A Brief History of Female Bodybuilding and the Obstacles It Has Faced

Female bodybuilding is something that started out in strong vaudeville woman acts in circus freak the type of environment. Things have changed drastically since those days, with women being given just as much of a chance on stage and in the gym as men have since the days of Ancient Greece. Incidentally, the contests of the men’s format have taken much inspiration from women’s beauty pageants in as much as they are primarily posing to show off their bodies rather than demonstrating physical strength. On a side note, the bodybuilders of yore were not mainly focused on being lean and muscular but rather on pure power.

Women have faced discrimination in the world of athletics since the beginning of time. Still, bodybuilding was actually one of the more inclusive ones in as much as people wanted to see what their bodies looked like. Shows like “Miss Body Beautiful” were essentially the predecessor of this movement. That being said, it was not until the late 1970s that women were seen as being capable of partaking in their own bodybuilding activities.

A Brief History of Female Bodybuilding and the Obstacles It Has Faced

Before 1977, traditional bodybuilding was considered a male-only sport. However, Henry McGhee, of the Downtown Canton YMCA, was a firm believer in getting women involved in the competition. After all, he reasoned, why shouldn’t women be allowed to show off their physique and skills the way that men had done for years? And so he ensured that the first official female bodybuilding competition took place in Canton, Ohio, under the name “Ohio Regional Women’s Physique Championship.” Unlike the previous championship, contestants were judged exclusively on their muscle structure, physique, and symmetry. Gina LaSpina was the first winner of any women’s bodybuilding contest. McGhee also organized the National Women’s Physique Championship and the United States Women’s Physique Association. Unfortunately, the latter fell apart in 1980.

However, bodybuilding for women really took off in the 1980s. This partly had to do with a change in societal standards: until then, women were expected to be “twiggy,” but women’s exercise becoming more and more popular created a more muscular body norm. That was taken to an extreme when in 1985 Pumping Iron II: The Women was released. This was not so much a male equivalent of the famous Pumping Iron so much as an excuse to create a dichotomy between a curvaceous and a muscular body.

A Brief History of Female Bodybuilding and the Obstacles It Has Faced

Women’s bodybuilding has often been met with discrimination on all sides. Even though female identity is inclusive of the idea of building one’s figure, bodybuilding is taking by some to be doing too far. Studies in Popular Culture even describes such discrimination as a “result of a patriarchal society which emphasizes that femininity is created by altering the body for society’s gendered expectations.” Female bodybuilders are well aware of this common point of view, yet the fans remain very dedicated.

The International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness made significant rule changes that only apply to women’s sport. In the early 90s, the Federation tried to feminize the sport by ensuring that judges reduce scores for women being too muscular. This rule was reapplied in the early 00s. At the same time, no similar ruling was set in place for men. According to Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise, this has to do with the fact that men’s bodybuilding is seen as a naturally masculine entity, so these rules inhibit women from reaching that same level of muscularity. On a side note, female bodybuilders also receive about one-tenth of the prize money received by their male counterparts.