Bodybuilding for women is a shockingly novel development in our world. “Something new under the sun.” And a phenomenon that has deep implications to our view of the female body, sexuality, gender and a host of sociological, philosophical and health implications.
As women bodybuilders have continued to evolve and create more muscular bodies since they came onto the scene in the late 1970s, they have also continued to be the subject of controversy. Pumping Iron author Charles Gaines calls these women a “new archetype,” something never before seen in the whole history of human culture. So it stands to reason these women will encounter criticism and opposition. “The girls,” as the late Ben Weider, President of the International Federation of Bodybuilders, called them – are just getting “too big.”
But as the story of the Ugly Duckling has taught us, ducks are ducks and geese are geese and each needs to be looked at using different standards. Competition bodybuilding for women isn’t supposed to be like anything else, should not be evaluated by standards and aesthetics that don’t apply. Like it or don’t like it, it is what it is and is not something else, or something people would prefer it to be.
So with that in mind, what exactly is bodybuilding and what is it all about?
The word bodybuilding tends to be used with many different meanings. There is certainly the sport, where highly trained and developed athletes are evaluated on stage by judges according to long established but evolving standards. Bodybuilding is also an exercise system. Just as auto racing has long helped develop the technology of the cars we drive on the road. competition bodybuilders have created and invented a way of stimulating muscular development and the ability to diet away body fat that is the most effective and efficient ever devised.
Bodybuilding training is based on something people have known for thousands of years: When you exercise your muscles against resistance, progressively increasing that resistance ever time, the muscles get bigger and stronger. The ancient Chinese knew about this. It is obvious the Greeks of the Classic Period did as well. But it wasn’t until modern bodybuilders came along in the mid-20th century and began to discover the most effective ways of using progressive resistance training that we saw the emergence of the modern physique like those of Steve Reeves, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronnie Coleman – as well as Rachel McLish, Cory Everson and Lenda Murray.
Bodybuilding training is fundamentally the same whether you are planning on being a pro competitor, are an athlete trying to improve sports performance, an actor or model whose body is an important aspect of how they make a living or anyone else who want to develop a stronger, better looking and healthier body. Nowadays, virtually all athletes spend time in the weight room. Including Formula I race drivers. The only male action hero in the movies without a muscular body is Bruce Willis. Female movie stars are prolonging their careers as leading ladies into their 40s or 50s with the help of personal trainers. People can all this weight training or resistance training or whatever – but if it is done correctly it is bodybuilding, and if not done according to the principles of bodybuilding training involves a lot of wasted time and effort.
But a fundamental aspect of all sport and physical activity is genetics. Genetics is what determines how tall or short you are, you skin color, hair and eye type and everything else that concerns your physical make up. You can alter a great deal about your body, for better or worse, depending on what you subject it to. But (at least at this point) you genetic inheritance is an ultimate limiting factor. If you don’t believe in genetics, try getting taller.
There are those who think that women developing a lot of muscle is somehow not “natural.” Or not feminine. Or unattractive. Or just inappropriate. But it has become clear that there is a Bell Curve when it comes to muscle development, whether for men or women. A few are muscle geniuses and can build huge, strong muscles quickly and with much less effort than others. At the other end are individuals with very little muscle and for whom developing muscle is almost impossible. Most of the rest are somewhere along a curve between these two extremes.
There are women who are muscle geniuses just as there are men. They have always existed in the human population. They were important during the majority of human history in which most people were peasant farmers and engaged in a lot of hard work on a daily basis. A strong, strapping farm wife was a great asset to the survival of the family. But this talent for muscle among women as only become obvious in modern times in which women have become competitive athletes in large numbers. And especially in the past several decades in which women have begun training for and competing in bodybuilding.
But bodybuilding as a sport has come under a lot of fire because of the steroid issue. Sport allows all sorts of technological aids to improve the performance of athletes. Special suits for swimming, hi-tech tennis rackets and golf clubs, specially engineered shoes and running tracks themselves. Athletes get sports massages and make use of mediations like cortisone. They can take free amino acids to increase protein availability, in spite of the fact that such things do not exist in nature. But they are forbidden to alter the hormone balance of the body by increasing the level of various male hormones.
The public has been misinformed since the 60s that anabolic steroids are (1) more dangerous than they are and (2) more effective than they actually are. All this anti-steroid fervor is pretty much moot nowadays since it has been demonstrated it is quite easy for relatively small companies to design drugs that don’t show up in tests. That horse has left the barn, that ship has sailed. But people still believe that these advance physiques they see on stage in competitions for both men and women are largely or primarily the result of drug use. That is just not the case. Taking anabolic drugs, specialized supplements, protein powder and the like can certainly increase the body’s response to weight training. But they don’t change basic genetic inheritance.
Let’s take a look at some of the specialized genetics it takes to be a female or male bodybuilder. You need the right type, number and distribution of muscle cells. The appropriate skeletal structure and proportions. Ability to develop all the various muscle of the body with no glaring weak areas. Muscle shape and proportion. Length of muscle belly. A metabolism that turns food into mass more than energy. Number and distribution of fat cells. The ability to burn off fat evenly all over the body. Plus the psychology that allows for years of regular, continuous and intense training and diet – which very few people seem to be able to do.
Steroids have very little effect on most of this. They don’t change muscle shape or proportions. They don’t alter the length of muscle belly. They increase the rate of protein synthesis and speed up recovery from exercise. But anyone spending time in serious gyms or at lower level bodybuilding events knows very well that really talented bodybuilders are rare but individuals taking steroids aren’t. If the drugs worked that well the world would be full of Ms. or Mr. Olympia contenders. And that is not the case.
So it seems to me that the main opposition to modern bodybuilding for women is that people simply don’t want to accept the idea of really big muscles on women, no matter how aesthetic they make look. So there is a trend toward categories like fitness, figure and fit bikini. An emphasis on attractive women with athletic bodies but not nearly as developed as bodybuilders. However, these competitions are clearly high specialized beauty contests rather than sports. A lot of people, including some who are officials in the organizations in charge of these competitions, want to replace the sport of female bodybuilding with various kinds of beauty pageants.
This is so clearly a case of gender discrimination that it amazes me how rarely anybody points this out. Does anyone criticize Serena Williams for having a serve as powerful as many men? Does powerlifting try to keep women out who are stronger than 95% of untrained males? Are female boxers barred from the ring because they hit too hard? No – and this doesn’t happen because these women athletes are not primarily viewed as sex objects. And muscle women are.
There was a group of judges in bodybuilding for men in the past who were gay and their scoring was based on which competitors they wanted to have sex with or were actively trying to have sex with. They were gotten rid of, not because they were gay, but because they were not willing to judge as objectively as they could. But nowadays women competitors are all judges not he basis of sexual attractiveness, by both male and female judges. There are wonderful competitors in fitness, figure and bikini. Gorgeous women with fantastic, athletic bodies. But they are involved in a kind of beauty contest it is quite clear. Look at a bikini event. The women are asked to face away from the judges and stick out their rear ends. They don’t even pull their hair off the back to show back muscle. What you see is hair, legs and a very attractive ass.
But for too many people, women bodybuilders look too much – like bodybuilders. They way too extreme for all but a few to view them as sexual objects. As one magazine contributor wrote, they are so big they “don’t make my dick hard.” That pretty much sums up the whole issue. Whereas appreciative fans see these women as living sculptures, as examples of the extremes of aesthetic muscular development, as physical wonders who have revealed the capacity of some to develop muscle, muscular definition and sculptural beauty – others are only interested in whether or not they’d like to have sex with them.
In other words, whether they know it or not, most of those who oppose the modern, elite pro female bodybuilder are simply sexist linkers. Or they are themselves females whose own view of what the female body should look like is threatened by the existence of these different body morphology.
Certainly, it is amazing that in spite of the vast audience on the Internet for elite female muscle the magazine generally don’t feature them (even champion fitness and figure), sponsors ignore them and the Arnold Weekend has dropped FBBs from competition while retaining events like judo. Too many ignore the evidence of the existence of a vast fan base and pretend nobody is interested in elite female muscle. But in fact female bodybuilding is extreme in the way opera is extreme. Opera singers explore both the power and the beauty of the human voice. But while people appreciate opera, most don’t attend operas or financially support them. Yet nobody suggests that opera should be replaced by shows featuring performers like Beyonce. Opera, pop and rock music, Broadway show tunes and rap are all separate and distinct musical forms. You can like or not like any or all of them, in any combination. It is a matter of taste and personal preference.
It is the same with female muscle. You can prefer or not prefer bodybuilding, fitness, figure, bikini or physique – any or all of them, in any combination. You might like Amazing Amazons and other female athletes who don’t fit into any competition category. But if you try to limit female bodybuilding, tell the competitors they can’t get “too big” or “too muscular,” you are violating the very nature of the sports and engaged in gender discrimination. Like or don’t like what you want. Just don’t screw this up for the rest of us.
With Lenda Murray – It’s good to be the photographer.
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