Flashback Friday: Women Bodybuilders

The sweat, flesh, and glory of defining biceps and breaking boundaries with the female physique.
Flashback Friday: Women Bodybuilders
L to R: Michelle Dingle-Pemberton at the Annual Northern Japan Bodybuilding Championships in 1999; unidentified bodybuilder; Kathy Segal, the 1987 Ms. International/ Wikimedia Commons/High Times/Wikimedia Commons

From the August, 1985 issue of High Times comes Kyle Roderick’s remarkably forward-thinking profile of competitive women bodybuilders.

Who are women bodybuilders and why are they popping up in the major marketplaces of American prime time? Take the Miller Lite beer commercial during this year’s Super Bowl telecast, featuring bodybuilding champion Lori Bowen powerlifting super-schlub Rodney Dangerfield off of his chair while a barroom of beer hoisters hoot admiringly. That this commercial even got produced is significant. The airing of the Lori Bowen commercial during our nation’s annual beefcake blowout is proof that a new kind of female image is being primed for pop culture acceptance.

Though femcake is in and this Future Sex of women bodybuilders appears to possess unlimited marketing potential, the nature of the female images that are being marketed, and how, are open to debate. Women’s bodybuilding is an art form and a multi-million dollar industry whose participants pose a challenge to our ideas of “the feminine.”

A quick scan of both high-fashion mags and newsmagazines confirms this point. Note the absence of wispy, semi-anorexic models. Today’s glamor girls obviously do some kind of weight-training workouts. How else to explain the demure yet well-defined biceps, triceps, etc. that peek out from their designer T-shirts? And yet, compared to authentic women bodybuilders, these ’80s style models strike one as unbearably harmless. Why? Because they continue to conform to traditional codes of feminine desirability. Today’s models still remain a perfect size 6 or 8, and their muscles are curvy enough to appeal to even the most hardcore skin magazine buyers.

Check out Cher’s recent campaign for Jack LaLanne’s exercise clubs. With a new image that suggests Road Warrior (Las Vegas style), a newly blonde, punk-hairdoed Cher convincingly demonstrates the benefits of regular, grueling workouts. Deadpan to the max, she makes all of the pain and discipline involved seem terribly glamorous. But try to disregard Cher’s chic-ly vigorous pose for a moment and consider this: If even a moderately developed woman bodybuilder were to flex alongside of Cher, she’d blow her right off the set. And, more than likely, she’d freak out scores of potential Jack LaLanne-ites in the process.

The mainstream media carefully controls the presentation of women with muscles. In the flesh, at the gym or onstage in her revealing competition suit, a highly-trained woman bodybuilder is a physically imposing, monumental female. She may have 13 to 16-inch biceps and cross-striated quadriceps muscles on the front of her thighs which are indistinguishable from a man’s. A serious female bodybuilder has enlarged veins (what bodybuilders call vascularity) bulging through the taut skin of the shoulders, arms or legs. In body and mind, these women are essentially different from—and more highly evolved than—anything that Cher can afford to look like.

Territory Of The Future Sex

The emergence of the lifestyle/sport/industry/art form of women’s bodybuilding is best understood within the context of America’s current fitness boom and the influence of recent Euro-American feminism. Any earlier images of powerfully-built women in written or visual history are few and far between. Although the world’s myths and folklore abound with dynamic females like the Amazons, or goddesses who can outwit, outrun or outfight men and animals, these characters never appear as well-muscled or endowed with physical strength that surpasses that of their male counterparts. Art history’s depiction of women with muscles, however, does turn up the notable examples of Michelangelo’s powerfully proportioned statues of Dawn and Night. But according to bodybuilding historian Charles Gaines, the studies for these were drawn from male models.

Gaines popularized the in-phrase for working out with weights: “pumping iron.” With photographer/film director George Butler, Gaines brought bodybuilding into pop consciousness and respectability with the bestselling book Pumping Iron and the hit documentary film of the same name. The film focused on future “Terminator” Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as the soon-to-be “Incredible Hulk,” Lou Ferrigno. Gaines and Butler have followed women’s bodybuilding since its earliest public exhibitions and professional competitions, which started in the late ’70s. Their latest efforts are the photo essay, Pumping Iron II: The Unprecedented Woman, recently published by Simon & Schuster, and the film Pumping Iron II: The Women, which proved to be a conversation piece for bodybuilding fans, sexists, and pop-culture vultures alike when it was released in the spring.

Climaxing at the 1983 Caesar’s World Cup Women’s contest in Las Vegas (!), Pumping Iron II spotlights the opposing factions in the sport: the femcake “beauty queens” vs. the muscle purists. Although the professional, slick veneer of the Caesar’s contest may be laughably glitzy, it’s still an improvement on previous women’s competitions. Wayne De Milia, a lifelong bodybuilding fan, and one of the sport’s most experienced promoters, puts it this way: “Women’s bodybuilding has gone through tremendous changes in the last five years. The contests have evolved out of beauty events and into pure and serious bodybuilding competitions… You must realize that in the early days of the sport, the girls used to come onstage and compete in high heels… they posed in a very ladylike, unassertive way: the exact opposite of what you see today. Now that the women’s side of the sport is professionally organized, bodybuilding in general is more respectable; it looks more like the serious, aesthetically important sport that it truly is.”

Hmmm. Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

Control Of The Future Sex

But the sport of female bodybuilding has really advanced to suit those with controlling interests in its business side. The most influential figures in the world of bodybuilding are brothers Ben and Joe Weider. Ben Weider is president of the International Federation of Bodybuilders, the IFBB, which is the Supreme Court of the sport. As president, Ben has ultimate say over contest rules, judging criteria and other vital policies which affect competitors. Ben’s brother Joe is the editor and publisher of Muscle & Fitness, which, with its 1.7 million readers, makes it one of America’s most popular general interest magazines. Joe Weider also has a proprietary hand in the lucrative magazines Flex, Shape, and Sports Fitness. Over the past few decades, he’s either authored or published dozens of books on men’s and women’s bodybuilding which feature special “scientific” training programs and nutritional guides for those with muscles on their minds. But this is only half of Joe’s story.

Apart from his expertise and profits in publishing ventures, Joe Weider is also a highly successful corporate merchandiser and direct mail retailer. His magazines’ advertisements for his line of nutritional supplements—Joe Weider’s Food Of The Champions—qualify him as the “Trainer of Champions Since 1936.” In the pantheon of fitness gurus, Joe and Ben Weider, with their Weider Organization, have an indisputable monopoly on men’s and women’s bodybuilding. A quick glance at Ben’s current guidelines for women’s contest judging offers insight into how the powers-that-be shape the prevailing do’s and don’ts of the women’s side of the sport.

“…Judges must look for muscular femininity, which means that a female bodybuilder must have female-looking muscles. It is the over-development of male muscles that the IFBB is against… When a judge looks at a female bodybuilder, he or she must have no doubt in their minds that they are looking at a woman.” These rules seem a might bit subjective, do they not? Of course, nowhere in the male contest directives is the female body referred to. But, according to Kay King-Nealy, who is a national coordinator of judging clinics for both competitors and judges, “Weider’s directives are an indication that the IFBB is discouraging drug usage in the sport, and this is a good thing. Testing for steroids and other drugs is prohibitively expensive, besides being futile. As soon as a test is developed to detect the presence of a drug, a new drug is synthesized to elude that test. The organizers of women’s bodybuilding are setting a wise example… then again, the sport is so new that we don’t really know what’s organically possible until some outstanding woman gets out there and shows us…”

King-Nealy goes on to say, “Less than ten percent of all women have bodies that are perfect for the sport, but this is a fact that could conceivably create a dilemma for certain competitors.” What she doesn’t say is that the IFBB guidelines seem to penalize those genetically gifted women who may commit male-dominated culture’s ultimate image no-no’s. Specifically, this means having a body that is indistinguishable from a man’s; having a consciousness and strength that somehow transcend what is generally believed to be “feminine.” This issue prompts one to wonder what women bodybuilders have to say about the ongoing ambiguity in their sport.

Beth Rubino, a twenty-six-year-old bodybuilder and model who has posed for, among others, the celebrated portrait photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, explains her side of the story. “In everyone’s minds, there is this constantly evolving idea of what’s acceptable in a woman bodybuilder, and what’s possible. I don’t concern myself with the sexual politics that may or may not be tainting the sport. I’m a bodybuilder because I love the way bodybuilding feels and looks… Everyone has the innate right to look anyway that they want, and women should do this—become muscular and strong—if they want to. In a few years, women bodybuilders will be accepted by the mass audience, and the standards will no doubt have altered by then.”

Indeed, why can’t women look anyway that they want? Does it really matter if a woman bodybuilder reminds those who judge her that her completely female body appears to be as strong as, say, a middleweight male bodybuilder’s? Evidently it does, and the competitive fortunes of Bev Francis, one of the women bodybuilders profiled in the film Pumping Iron II, make an excellent case in point.

Women Of The Future Sex

Bev Francis is assuredly the most muscular woman alive, and is probably the most muscular woman in the history of the world. In photographs, and on screen in Pumping Iron II, Francis certainly looks very androgynous, but this impression is due to the fact that women like her are seldom allowed to become part of our cultural imagery. Think of Francis instead as a more physically evolved woman. Starting with her neck, her dense trapezius muscles merge into her shoulders. Her back, shoulders and arms are, simply stated, phenomenally developed. It is easy to understand how some people could be threatened by the unique truth of Francis’s body, so accustomed are we to looking for the classic curves of the female form. Instead of breasts, Francis has strongly delineated pectoral muscles. Her stomach and waist are a ridged field of muscular tissue, and those universal symbols of womanhood—hips—are nowhere to be seen on her physique.

In view of her amazing athletic achievements, it would seem to follow that Francis is one of the brightest stars of the sport—either a top-ranked competitor or a frequent subject of Joe Weider’s magazines’ editorial spreads. Yet, the truth is Francis is neither. As Pumping Iron II poignantly documents, her muscularity primarily provokes those in the bodybuilding world to call her “femininity” into question. As John Hoffman, associate producer of the film recounts, “In Las Vegas, there were a few rather strained meetings between the contest judges and the IFBB officials where they were instructed by the IFBB officials to judge the competitors on very traditional, arbitrary concepts of what the feminine form is—which is contrary to what women bodybuilders are doing to their bodies by lifting weights! This is not to say that Bev Francis’s aesthetic is “unfeminine,” but hers is a female body whose line and shape have no model, no frame of reference.”

Imagine what it feels like to be a person with a body that, as Charles Gaines writes, “refers to no other standard than its own… it seems to make a particular kind of androgyny the ultimate point of a particular kind of equality between men and women.” In comparison to the lithe, skillfully made-up beauty queens of the sport, Francis is not at all glamorous or marketable enough to be a spokesperson for products sold by the Weider Organization.

In the major muscle magazines, Francis is barely mentioned. Although Francis had the most muscular definition of all of the competitors at the Caesar’s World Cup, her score (she placed eighth out of fifteen women) indicates that she is not perceived as championship material. One assumes that the token woman judge on the Caesar’s contest panel felt especially perplexed when appraising Francis’s routine. All things considered, Francis is “the Outsider” in women’s bodybuilding, paradoxically because she proves what can happen if winning promises like those of Joe Weider’s Food Of The Champions are taken seriously.

Fortunately for Francis, though, and for other women like her, there are a few key people in the sport who encourage women bodybuilders to fulfill their optimum physical potential. Wayne De Milia is a contest promoter and therefore has special reasons for saying what he does, but he still strikes one as being genuinely open to whatever aesthetic possibilities can be realized by women. “How can you define femininity?” he asks. “Who’s to say what the norm is? Some men find Bev Francis very sexy and attractive. She gets very hot fan mail… A lot of people may think that Bev doesn’t look feminine, but there are a lot of men and women who do, judging by the letters she gets.” De Milia also added that Francis and her boyfriend Steve Weinberger were recently married in June, 1985. And yes, the most muscular woman alive wears a diamond engagement ring.

When asked whether he believes that super-muscular women will become popular American female icons on a par with Playboy Playmates, he replied instantly. “It’s just a matter of time and a question of exposure to the public. When I first started seeing women bodybuilders, in 1979 or so, I couldn’t really handle looking at them. But once I got over my conditioning, I started to see that shape, firmness and muscles on a woman look great! Why? Because what shapes your body is your muscles. And women bodybuilders have bodies that are perfectly shaped. Some may be more muscular than others, but the point is that they’re all healthy, shapely and strong.”

But if this is all true, then why aren’t promoters like De Milia making sure that the public sees what a real state of the art bodybuilder looks like? Why, for instance, does Lori Bowen wear so many clothes in the aforementioned Miller Lite commercial? “People constantly ask me this,” De Milia admits, warming to the question. “I was on the set the day of the filming, and it happened like this. Lori came out in the first outfit that the wardrobe people had chosen: high heels, a black leather miniskirt and a black tee shirt. She looked fantastic to me. But the director of the spot, Bob Giraldi, didn’t think so. He’s the guy who directed ‘Thriller’ and all those other videos… Anyway, he took one look at Lori and said, ‘What are those man things coming out of her neck?’ He saw trapezius muscles bulging out of her neck and couldn’t deal with it! He told wardrobe to find something else for Lori, something that would cover her up.”

This illuminating anecdote confirms that women bodybuilders have tremendous gains to make, in terms of freedom of physical expression. Whether or not they will make these gains partially depends on the media exposure that they receive. Perhaps like its predecessor, Pumping Iron II: The Women will popularize the sport by reaching a mass audience. And at the same time, maybe it will help legitimize the new role model of the Future Sex. As we all know, the best way to sell an idea is to sell an image. And women bodybuilders lack ultimate control over their image. For the time being, a woman bodybuilder’s success may depend not so much on how she develops her body, but on what those in control of the sport, industry, and media choose to acknowledge and reward as “feminine.”

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