Women Who Represent “The Tip of The Spear” need to stick together

By Bill Dobbins
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Bodybuilding, Physique, Figure, Fitness and Bikini at the 2014 Ms. Olympia

There were no cells phones.  The Internet was just for academia and the government.  Fax machines were the exciting new innovation.  Arnold Schwarzenegger was still competing in bodybuilding and trying to establish a movie career.  And a few contests were being held that featured beautiful women in bikinis and high heels who had exercised and dieted to create physiques with a little bit of muscularity and definition.

It was 1977 and the idea of women developing their muscles for primarily aesthetic purposes has just being born.

he 1980 “Miss Olympia” prejudging – closed to public. Winner Rachel MicLish in white suit, dark hair.  

IFBB Historian for Women’s Bodybuilding Steve Wennerstrom was there writing articles about these women from the very start.  “But the birth of women’s bodybuilding did not happen by chance.” he writes.  “The primary architect was Henry McGhee – an employee of the Downtown Canton YMCA – who carried a strong belief that women should share the opportunity of displaying their physiques and the results of their weight training the way men had done for years. These contests bore no relation to a conventional beauty pageant – and when an Ohio woman named Gina LaSpina won his first event in 1977, it was clear by her lean muscular physique that the women of bodybuilding would be very different from any prior event where bikini-clad females had taken the stage in a judging format. “

Lenda Murray, Iris Kyle and Yaxeni Oriquen – FBBs are the ultimate expression of aesthetic female muscle.

By 1979 women’s events were taking place across the country offering titles such as Ms. Western America, ‘Best in the World’ and the 1st Women’s World Bodybuilding Championships. Meanwhile, contests at the local, state and regional levels also began to spring up nationwide.

Winners of these early events such as Lisa Lyon, Stacey Bentley, Kay Baxter, Laura Combes and Rachel McLish, Wennerstrom explains, gained rapid notoriety and were sought after for numerous appearances on television. Shows such as David Susskind, Phil Donahue, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, 20/20, Good Morning America, and Real People all hurried to book what were then recognized as female bodybuilders as the sport exploded on the national scene. Mainstream magazines and newspapers as well as the bodybuilding and fitness industry publications of the time all included stories about these pioneering women and their new found fascination with developing muscle.

BB has always produced extremely attractive muscle-glamor women like Penny Price and Tonya Knight.

Both the National Physique Committee and the International Federation of Bodybuilders began officially recognized bodybuilding for women competitions in 1980.  The competitors at the Ms. Olympia did not wear high heels (which had been the case in earlier competitions) and they flexed and hit muscle poses (forbidden in many earlier events).  The fact that many still looked at bodybuilding for women as some kind of beauty pageant is clear when it is noted that the first Ms. Olympia was actually called the “Miss Olympia” at the time.

Even the biggest rand most muscular of those very early women bodybuilders would not seem to be that extreme by today’s standards.  However, at the time many of these who seem not  nearly as muscular as today’s pro figure competitors were disparaged and castigated as threats to the culture and to our “cherished ideals of womanhood.”  It could get pretty awful.  I see news footage from the 1960s about the anger and hatred people expressed toward the idea of integration.  I wonder how those individuals feel today about their past behavior.  I sometimes have the same thoughts about those who so vehemently opposed many of the pioneer female bodybuilders.  Are they sorry now?  Or have they managed to rationalize away any guilt or regrets?

Kay Baxter was slightly ahead of her time in terms of muscle, and suffered criticism as a result.

I have written elsewhere about the gradual development of the size and muscularity of women bodybuilders in the 1980s and 1990s and how the sport eventually  evolved into fitness and figure – and subsequently physique and fit bikini.  Many don’t fully recognize that all these categories really just represent variations of the same basic activity.  That is, all these women are athletes who do train using the principles of the progressive-resistance bodybuilding method and a diet system developed by generations of competition physique competitors with the intention of sculpting their muscles and changing their body composition.  The body itself doesn’t know whether your intention is to be a bodybuilder or to compete in some other category of muscle contests.  It has no idea if you are an athlete trying to improve your performance by becoming stronger and leaner, if you are a model or an actress trying to shape up and look better or if you are basically trying to improve how you look and feel by getting in better shape.

Of course, the federations are composed of individual promoters of competitions and events and their goal is to maximize success in terms of attracting competitors, selling tickets and increasing income.  They could see there were many women who liked developing and showing off their bodies but who lacked the genetics or desire to compete in the sport of female bodybuilding – which can be incredibly demanding and difficult.  The promoters realized they could create female muscle events with different standards than those of bodybuilding and attract more and a wider range of women competitors.  The more bodies on stage in any event the more money could be made and the more fans, friends and family would buy tickets.  The result is so many categories in amateur NPC events that you frequently see prejudging starting at 9am and going on to late afternoon, with (except for the bodybuilders) what seems like an endless parade of “quarter turn to the right” posing.

ompetitors in physique do modified FBB poses – like double biceps with open hands.

But just as there is no show business without the business, if promoters can’t make a profit there are not going to be competitions.  While watching so many competitors parade on and off stage d during a contest, it should be noted that the fact that there are so many women in so many parts of the world who want to train and diet to compete is a clear sign there has been a revolution.  In 1977 there were only a handful of women interested in muscle contests.  Now there are legions.  And having so many different categories and height and weight classes creates an opportunity for many, many women to get involved who would never be able to (or desire) to compete in actual bodybuilding.

But all these women have something common.  They train with weights, cycle their workouts, hit each body part with the appropriate exercises; they go on extreme diets to create impressive levels of muscular development, muscularity and definition.  That makes them all some kind of bodybuilder, whatever they call the competition.

Competitive bodybuilding satisfies the general definition of sport, in that it measures an extreme of physical activity and performance and is progressive in that competitors get better over time.  Categories like fitness, figure and fit bikini are specialized beauty contests in which participants are measured by aesthetic standards that are deliberately less than the physical extreme which can be achieved.

There is also bodybuilding as an exercise system, used to increase performance in sports (football, basketball, tennis, golf, whatever) and bodybuilding used to create a body that looks and feels better, that is strong, has better shape and leaner body composition.  Again, despite so many different potential goals, the basic system of training and diet is based on methods developed by generations of serious bodybuilders by trial and error over the decades.

igure competitors have different genetics and goals – but do the same exercises and diet as FBBs.

In fact, all of the women who compete in bodybuilding, fitness, figure, physique, fit bikini, body fitness or whatever the category have so much in common they constitute a Sisterhood of Muscle.  They face the same added difficulties women have in developing their bodies due to the nature of the female body and it’s biochemistry.  They often encounter the same obstacles from friends, family and people in general who resist the idea of women “going too far” in terms of muscle development and definition. They are also often surprised at the degree to which their muscles become the objects of fetish by (mostly) men, which can be off-putting to many.

Any of these women in any category are liable to find themselves facing opposition if their genetics and efforts create a degree of development that exceeds what is expected.  They are told they are “too big” or “too muscular” by judges.  Even if they are relatively small competitors in fit bikini.  So they find themselves having to do excessive cardio and starve away their shape in order to conform to standards that they don’t like, that the fans don’t necessarily like but which federation officials have decided are necessary to keep thins from “going too far.”

it bikini is a specialized beauty contest that involves women who do at least some training and diet.

Problems of being “too muscular” are not confined to various categories of competition.  The industry magazines seem to have collectively decided not to publish photos or promote women they have decided are “too much.”  Instead of publicizing the many absolutely gorgeous champions of all types, they more often run photos of interchangeable models in thongs – a strange strategy in an age of free porn, in which which that kind of mild sex appeal gets swamped by huge amounts of erotic content.  And in which celebrity is one of the few subjects likely to draw attention so images of largely unknown models are not likely to draw much attention.

Many models also run into problems when agents and casting people feel that any kind of muscularity – a little bit of biceps, triceps or deltoid definition – disqualifies you from mainstream molding jobs.  Look at the major fitness-oriented magazines and you’ll see the women featured are usually lean and fit but show little sign of having done any real work in the gym.  Various parts of the culture proceed at different speeds – so there is often a disconnect between how things are and how people think they are.  Publishers, art directors, agents and the like can often be out of touch with what people themselves like and expect.

iana Dennis – From the very beginning, muscle competition for women has emphasized the art of the female physique.

Nonetheless, accepted or not, every woman who does progressive resistance exercise and follows a bodybuilding-type diet shares a great deal in common – both in terms of the beneficial results and the likely opposition.  They are a Sisterhood of Muscle and as such should support each other across the board.  Keep in mind, most of the general public doesn’t really understand the fine distinctions between one category and other.  They see fitness or figure competitors and think they are looking at bodybuilders.  If you have muscle but are not a competitive bodybuilder, you say negative things about bodybuilders, be aware that much of the audience sees you as a bodybuilder and responds accordingly.

he federations have no professional public relations, so the general public hardly knows these supermodels exist.

One real problem nowadays is that neither the NPC nor the IFBB have full-time, professional public relations so the outside world has no real idea that the women of this Sisterhood exists.  They have been brainwashed to think that any degree of muscle they see on women is likely the result of anabolic drug use – knowing nothing about differences in genetic potential and the huge effectiveness of bodybuilding-type training and diet pursued by talented individual on an intense and consistent basis over time.  Or that muscles on women are simply unnatural.  So women who should be celebrated as the Supermodels of the 21st Century are largely ignored by the general public.  You see lots of fitness experts on the Today show, but not Ms. Olympia Fitness.

This situation reminds me of past developments in art history.  The the late 1800s, a group of artists in France began breaking with traditional styles and creating works in which they use paint to convey the”impressions” they got from the way light interacted with the world.  They were rejected by the art establishment.  The term used to describe them, not in a positive way, was “Impressionists.”  They later turned out to be some of the most popular painters in all of history, their works worth millions.  So much for the establishment and the ability of critics. Sometimes they just don’t get it.

Bodybuilders like Joanne Lee are clearly the extreme tip of the spear when it comes to aesthetic female muscle.

In this modern age we are witnessing a revolution in the ability of people to create stronger, leaner, more fit and healthier bodies.  The method for doing this was invented on a trial-and-error basis by several decades of competitive bodybuilders, and gradually refined until it is now the most effective and efficient system of physical training and developing ever devised.  Starting in the late 1970s, women started applying these methods with increasing seriousness and intensity.  Nowadays there are gyms all over the country and the world are full of competitive athletes, models, actors, professional people, housewives and just about everyone else “pumping iron” in one form or another to make themselves look and feel better.

But the “tip of the spear” – female bodybuilders and the most advanced female competitors in other categories – still encounter resistance to what they do and what they want to achieve.  To the point where the continued existence of pro bodybuilding for women seems to be increasingly threatened.  But other women in other categories are constantly facing pressure to be less than their best for mostly arbitrary reason.   All of these “fit and fabulous females” represent a Sisterhood of Muscle and need to stick together, to support each other and each other’s ambitions.  Benjamin Franklin said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately”  Women with muscle need to have each other’s backs.   In unity there is strength.

Book signing for Modern Amazons at the Taschen store in Beverly Hills

Modern-Amazons-cover002 copy

Signed and Dedicated by Bill Dobbins



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