuilding. Sociologist Robert Connell sheds some light on muscle and gender differences:

The social definition of men as holders of power is translated not only into mental body-images and fantasies but into muscle tensions, posture, the feel and texture of body. This is one of the main ways in which the power of men becomes “naturalized”, i.e., seen as part of the order of nature. It is very important in allowing belief in the superiority of men, and the oppressive practices that flow from it, to be sustained by mean who in other respects have very little power (Castelnuovo, Guthrie 40).

Our society in general it seems, both men and women, will forever associate muscles with power.  Perhaps this is why judging women’s bodybuilding can be such a confusing task. How powerful can women be while still appearing feminine? When thinking of synonyms for “feminine”, words such as “ladylike”, “wifely”, and “gentle” may come to mind. Not one of these words is associated with power. Then, “feminine” qualities are not easily associated with muscular development. This is the confusion which makes women’s bodybuilding an ever changing professional sport. It can easily be predicted that the sport will continue to change as societies views on power and gender evolve.

Although I do not want to become a professional woman bodybuilder, I fully appreciate those women that do subject themselves to the scrutiny of the men who sit at the judges table. Because of those female bodybuilders, I am able to go the gym and feel no guilt about choosing the iron over the Stairmaster.  I am allowed to challenge who I am and who I will become. At the gym I am not a woman, but a lifter. I sit on my little black bench, next to other lifters, and I am respected. Here, I talk to men as equals. Together we strive for the ability to walk with confidence and power. Here, I know who I am, at least for an hour or two each day. I embrace pain, and the waiting of growth, I embrace the self-discipline of the sport. Along that row of black benches, there is no gender, there are only athletes. Women are allowed to let go of their place in society, they are allowed to challenge their bodies, just as men are. In the weight room, equality is found, as iron does not discriminate by gender, but by will.


Annotated Bibliography:

Aoki, Douglas Sadao. “Posing the Subject: Sex, Illumination, and Pumping Iron II: The Women.” Cinema Journal Summer 1999: 24+. Academic OneFile. Gale. University of Delaware Morris Library. 21 April 2008.

In this article, the documentary Pumping Iron II is analyzed. The link between the desexualized “Superwoman” and sexual “Perfect Women” is explored through various types of female bodybuilders and they way they are judged in a contest.

Castelnuovo, Shirley, and Sharon R. Guthrie. Feminism and the Female Body. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998.

This book explores how the female development of mind and body is a resentence to the status quo and furthers the feminist movement.

Heywood, Leslie. Bodymakers: A Cultural Anatomy of Women’s Body Building. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

In this book, Heywood discusses how female bodybuilding and representations of muscular women affect our culture as a whole.

“Kay Baxter’s Page.” IFBB Hall of Fame. N.D. IFBB. 10 May 2008 <http://www.ifbb.com/viewfamous.php?id=20&circa=2001>.

This article is sponsored by the International Federation of Body Building and Fitness. It is a tribute to woman bodybuilder Kay Baxter who was inducted into the IFBB hall of fame in 2001. Baxter was a 1980’s bodybuilder who was judged to be too muscular which is why the fans of the sport respect her today.

Lowe, Maria R. Women of Steel. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

This book discusses the author’s personal experience witnessing female bodybuilding

competitions and the ability of female bodybuilders to redefine femininity.

Paley, Karen Surman. “Little Woman.” Women and Language Spring 1997: 58+. Academic OneFile. Gale. University of Delaware Morris Library. 21 April 2008.

This article examine a 49 year-old female body builder’s ability to be seen as an equal to men when she works out at an all men’s gym.

Scott-Dixon, Krista. “Weighting for equality.” Herizons Summer 2003: 26. Academic OneFile. Gale. University of Delaware Morris Library. 21 April 2008.

In this article Lisa Bavington, a former member of the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB), explains how being a female athlete is empowering yet during her experience as a female bodybuilder she felt restricted by gender.

Steiner, Wendy. “Lost in Amazonia.” The Nation 15 May 2000: 25+. Academic OneFile. Gale. University of Delaware Morris Library. 21 April 2008.

In the article, author Wendy discusses the athletic female’s ability to advance the feminist movement. She describes the female body as a work of art that can symbolize both strength and beauty, through the female bodybuilder.