The end of the Ms.Olympia to many was a signal that the sport of female bodybuilding was over. Cynics and detractors claimed the sport was on a slow decline, but they failed to realize this was an evolving activity. Female bodybuilding like other women’s sports struggle to survive due to sexism, lack of media coverage, and unequal pay. It is not that women are not great bodybuilders, its just they got too good for some peoples’ taste. The muscular woman still remains anomaly to a portion of people in the public and even in the fitness industry. Women had to fight hard to get competitions organized and even get recognition. Many dated cultural mores in regards to femininity and gender roles explain why women still continue to struggle in the sports world and the strength sports in particular. Even with all the negativity and obvious discrimination women continue to be part of a smaller sport. The reality is bodybuilding can no longer just be called one sports activity. The new categories emerged such as fitness, figure, physique, and bikini. While fitness emerged in response to the increasing musculature of female bodybuilders , fitness athletes also went up in size. This followed by the figure category for women who could not perform the acrobatics on stage and were larger. Women with bigger body frames had to either stay in a middle weight bodybuilding category or struggle to be in a lightweight category. Physique was the introduce to accommodate these women. Then came bikini, which at first was controversial. Now the appearance is being retooled for this division and it is unclear where it will lead. Female bodybuilding has not died or been replaced with a beauty pageant format; it is evolving while simultaneously developing factions in terms of aesthetic ideals. If the sport was truly dead it would be stagnant. When there is no change, there is no progress. There has been unexpected results in relation to the bodybuilding revolution for women. The number women who want to develop their bodies increased and there is a small portion of fans. There is probably more visibility of the muscular female form now than in any other point in human history. Female bodybuilding has not died, but changed form. What it will culminate in is impossible to guess.
During the 1970s female bodybuilding was in its infancy. There were early pioneers of the female muscular form such as Abbye Stockton in the 1940s and 1950s. Women prior to 1977 had no competitive outlet for bodybuilding. It was considered male only and women could only compete in bikini contests between men’s shows. Sometimes women’s beauty pageants were conducted between men’s events as well as filler. There were physique contest for women staring in the 1960s. The first female bodybuilding competition was held in Canton Ohio. The Ohio Women’s Physique Championship was developed by Henry Mcghee and at the time, it seemed that it would not expand into what it is today. Muscular women existed before the sport, but they never had an outlet to compete. Look back, there development was different from what a fan sees today. Gradually, more contests and organizations would appear. They would either fail or have difficulty surviving. The early prototypical era lasted from 1977 to 1980.
If it were not for the Canton YMCA a place in which women did weight training activities, there may have never been female bodybuilders in competition. The feminist movement for all its faults, should be given credit for changing society’s view of women. Title IX radically changed may women’s lives giving them access to school athletic programs. These girls would grow up loving sports and pursuing athletic careers. Although women were entering sports in larger numbers, there was a level of anger and trepidation coming from those with less progressive ideas about sex politics. There was a widespread belief that there were some things women should not do because it was not “proper.” Developing muscle was even more taboo in the past for women. Such attitudes were so pervasive, organizers of the first female bodybuilding competitions asked women not to do a double biceps pose thinking it would scare the audience. The athletes had to face both criticism from externally and internally. Many women found that their families would not be supportive of their endeavor. Combined with an American society already uncomfortable with women’s rising prominence in the public sphere. By 1980 the Ms.Olympia had come into existence. The physiques were becoming more defined compared to the first pioneers.
The 1980s presented a different type of physique.The physique that Rachel Mclish present was different in regards to definition. Visibly an observer would note that there were lines defining muscle separation. Earlier female bodybuilders of the 1970s had bodies closer swimmers.
The sport was evolving, this time in terms of body definition. While earlier competitors had great shapes there was limited definition on their bodies. Rachel Mclish then took this a step further. The women still had to navigate a subjective and nebulous judging criteria. During this period they had to experiment with training techniques and physique presentation. Carla Dunlap presented a physique with more size, while Bev Francis ushered in a model of physique prevalent on the heavyweight bodybuilding stage today. This rift between a sleeker image compare to a larger one still divides the female bodybuilding community. Even with various weight divisions that would later emerge ( lightweight, middle weight, and heavyweight), there were judges still not comfortable with the idea of women with muscle. Objections, which are still echoed today still focus on what is appropriate for women. There are people who still believe that a woman of a different appearance is abnormal. This was most virulent even during the golden age of the sport (1980 to 2004 ). The golden age marks the appearance of various competitors such as Lenda Murray, Iris Kyle, Cory Everson, Kay Baxter, and many others. Each were unique in their own way from posing, training technique, and opinions in regards to women in sport. It should be understood that bodybuilding is not a mainstream sport, but did get mainstream exposure. Female bodybuilding at its height was getting TV exposure and coverage.
Women’s sports suffer from a lack of coverage and this puts subcultural sports women are involved in at more of a disadvantage. During the golden age ticket sales to the Ms.Olympia were high, yet the women’s pay in terms of prize money was still low compared to their male counterparts. There was and continues to be sexist discrimination as well as double standards. Women were scrutinized for not being ‘”feminine” enough. This claim has been used to describe the decline in the mid-2000s. However, this complaint by critics has been around since female bodybuilding’s inception. There was even disagreement among fans of the sport on which type of body best represents the bodybuilding sport. Fans either fell into several camps: the sleeker model, a mid-range size, or a larger musculature. These models of body structure have shown them selves in the categories of the 21st century. By the end of the first decade of the sports existence women began to gain more size than ever before.
The 1990s saw the golden age continue, followed by a decline. The audiences began to shrink for competitions by the end of the decade. Many cite that women just got “too big” and the sport simply was not marketable. This was not true, due to the fact there was a loyal fan base that emerged over the years. The rise of the internet gave athletes the opportunity to start their own websites rather than waiting for a fitness magazine to promote them. Fitness competitions were introduced by the IFBB to counter the image of the larger female bodybuilder. The intent backfired in some regards, because the fitness competitors resembled the earlier female bodybuilders of the 1970s with better training . With a new category women could switch between the two if they desired.
Some fitness competitors even switched to the bodybuilding category, if they felt that it was a better fit. During this period it was the era of Lenda Murray who even in retirement promoted the sport. The competition was also quite formidable. Laura Crevalle, Debbie Muggli, Kim Chizevsky and Andrulla Blanchette. Women such as Julitette Bermann, Yaxeni Oriquen-Garcia and Valentina Chepiga also held the Olympia crown. Iris Kyle would go on to be the most accomplished in the sport. The IFBB made rule changes in the year 2000 stating muscularity should not be “too extreme.” This was an unclear and subjective statement. Then five years later there was the 20% rule. This dictated that that athletes had to reduce their muscularity by 20%. It was only applied to the women’s categories.
The institution that the Weider brothers built did not treat the women fairly. The continuation of double standards and a second class status of women in the sport frustrated athletes. Yet they marched on and continued to compete. While the golden age ended in 2004, there were still great athletes. Iris Kyle went on to break Lenda Murray’s record and be the last Ms.Olympia. Although the Ms.Olympia was gone by 2014, female bodybuilding competitions still continued. The problem was that it was the most iconic one. Fitness was the first emerging category branch, but figure would follow in the 2000s. These contests did have posing and women were slightly more muscular. This was an excellent choice for women who could not do the gymnastic moves of fitness, but were not muscular enough for bodybuilding class.Women who had more size had another option of going to a newly developed physique class. These new categories did not harm the sport. The change had the opposite result. More women got involved in the sport. Compared to the 1970s and beyond the numbers have increased. More classes means more opportunities for women to get involved in the sport, who otherwise would not have. The sport appears to be a survivor mainly because of the talented athletes and the fact it was not mainstream in the first place. The changes that happened from 2004 to present many just be the sport going back to its roots.
There was another consequence that may not have been intentional. Female bodybuilding has spread across the world. Although its birth place was in the United States, it has spread to Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America. When people state that female bodybuilding is dead, they ignore the fact that it is present in other countries outside the West. The US being the world’s most powerful nation, tend to ignore the accomplishments and contributions of other nations. This narrow perspective does not let people realize just what a phenomenon the sport has become. The National Amateur Bodybuilders’ Association (NABBA) has sponsored contests around the globe. This organization had physique contests prior to being introduced in North America.
If there is some decline continuing it is only happening in some parts of the West. This is significant because it shows the sport is becoming more diverse. Examining past competitions in North America, most of the competitors were white women. It was a reflection of a racist society and the US still trying to challenge injustice. With unequal barriers removed the playing field opened to women of various backgrounds. decolonization of the Global South during the 20th century also changed the world for the better. This improved women’s status in various African, South American, and Asian countries yet some still clung to traditional views about women. Some states continued to reduce women’s rights as a whole.
States that are highly religious and conservative do not value women. They especially do not approve of women doing something out of the traditional gender role paradigm. This does not deter women who really want to participate in a particular activity. Female bodybuilders in Iran like Shirin Nobahari have to fight restrictive laws and prejudice.While many tend to focus on large international competitions, it is often ignored that there are local and regional contests throughout the globe. India and South Korea have joined the sport over the past three decades and women followed. Some of these competitors have even made it to international competition.
The other bodybuilding categories are also present in these countries. Just like in America, their judging criteria is evolving as well. One element remains universal is subjectivity and particular standards. This debate will never be settled and it depends on what a judge’s preferences are. The rise of fitness and bodybuilding culture shows the power of the cultural dynamics of globalization. While there is an economic aspect, there is also a level of acculturation. The West tends to believe it has a monopoly on culture and promotes itself being part of a “civilized world.” This racist position ignores nations of the Global South and their contributions to various fields. When detractors say female bodybuilding is dead, they only focus on the sport in America. Little do they realize that just south of the USA there are Latin American nations that also hold contests. Across the Atlantic women in Uganda are becoming competitors.
The Ms.Kampala Fitness Competition is just like any other bodybuilding contest, but it is one of the few contests on the African continent. It would not be such a shock to see African women competitors reaching the international level. It seems that in other parts of the world, female bodybuilding is not dying. There is growth or gradual evolution. This sudden spike would indicate that the sport is not dead. Latin America also has contests for women. The Arnold Classic Brazil has the female bodybuilding category. However, the last two years it seems to have more of the physique category.
South American female bodybuilders come to the US to compete. It is not just from Latin America, but all over the world. Competitors are not lacking in enthusiasm. If that were to happen there would be a sign of possible death. Although small in number, it is not imaginable that all women would just stop competing. Their dedication and love for the sport seems as strong as ever. As long as that remains constant the sport can go in a positive place.
There has been evolution in the sport. Without it it would have fallen into obscurity or become a mere historical footnote. Change means new ideas are developing and being stagnant indicates decline. There was a level of decline in the mid-2000s in terms of economics relative to the sport. Ticket sales were not as high and the prize money still low. Women’s sports struggle for survival due to a long standing male dominance. Faced with such challenges women in the sport had to make adjustments. Pay websites and session wrestling became methods to finance their athletic endeavors. Hardcore fans known as schmoes became a financial support for an industry that ignored athletes. It seems odd that the Weider Corporation did not tap into this market. It seemed to work out better for the athletes, because they did not have to go through a corporate gatekeeper. This new business model did have controversy. Some objected saying it was inappropriate. It was no more inappropriate than how fitness magazines sexually present women. One just has more acceptance. The women in the 1990s were also changing the aesthetics. There was a race for size, which was ushered in by Bev Francis. Lenda Murray perfected it. While there was an emphasis on size, other elements such as symmetry and definition may have been less valued. However, the winners of the ms.Olympia had to have a great balance of all these elements. Bodybuilding is not just about large muscles; its about sculpting a physique the that incorporates symmetry and conditioning. This explains why some larger competitors may not always win. They show great physiques, but they may be weak on one part of the criteria. This was why Iris Kyle was able to win so many Olympia contests, because she worked on all these elements. Cory Everson had done this before winning the Ms.Olympia six times.
There are many great women bodybuilders, its just acceptance of what a woman can do is not that progressive. Women can be political leaders, scientists, entertainers, but for some reason looking different generates disapproval or shock. Even within the fitness community there are claims “women went too far.” One should not expect an evolving sport to remain static. There was a trend toward larger competitors followed by a reduction, there seems to be s trend to a fuller shape once more. Physique divisions if observed closely resemble female bodybuilders of the late 1980s to early 1990s. Really it is female bodybuilding repackaged for a new era. It is more similar to lightweight bodybuilding divisions. There are many times in which a physique competitor could just add a few more pounds and enter a bodybuilding division.
Britney O’Veal switched from physique to bodybuilding in 2016.
Some complaints have come from athletes that there are so many divisions. They present this argument that it is so simple to get a pro card in this current climate. The more competitors means that it would actually be harder to get IFBB professional status. Back in the 1970s there was a greater chance reaching that level faster, now it could be a decades long process. These divisions could be best thought of as weight classes. There are weight divisions ( also one based on height) in the bikini, figure, physique, fitness, and bodybuilding categories. This gives women of multiple body types to be participants on stage. Women of ectomorphic body types would find fitness and figure more to their liking and larger women the bodybuilding category. The addition of new categories demonstrates the sport is evolving and more women are going to be a force in the bodybuilding sports. The sport has definitely come a long way since the Rachel Mclish and Carla Dunlap era. If we were to transport them from the time of their physical primes, it seems dubious if they would place in a figure competition.
Critics also state that performance enhancing drug use caused a decline. While it is true that drug use has been a part of most sports, one must wonder why muscular women were ostracized for their appearance prior to the creation of anabolic andogenic steroids. Men consist of the majority of users of AAS, but women are scrutinized more. This points to another double standard and issues surrounding body image. The public got the notion that a woman with muscle must automatically be on steroids, due to preconceived stereotypes and views. The image of a woman with side effects of virilization is what the general public thinks of when they hear the word female bodybuilder. This does not represent reality. There are drug tested competitions and women are still criticized for being muscular. While many women have began to lift weights, there are always assurances “you won’t get too big.” Some ridiculously blame female bodybuilding for scaring women of weightlifting. Really the culpability of the blame comes from an unrealistic beauty standard that women must follow. Being thin to the point were it harms health has been promoted by magazines, movies, and advertisements.Being a large or muscular woman who falls out this standard are either harassed or ostracized.Women choose what they want to look like. No one should dictate this to them. People should understand that there are multiple forms of beauty. It should also be clear that female bodybuilding is not a beauty pageant. While it presents a standard to judged at its core is sport that is very competitive. That competition differs from a pageant. The only change it seems to be is that the hyper muscular size on competition stages is becoming less frequent in appearance.
Just because one model of bodybuilding physique is seen less does not mean it has disappeared. The number of contests the larger version of physique has decreased, but it has not faded away. There are trends and cycles in this sport. This is another stage in changes that have been occurring since 1977. Three decades have shown that this process is far from over in terms of judging, training techniques, and aesthetics. The multiple divisions are just part of the development. Fitness was at first disparaged, but as the years went on it got acceptance. The gymnastic and acrobatics require a high level of athleticism. To just say that the fitness division should not be part of the bodybuilding family is not fair. Similar arguments are made against the bikini division. Since its existence the physiques have changed and now it is distinguishing itself. Athletes made statements that it did not require training or effort. These accusations were false. Not only have women entered bikini, sometimes they transition to the physique division.
These divisions are not all the same, but are part of the same strength sports family. It seems that fitness contests are declining compared with the new other divisions as well. Compared to the 1990s when fitness competitions began the audience had shifted its taste to figure competitions. The dance and acrobatics are amusing, yet the trend shifted once more. Fitness competitors by the mid-2000s began going into figure or bodybuilding . This sport is still relatively new, but the change has been rapid. The growth is a sign of creativity and that is greatly needed to keep the sport alive. There has been a level of decline in terms of media coverage and opportunities to compete. This is no uncommon with other sports women compete in. The media coverage of the female athlete is minimal even in sports that are more popular like tennis or soccer. When they do receive media attention commentators focus on their appearance rather than their list of athletic accomplishments. This problem was prevalent in the 2016 Rio Olympics. There was a time that female bodybuilding was broadcast on ESPN. As the years past they dropped it off their schedule. The peculiar aspect is that the channel broadcasts poker, so why not a variety of sports? Ratings could be a factor, but it seems executives show what they think audiences would like rather than what they want to see . Whether one approves or disproves of what these women do, it has to be acknowledged this has been an incredible journey.
Female bodybuilding and women’s sports in general may struggle to survive, yet there are women who are embracing muscular development. This is a new phenomenon , that started with female bodybuilding and has influenced other sports. Crossfit and weightlifting are sports women are not afraid to participate in anymore. To these athletes they love to see progress and push themselves to their maximum physical limit . If it were not from the 19th century and 20th century strong women who pioneered weightlifting, these athletes would not have these opportunities. Now women have access to better training facilities, techniques, and platforms for competition.
People may not have imaged women could get this strong 100 years ago. It is not uncommon that female athletes work out with weight to improve their performance in a particular sport. There still is a level of stigma that has to be confronted, yet this does not deter them. Track and field athletes, swimmers, tennis players, and weightlifters are display physiques more muscular than in the past. This is part of the fitness revolution ushered in by bodybuilding. Even women who are not athletes may just want to “tone” ( a repacked term for building some muscle). These women are doing it merely for the sake of improving health or controlling weight. The great aspect is that older people are now taking up such exercise and prevent chronic illness.Bodybuilding is a subculture that has gotten mainstream exposure and elements of it have been diffused into the mainstream. If the sport for women has reached a slump it can always go back to its underground roots. There has been to some degree a popularization of a woman with some muscle. Maybe not to the level of various competitive divisions, but at least in great physical shape. The phrase “strong is the new skinny” has been used in fitness circles. The extremely thin body type has been challenged with a small body acceptance movement and a growing fitness culture that women have developed. The amazing part of this is that women are redefining what it means to be beautiful on their terms, rather than by society’s standards. If female bodybuilding sports do not survive, muscular women will be here to stay.
Female bodybuilding technically has not died. There was a decline or close to a slump. The sport is going through shifting trends and readjustment. The evolution of this sport and the aesthetic it presents has not reached a conclusion. No one can predict the future. There were many who believed that no such sport for women could survive. That was proven wrong over the decades and women still continue to compete. Although the rewards are limited even when achieving pro status, women do this for the love of the sport. As long as that dedication and devoted passion is still part of competitor’s motivations it will be safe. Women should not expect the IFBB to treat them fairly. Realizing this they have acted. Lenda Murray is a promoter of competitions. When the Ms.Olympia ended in 2014 a successor competition emerged. The Rising Phoenix Wings of Strength in 2015 became the new major contest for female bodybuilders and many of the familiar faces returned to stage. The quality of the competitors was a great as ever. Margie Martin took first place in the first post- Ms.Olympia era. With every industry or form of entertainment there is a decline. Theatrical animation disappeared with the rise of television. TV then caused a rebirth in the animation industry during the late 1980s to early 1990s. Film was in a dire state until the rise of the blockbuster. Hopefully a new generation of athletes and organizers can induce a renaissance. One matter is certain is that the sport knows how to survive under less than optimal circumstances.