BODYBUILDING FOR WOMEN:
SOMETHING NEW UNDER THE SUN
By Bill Dobbins
It can hardly be a revolution if everyone agrees
with you at the beginning. Can it?
IN THE BEGINNING
Women who develop the muscles of their bodies for primarily aesthetic purposes is something brand new in our culture. Charles Gaines, author of Pumping Iron, call this kind of body a “new archetype” and points out that this physical ideal has never before existed in all of history. Aesthetically muscular men, of course. Look at Greek statues or the work of Michelangelo. But look at the history of art in all cultures as far back as you want and you will not see the equivalent of the modern female bodybuilder – or even the fitness and figure competitors, who represent an aesthetic that has evolved from bodybuilding but represent a less extreme level of development.
Ecclesiastes writes: What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. But there was nothing remotely like the physique of the modern female bodybuilder in existence in Biblical times. So it turns out there is, indeed, something new under the sun.
Lena Murray – 8 Times Ms. Olympia
I saw my first women’s bodybuilding competition in 1979, close to the very beginning of the sport. By today’s standards those women were not very big. They had a lot of “muscularity” because they relied on very strict diet to achieve maximum definition. But they had simply not been doing serious bodybuilding training long enough to create the kinds of results we are accustomed today. Even for the genetically gifted, whether you are talking about men or women, it takes a lot of years and considerable maturity to develop to the levels we see on stage today in pro bodybuilding contests.
At first the women were fairly well received. They looked sleek and athletic and the best ones were very attractive. So the physique federations gave them a lot of encouragement, they were featured in bodybuilding magazines and got attention from television and mainstream publications – including Sports Illustrated and Playboy.
But there were controversies even at that point. One magazine published an article called something like “Beauty and the Beast” illustrated with two photos of women bodybuilders with the intent of showing that one of the women was acceptably aesthetic while the other was too big and masculine. When you look at these photos today, the one bodybuilder hardly seems much more muscled than the other. The “beast” is just not as pretty and her waist is a little too thick. She lacks “symmetry,” which in bodybuilding-speak is a reference to the overall shape of the silhouette. But neither one of them is as developed as almost any champion fitness or figure competitor today.
I was the Founding Editor of Flex Magazine and from the beginning bodybuilding for women always seemed to me to be perfectly acceptable. Men and women both competed in golf, tennis, track, swimming, gymnastics and other sports and now they both competed in bodybuilding. Simple as that. But not everyone shared my view – especially as the women continued to develop over the next few years. My comment at the time was Everybody loves kittens but not everyone likes cats. It became obvious that as the women continued to evolve many people found the idea of aesthetically muscular women to be threatening, to violate their sense of physical morphology and/or gender identity.
I WAS FRAMED
I saw a great example of this when I took a number of my art prints to a framer to mount them for an exhibit. I was spending quite a lot of money but every time I brought in another photo the woman doing the framing couldn’t refrain from making critical and derogatory remarks about the bodies of my models. I soon found another framer. But her inability to control her comments demonstrated to me that the emotional reaction these bodies can cause can be very intense – so much so that somebody would rather cost themselves thousands of dollars rather than keep their opinions on the subject to themselves..
We live in a culture of burning babies – film at 11! and it is very difficult to get much of an emotional reaction from photos. The fact that my pictures could cause this kind of response demonstrated to me that this subject was an important and significant one with far reaching implications to the culture in terms of our perception and expectations regarding the female body and the possibilities for the athletic development of women’s bodies that had never before been contemplated in all of human history.
Certainly, I continue to believe, a subject worth exploring both in terms of photography and ideas.
MORE THAN JUST MUSCLES
People who see aesthetically developed muscular women for the first time have a variety of reactions. Some immediately think of them as looking “masculine.” This is understandable since the only examples most of us are accustomed to of muscular and defined bodies are those of men. There was a time when being a politician, lawyer or doctor were thought of as being masculine because very few women did or could aspire to practice those professions.
Bodies come in all sorts and varieties and there are certainly women with unattractive muscles and some who are highly androgenous. Take an ugly body and put muscles on it and you have an ugly muscular body (although it will probably look a lot better than it did originally). Take a beautiful body and add muscle to it using the right methods and techniques and the result is a beautiful muscular body.
But when you are dealing with a cultural phenomenon that is “something new under the sun” people can require a lot of experience and a lot of time to get used to it.
MUSCLE FEARS AND FETISH
Muscular women are often viewed at as objects of unusual sexual interest. There are a lot of men (and women) who are turned on by muscular women and so for some this interest becomes a fetish – where focusing to an abnormal degree on a woman’s muscles is absolutely necessary for sexual arousal. What I refer to as “flex your arms dear, I’m cumming.” There are officials in the physique federations who are of the opinion that the audience for the women is mostly made up of this kind of fan. But I don’t think so. Finding something attractive and developing a fetish for it are difference not just in degree but also in kind. For example, I find many of these women extremely attractive but I’ve never had a fetish for muscle. So I know this is possible.
There has been a lot of discussion about the controversies created by the existence of these aesthetically muscular women. How people are put off by what they see as a transgression involving the boundaries of gender and sexual roles. There is also the “monster” aspect of how humans view the human body. Notice how many Star Trek aliens and creatures in horror movies look like monstrous versions of human beings. I’m sure there is an evolutionary explanation of why we are programmed to fear and reject strange and distorted versions of human morphology. And with some people the sight of an elite, muscular female bodybuilder evidently sets off this primeval fear reaction.
POSITIVE ASPECTS OF FEMALE MUSCLE
But there are positive aspects to the development of this new kind of female body that are rarely appreciated. Take for example the aging process. I’ve read that the average person loses 50% of their lean body mass between the ages of 18 and 65. But that average person is not working out and paying attention to diet and nutrition. In actuality much of what we consider the aging process is mostly deterioration due to misuse or lack of use of the body. If you exercise the muscles – and the best method is bodybuilding – watch what and how much you eat and avoid bad health habits that accelerate apparent aging you end up with a situation in which “40 is the new 25” and female movie stars are able to play sexy parts as they continue to mature instead of automatically being cast as somebody’s grandmother.
Bodybuilding is a kind of time machine that prolongs youthful looks and body composition. Women who pursue a bodybuilding lifestyle get better as they get older, not worse, and can maintain a strong, shapely and youthful body for decades longer than was possible in the past. Back in the day a woman had to worry that her man would start looking around for her replacement as she hit the wall around 40. But if she stays in shape she will likely look better than the 25 year old men used to turn to as alternatives to aging wives.
This kind of training is also great for women in psychological terms. They become stronger, more physically capable, more independent and self-reliant. Their confidence and self-esteem is enhanced. This can cause women to question many of the limitations to the female role that society has always placed upon them. When the women in a society are confident and competent, when they become more productive as individuals, the entire culture is enhance in both social and economic terms.
BODYBUILDING: SPORT AND EXERCISE SYSTEM
Bodybuilding competition is a specialized activity. But bodybuilding as a method of exercise and diet is a wonderful invention, for both women and men, in terms of self-improvement, better health, slowing the aging process and overall improvement in the quality of life.
Bodybuilding is about the maximum aesthetic development of the muscle structure of the human body. Bodybuilding is the grand opera of the physique. Opera singers must have loud, strong voices – but they must be aesthetically pleasing as well. However, that aesthetic is that of opera and may or may not sound beautiful to somebody accustomed to hearing different kinds of music.
The bodybuilding physique must also be aesthetic but by the standards of bodybuilding – which have evolved over history in general and more specifically (in terms of bodybuilding competition) over the past four or five decades. The average person might or might not find the bodybuilding physique attractive but it is designed to conform to its own standard, not any other. These physiques are judged in terms of qualities like size, shape, symmetry, proportion, muscularity and definition. In the sport of bodybuilding judges also look for things like personal grooming, skin tone, tanning and how well the competitors present themselves on stage, including doing “mandatory” poses and their own posing routines.
I wrote the original rules for women competition for both the pro and amateur women competitors. The first thing in these rules was the statement that all the rules for men should apply to the women unless there is a specific reason to make an exception. For example, cultural norms dictate that women wear tops and men don’t. Otherwise, bodybuilding is bodybuilding. Many accused me of wanting the women to look like men. My response was that the judges now the difference between the male and female physique and are capable of making aesthetic judgments without being given a set of guidelines regarding “femininity.” That the judges didn’t need to emphasize this aspect of the contest but to be urged to focus instead on whether a given competitor was a good bodybuilder or not.
This turned out to be prophetic as over the years too many officials have ignored evaluating the physique in terms of traditional and established standards in favor of emphasizing femininity and sex appeal.
“THE GIRLS” KEEP GETTING BIGGER
The nature of bodybuilding is that when genetically talented people do the right kind of exercises with enough intensity and consistency over a long enough period of time they are going to continue to develop bigger muscles. This is true whether they are males or females. Trained men are going to be bigger, stronger and faster than comparably trained women – but highly developed women are usually much bigger, stronger and faster than untrained or lesser-trained males.
So during the 1980s “the girls” (as the late IFBB President Ben Weider used to call them) started to develop some quite remarkable and, to some, very threatening, levels of muscle. But bodybuilding was fortunate in have women to represent it like champions Rachel McLish, the first Ms. Olympia and Cory Everson – who was usually the biggest woman on stage but was blonde and beautiful and didn’t scare many people. But other women during this period did not fare as well because their looks did not conform to a conventional idea of what females should look like. It used to break my heart to see one after another of these competitors score lower in contests than they deserved, competition after competition, with many eventually dropping out of the sport.
Bodybuilding for anyone is tough. But women have to go through all the rigors that men do, have less body weight so dieting to get super ripped is that much more difficult, plus they have had to deal with all the obstacles of being pioneers in something that many people, including their friends and families, looked askance at. And the bigger the women got (and looking back from a contemporary perspective they weren’t really all that big) the more opposition they faced.
But the 1980s remained a relatively benign decade for female bodybuilding. It wasn’t until the mid and late 1990s that social and political pressure started to really take it’s toll. The 1980s began with Rachel, continued with beauties like Cory Everson and Anja Langer and in the 1990s we would see the beauty parade continue with the likes of Lenda Murray, Sharon Bruneau, Lesa Lewis, Juliette Bergmann, Cathy LeFrancois and others – destined to be enshrined as legends in the pantheon of the sport of bodybuilding for women.
THE RACHEL MCLISH EFFECT
Bodybuilding for women was fortunate to have as its first major professional champion somebody as attractive as Rachel Mclish. Rachel won the first Ms. Olympia contest in 1980 and captured the title again in 1982, When Rachel showed up prior to prejudging at that first Ms. Olympia event the late pro bodybuilder Mike Mentzer was moved to exclaim, “What a thoroughbred!”
Rachel was an example of most early women in the sport in that she had really only been doing serious weight training for a few years – not long enough to build what we now recognize as serious bodybuilding muscle. But she was great at promoting women’s bodybuilding, appearing on countless TV shows and magazine covers and layouts.
Publisher Joe Weider, who had early-on recognized Arnold Schwarzenegger as a terrific promotional vehicle for bodybuilding, understood Rachel’s appeal and soon her photos and articles about her were ubiquitous in Muscle & Fitness and Flex magazines. Rachel was to female bodybuilding what Arnold Palmer had been to golf, Billie jean King to tennis and Nadia Comaneci to gymnastics.
Rachel went on to publish books and star in a number of movies. The only low point (in my opinion) in her career was the way she was portrayed in the movie Pumping Iron II: The Women. The producers had her fly all over, including a trip to Asia, prior to competing in a contest designed to be showcased in the film that was unlike any other event before or since. It was cast as a movie rather than featuring competitors who qualified to compete by their previous achievements. There were amateurs and professionals in the contest, even a model who was not a physique competitor at all. There were judges who had never even seen a woman’s contest before – including Pumping Iron author Charles Gaines (who appears in the movie but is ot identified). The producers also brought in Bev Francis for the competition. Bev was a champion powerlifter, with big muscles but not (at the time) much in the way of bodybuilding aesthetics.
THE GOLDEN AGE AND KILLING THE GOLDEN GOOSE
Cory Everson was a lifetime athlete, heptathlon competitor who came into the sport along with her bodybuilder husband Jeff. She was taller than most of the other women, blond and beautiful and so she was deemed “acceptable” by many, even though toward the end of her career she was usually the biggest competitor on the stage. But people tend to accept big and muscular women as long as they are attractive enough. Consider how popular someone like Serena Williams is, even though she is a giant compared to the vast majority of women bodybuilders. WWF star Chyna was twice on the cover of Playboy – because she was categorized as a “wrestler,” not as a female bodybuilder.
Cory came along in the late 1980s, and her time and the next few years can be considered the high point of bodybuilding for women. The competitors on the scene included the likes of Lenda Murray, Anja Langer, Sharon Bruneau, Dayana Cadeau, Valentina Chepiga, Lesa Lewis, Cathy LeFrancois and other outstanding beauties. The federations had not yet become to attempt to severely restrict the development of the women by guidelines and rules adjustments. There was a lot of coverage and layouts of the women in the magazines. Prize money in the major contests had not yet been cut and limited.
But during the 1990s and into the millennium all of the above changed. Almost none of the subsequent decline was due to lack of audience interest. Any time spent on Google can confirm this. Instead, there was almost a perfect storm of irresponsible and ignorant decisions on the part of those whose responsibility was to look out and promote these women (“You was my brother, Charley. You was supposed to look out for me!). They haven’t killed the golden goose, but they certainly have wounded it. And in doing so they have cost themselves a lot of money, although they either don’t understand or don’t care. You can be a genius and become a bodybuilding official, but that’s not a job requirement.
So while the competitors in female bodybuilding are better than ever, the sport itself is struggling. But bodybuilding in general have always continued to train, diet and try to perfect their physiques in spite of opposition and in times when there was little or no money in being a bodybuilding competitor. So vaudeville may be gone forever, the South may never rise again, but don’t count out bodybuilding for women.
Female bodybuilding will endure and in the future history will look back and wonder in amazement why there was so much opposition to this sport.