The progress that women, especially in western culture, have made since the latter half of the 19th century is amazing. This is especially evident when you look at parts of the world that have not gone through this evolutionary change. For example, where they are denied an education, freedom of movement, and even the right to drive a car.
In the Western world, including the US, in the not too-distant past, women couldn’t own property. They were considered to be the property of their husbands. It was just 100 years ago, not ancient history, that most women in the U.S. were given the right to vote.
In modern culture, feminism advocates for women’s rights and equality, but it seems that some women who should benefit from this kind of advocacy have been left behind by the movement. Specifically, women with muscle who train and diet to create aesthetic physiques and who compete in various categories in muscle contests— in particular, female bodybuilders.
Women have been traditionally considered the “weaker” gender. They finally became increasingly celebrated in athletics during the 20th century, and many sports for women are now more popular than the same sport for men. As of the 1970s, women also started competing in bodybuilding.
But in the 1970s, this movement hit a wall, failing to recognize and respond to the gradually increasing discrimination facing competitors in the emerging sport of bodybuilding for women.
Of course, it’s not the overall idea of muscles on women that creates this kind of opposition. Throughout history, most people, including women, have been peasant farmers. In the days before mechanized farm machinery, muscle is what did the work. Nobody ever criticized farm wives because they had the strength to allow them to plow behind a mule, haul water or chop wood.
Nor does the opposition based on women getting big and strong exist across the board. Strong women with muscles have long been celebrated in comic books. Women wrestlers have become stars in that world. For decades, we’ve seen Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting competitions for women. But since their bodies were developed in pursuit of sports performance and not aesthetics, they’re accepted.
Football player-turned-actor Fred Dryer told me when he got into the NFL in the 1960s, almost no players trained with weights. But when he left in the 1970s, all of them did. Baseball used to be considered mostly a “skill” sport. But modern batters who do strength training are resetting all kinds of records.
In the same regard, look at the female sprinters in the Olympics in the 100-meter dash nowadays. They all look like miniature bodybuilders, no doubt in part because of the time they spend in the weight room. Or look at the size and strength of Serena Williams, a woman rarely criticized for her muscles. At the 2015 Open, Serena Williams hit a 126-mph serve. That was 1 mph faster than the fastest serve from the men’s champion, Novak Djokovic. You don’t get that kind of power without a lot of weight training.
That said, our culture is much more accepting muscles and muscularity for male bodybuilders than females, mostly based on long, historical tradition ranging from the sculptures of ancient Greece and Michelangelo to 19th century strongmen and decades of muscle movies starring the likes of Steve Reeves, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sly Stallone and others.
Pumping Iron author Charles Gaines has called modern women bodybuilders a “new archetype,” something never existing before in any culture at any time in history. Something really “new under the sun.”
With something so unique, it’s taking a long time for the world to get used to the idea. So, as the women have continued to get bigger and more muscular through the decades, the opposition to bodybuilding for women continued to grow to get stronger as well.
Pioneers like Lisa Lyon, Rachel McLish and Cory Everson had hardly any muscle compared to the female bodybuilders today, even compared to fitness and figure competitors. They mostly had a lot of definition created by extreme diet. Back then, they were considered “cute” and got a lot of media attention.
Early on, contests like the IFBB Ms. Olympia and Arnold’s Ms. International were successful and well attended. The women were frequently published in the major bodybuilding magazines.
Lisa Lyon was the first female bodybuilder to get national attention. She was on TV, featured in Playboy, and collaborated on a book with photographer Robert Mapplethrope. Corey Everson had her own cable TV program and appeared in a movie with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Rachel McLish starred in several feature movies.
But while everybody loves kittens, many don’t like cats.
So, when the women continued to get bigger and more muscular (as is what happens when genetically gifted athletes train hard and long enough), the opposition to them continued to increase as well. This opposition frequently took the form of obvious and explicit gender discrimination, sometimes emanating from the governing federations themselves, often in the form of rules that would not have been tolerated in any other sport and may not have actually been legal. Can you imagine a rule in bodybuilding for men stating that competitors couldn’t be “too big” or “too muscular”?
Such a rule was issued for the women by the IFBB in a set of “guidelines” written in 2000.
These guidelines issued to women bodybuilders by both the NPC and IFBB. These guidelines specifically limited muscularity “to the extreme” for women, but not men, and were a clear example of gender discrimination. The result was a series of contests that, looking back, were judged very unfairly.
The only limit to the development of competitive female bodybuilders, except for things like the need to conform to the requirements of height or weight divisions, should be an aesthetic one – the aesthetics being that of bodybuilding, not some other more conventional measure of “beauty.”
But you have to wonder, where have the feminists been when this fundamental right of women to control their own bodies is being challenged? Why have they not opposed such an obvious case of institutional gender discrimination and disrespect for the rights of women to excel to the maximum when it comes to the aesthetic development of their own bodies? Has this subject been dealt with by any women’s rights organization?
And yet the opposition in our culture continues to exist regarding women developing their muscles for aesthetic purposes. When is the last time you saw a pro female bodybuilder featured on Good Morning America? What does the mainstream find so terribly strange about women building big, full, shapely and defined muscle? Sure, most women don’t aspire to have a pro bodybuilding physique. But neither do Arnold Schwarzenegger’s or Serena Willams’ millions of fans.
The situation for pro women bodybuilders has improved tremendously in the IFBB since Jake Wood and Wings of Strength have become involved. There has been little sign of anti-muscle judging on the part of officials and bodybuilding for women has returned to the Olympia. There are more pro contests for women bodybuilders every year.
But feminist organizations still have never stepped in to support female bodybuilders where and when they were the victims of disrespect and gender bias. And nowadays, the women bodybuilders in the IFBB and NPC don’t really need their help.
Nonetheless, maybe those organizations should take a look at their mission statements and figure out why women bodybuilders have never been given a second thought.