Bodybuilding for women seems to have reached a crisis point in its development, at least at the pro level.  Female bodybuilding has been removed from the Ms. International competition and this seems to be a threat that extends to other IFBB pro events.  The International Federation of Bodybuilders seems to feel there is only an audience for the women who compete in bodybuilding-based beauty contest like fitness, figure or fit bikini.

So there is recognition of sport for the men, some kind of  beauty pageant for the women.  How amazing this is in an age of emphasis on equal opportunity and rights for women!  If bodybuilding had ever managed to become an Olympic sport it would now be in trouble with the IOC, which has very strong gender equality policies.  It is difficult to think of a similar example of gender discrimination anywhere else in organized athletics.

Why is this happening, will it continue – and what can be done to restore some sort of reasonable support for  bodybuilding for both women and men?

Of course, for somebody who was present at the beginning of bodybuilding for women in the late 1970s, it seems the sport has already been around for a very long time.  But in historic terms that is simply not the case.  Pumping Iron author Charles Gaines calls this phenomenon a “new archetype,” and points out that women who develop their muscles for primarily aesthetic purposes have never existed before in any time or place.  It is, what I call: “Something New Under The Sun.”

Ms. Olympia 1980 - In the beginning was definition.
Ms. Olympia 1980 – In the beginning was definition.

So looking back at the sweep of recorded history, this period of 30 to 40 years is just an eye blink.  And given the challenges women’s bodybuilding presents to our preconceptions regarding the female body, gender identification, sexuality and many other well-accepted elements of your culture, it is no wonder these women have encountered opposition.  It is actually amazing that the sport, and other areas of modern life in which female muscularity has become so prevalent, have not had to deal with more obstacles than has been the case.

Female bodybuilding was well accepted in the beginning because the first women involved were not that big or muscular.  (In fact, it is amazing to look back and see how relatively small the competitors were who were criticized for being too big!)  Most had been training seriously for very short periods of time and top bodybuilders today, women and men both, have generally been working out intensely for a decade or two.  It takes time to fully develop a physique. So the earliest competitors displayed comparatively small muscles and mostly displayed a lot of definition – achieved by hard dieting.  So they were not that far from the norm of female beauty and most could accept them as attractive – and sexually appealing. So many of these early FBBs were invited to be interviewed on TV shows, were featured on magazine covers and featured in advertisements. Bodybuilder Lisa Lyon was featured in Playboy.

Lisa Lyon was featured in Playboy and photographed for a book by Robert Mapplethorpe.
Lisa Lyon was featured in Playboy and photographed for a book by Robert Mapplethorpe.

But when anyone with sufficient genetics works out in the gym long enough and hard enough they get keep getting bigger.  So female bodybuilders gradually increased in size and muscularity over the 1980s.  (So have fitness and figure competitors, by the way.) And while everyone loves kittens, not everybody likes cats.  So the more developed the women became, the more criticism they became subject to.  Of course, several things mitigated against this.  There was the quality and beauty of many of the top champions.  It is hard to reject out of hand women like Rachel McLish, Cory Everson, Anja Langer, Lenda Murray, Sharon Bruneau and others.  This was not the case with a number of the other women, who looked less like “cover model” material.

But look at the difference in development between Rachel McLish and Lenda Murray in just 10 years and the degree of evolution in muscle size and muscularity that was going on is evident. Rachel didn’t look as muscular at that point as most figure competitors do today.

Joe Weider was quick to promote female bodybuilding from the beginning.
Joe Weider was quick to promote female bodybuilding from the beginning.
Publisher Joe Weider and Ms. Olympia Rachel McLish
Publisher Joe Weider and                                    Ms. Olympia Rachel McLish

Another factor was the magazine coverage given these women by Joe Weider.  Weider began featuring female bodybuilders in Flex and Muscle & Fitness very early on and created the Ms. Olympia to give them a world pro championship in which to compete starting in 1980. The other industry magazines generally followed his lead and advertisers began using them for ads and personal appearances.

This positive evolution of bodybuilding for women ran into more serious trouble in the 1990s.  This happened for a variety of reasons – which require an extensive article on their own to fully explain.  But making a long story short, IFBB President Ben Weider was determined that bodybuilding should become an Olympic sport, was convinced (not for any good reason, I believe) that the existence of the pro women was preventing the IOC from accepting the sport.  In addition, the individual in charge of pro bodybuilding for the IFBB had been promoting both the Mr. and Ms. Olympia, getting sponsors for and profiting from both.  When this changed and he became just the promoter of the Mr. Olympia, but still remained in charge of pro bodybuilding, suddenly sponsors and money for the women became difficult to find.

The success of FBB was often evaluated on the basis of how "attractive" the champions were seen to be.
Bev Francis, Lenda Murray, Iris Kyle.  FBB has been largely evaluated on the basis of how “attractive” the champions were seen to be.

As a result, sponsors, magazines and IFBB officials became convinced that pro bodybuilding for women was “dying,” and proceeded to act on this self-fulfilling prophecy by withdrawing promotional, financial and other support from the women.

Of course, we have seen the continuing explosion of the Internet in the past 15 years – and if you go online and search the terms bodybuilding for men and bodybuilding for women you will find thousands more references to the women then the men.  Go to the Olympia or the Arnold expos and see how much attention the top women bodybuilders get from the attendees and you can see the degree of devotion they inspire.

Muscle women are alive and well on the Web and their fans and supporters exist all over the world, even in countries in which bodybuilding for women doesn’t exist.  Mark Twain was quoted as saying, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”  The same could be said for women’s bodybuilding. The federations, magazines and sponsors seem unwilling to accept what a large and devoted fan base FBB has – or to financially take advantage of the existence of these supporters.

Of course, what is true for the pro is not the same for the amateurs.  The IFFB is the most significant sanctioning organization for amateur bodybuilding and its Pro Division is a small part of the overall organization, run by a relatively few officials and consisting of a few dozen competitors.  The IFBB international amateur contests (its affiliate in the US is the National Physique Committee) are doing well world wide.  Each year the IFBB World Women’s Amateur Championships attracts hundreds of women, in all categories from all over the world.  In fact, the most exciting women bodybuilders in the Pro Division nowadays often tend to be champions from this event.

Unlike the pros, amateur female bodybuilders compete in weight divisions.
Unlike the pros, amateur female bodybuilders compete in weight divisions.  So smaller competitors are not at a disadvantage.

If the IFBB Pro Division ceases to sanction bodybuilding for women in the future, national and international amateur contests will likely continue.  And somebody will likely step up and fill the vacuum in pro competition, taking advantage of the fact that so many thousands of competitors are still out there and have many hundreds of thousands of fans.  Somebody will see money being left on the table and will step up.

But until or before that happens, what can be done to insure the health of pro bodybuilding for women in the near future?  What changes in the rules, organization and policies will make this sport seem more attractive and economically viable to federations, officials and sponsors?

Women at the amateur level compete in weight divisions, giving smaller but highly developed women a fair chance to compete on a level playing field.  As it is now, there is (usually) only one weight category, meaning the smallest competitor has to stand side by side with the biggest.  What sport in which body size is significant is organized like this?  The lightweight boxing winner is not required to fight the heavyweight.  The smallest weightlifters or Olympic wrestlers don’t compete directly against the largest.

Many criticize bodybuilding for women because the champions are just too big, hard and muscular.  (Some say the same about the men.)  They want rule changes to insure the women are smaller and show less muscularity.  So the IFBB has created a category called physique in which the rules seem to be: look kind of like a bodybuilder but not so extreme, not so muscular and not so defined.  And do biceps poses with open hands.  How can a judge use a standard that simply calls for “not too much” without being specific about what that is or looks like?  How can a competitor know how to prepare?

Juliette Bergmann, Dayana Cadeau, Valentina Chepiga, Cathy LeFrancoois - lightweights rule!
Juliette Bergmann, Dayana Cadeau, Valentina Chepiga, Cathy Lefrancois – lightweights rule!

Of course, when pro bodybuilding has featured a lightweight division at contests like the Ms. Olympia and Ms. International, we saw the emergence of champions like Juliette Bergmann (who came out of retirement because of this), Dayana Cadeau, Valentina Chepiga and Cathy Lefrancois – all beautiful, muscular but considerably smaller than the biggest competitors.  The amateurs manage fine using weight divisions.  Why not just continue this into the pro division?

It seems to me that everything should be done to increase the entertainment value of the finals presentations.  Yes, it still needs to be bodybuilding and an emphasis should be placed on display of the physique.  But a wider use of props should be encouraged, more emphasis on creativity in the routine and less restriction on costumes.  For example, women bodybuilders are instructed to wear suit bottoms that provide a lot of coverage of the glutes. But given that the glutes are a highly developed, very muscular body part on pro FBBs, this restriction could be relaxed.  Displaying super-muscular and ripped female glutes to a bodybuilding audience does not have the erotic impact it would if you were dealing with – for example – strippers.

Costumes and props in bodybuilding posing could increase the entertainment value.Costumes and props in bodybuilding posing could increase the entertainment value.

So I recommend the posing in the finals be treated more like entertainment – routines, props, costumes, whatever it takes to add to the enjoyment the audience gets from the show.

At the 2014 Ms. Olympia I was concerned that the bodybuilding lineup was to limited and consisted so much of the same few women who seem always to be on stage.  Qualifying for the Ms. Olympia is very difficult.  In other categories, the IFBB gives out pro cards like candy.  With so many outstanding women bodybuilders around the world, a way should be found to get more of them on stage during major championships.

The glutes and hamstrings are a very impressive area on an in-shape female bodybuilder.  Like Debi Laszewski.
The glutes and hamstrings are a very impressive area on an in-shape female bodybuilder. Like Debi Laszewski.

How to achieve  this?  Perhaps by issuing invitations to excellent competitors.  The Ms. International has always operated as a invitational event.  The Ms. Olympia and other contests should follow suit.  Certainly, have qualifying events that insure successful competitors can find a place on a pro stage.  But include more competitors invited by the promoter and the IFBB.  Have a contest with far more qualified women in the lineup – and organized in two weight division to give smaller bodybuilders a way to compete against bodybuilders of relatively equal size.

Also, with so many fantastic FBBs all over the world, as seen in the IFBB World Women’s Amateur Championships, do what is necessary to recruit them to IFBB contests – or hold more pro shows in Europe

I’ve written elsewhere about how problematic the physique division is – and will likely remain so.  My solution – in short form – would be to drop physique in favor of lightweight bodybuilding.  But if not, simply substitute the rules of lightweight bodybuilding for those vague and impossible to follow standards of physique.  Call it “physique” if you like, but have it actually consist of female bodybuilders under a certain weight limit – and let them be the best bodybuilders they can be, not left 6trying to figure out what “not too much” means in real life terms.

Physique - ill defined rules.  Why not just lightweight bodybuilding?
Physique – ill defined rules. Why not just lightweight bodybuilding?

The IFBB seems perfectly happy to give media and photo passes to  pro bodybuilding contests to individuals and organizations that have no intention of covering or promoting these women.  It is very discouraging for the competitors and fans when they see official federation photographers packed up their equipment and leaving when the pro bodybuilding women take the stage.

Any magazines or websites that cover female bodybuilding should be sure to get media passes, at least to make it possible for them to cover that category.  Those covering the women should be given backstage access, rather than just those currently allowed backstage – who will never publish any behind the scenes photos.  This media should also be able to cover meetings and weigh-ins, since they are likely to actually use material they get there of help promote the women, the promoter and the federations.

A rising tide lifts all boats.  More coverage all the categories would grow the significance and importance – and the income – of any federation.  The fact is, neither the IFBB pros or the NPC have any professional public relations representatives.  As a result, it isn’t only the bodybuilders who don’t receive any publicity.  The same is true of all of the women, fitness and figure included, who should rightfully be the Supermodels of the 21st Century but who remain largely unknown to the mainstream public.

These Ms. Olympia competitors are great - but there should be more of them.
These Ms. Olympia competitors are great – but there should be more of them.

The popularity of various types of sports and entertainment tends to run in cycles.  Pro wrestling was at a low point when Vince McMahon began promoting the WWF.  In the 1960s, pro basketball had a relatively small following (Wilt Chamberlin never had great paydays) while ticket sales were larger for track and field.  Pro golf is booming but audience interest in tennis has tended to wain. Women’s gymnastics in the Olympics generates more interest than do the men.

There is drama in a bodybuilding posedown missing from endless quarter turns.
There is entertainment and drama in a bodybuilding posedown missing from endless quarter turns.

Most people think of athletics as involving activities like running, jumping, throwing and the like.  Many don’t consider bodybuilding a sport at all, but I think it is not only a sport but is actually a fundamental sport.  Something that is a basic part of human nature. The desire to build big muscles and show them off by flexing has always existed and is the subject of illustrations going back thousands of years.  But, of course, this has always been confined to the male body rather than the female.

The a few exceptions, such as myths involved women warriors or Amazons, women have never concentrated on building maximum strength and big muscles.  This is indeed a new archetype.  But it comes about at a time when many cultural ideas regarding women are being transformed.

We have seen in modern times how quickly many of your cherished preconceptions regarding women, their intellect, sexuality, abilities and bodies has changed.  For some reason the latter seems to be lagging behind.  People who celebrate the capacity of women to be judges, lawyers, politicians and other pursuits formerly reserved for the male seem also to frequently object to the female developing muscles for primarily aesthetic purposes. Muscular women in sport, sure.  Just take a look at the physiques of female Olympic sprinters.  Look at how big and muscular Serena Williams is. But aesthetic development of the body and showing this development off by posing on stage seems somehow suspect, too narcissistic, to be accepted.

Women athletes now routinely become stronger and more muscular in the weight room.
ince FBB, women athletes now routinely become stronger and more muscular working in the weight room.

There is also the steroid question.  Many opponents of hyper-muscular women look at their development and attribute most of this development to drugs.  It is certainly true that many athletes, male and female, in a variety of sports (including bodybuilding) make use of steroids and other anabolic substances.  But it is also a fact that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  The range of genetics required to create a champion bodybuilder physique – such as number, types and distribution of muscle cells, length of muscle bellies, skeletal proportions, number and distribution of fat cells and psychological ability to maintain the discipline necessary for extended periods of time – are not going to be sufficiently changed and enhanced simply by introducing higher levels of certain hormones into the body.

No, the ability to create a championship level bodybuilding physique, for women or men, requires a combination of the right genetics, years of hard training, diet discipline and persistence over a period of many years.

So if bodybuilding for women dying? No – more likely just going through a period of growing pains.  The universe started with a Big Bang, when through a period of contraction and has been expanding every since at an accelerating rate.  Bodybuilding for women featuring Rachel McLish and Cory Everson started with its own big bang, is going through a period of contraction, but the fact that it represents the highest aspiration for females for extreme, aesthetic, muscular development means it should be looking at a future resurgence and glowing future.

The IFBB or some other federation may miss the boat and drop the ball when it comes to sanctioning bodybuilding contests for women.  But the women will continue to train and diet, their fans will continue to admire them and, sooner or later, somebody will step in and find a way to turn this phenomenon to their commercial advantage.

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

Modern-Amazons-cover002 copy

Signed and Dedicated by Bill Dobbins




  1. Bill Dobbins,

    You really are a genius, sahring taste.


    Yehia Gouda

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s