I know it’s hard to believe, but there was once a time when being a muscular woman was outrageous, impossible, and against the nature of womanhood. In fact, it’s pretty incredible that women’s bodybuilding got its start from women who performed in circuses, doing trapeze acts. Some famous names from this time were Josephine Blatt, known by her stage name as Minerva, and Laverie Vallee, who was the famous Charmion.
In July of 1937, Minerva was reported to lift a platform of 23 men, weighing a whopping 3,564 pounds. WTF??? She held the Guinness World Record of lifting the greatest weight ever for a woman (the 3,564 lbs hip-and-harness lift). Charmion was probably the inspiration for many burlesque and striptease acts, as she was known for her “Trapeze Disrobing Act.” The famous routine was recorded by video in 1901, and the footage is still around.
When I think of strongwomen, my mind goes to the contestants of Ms. Olympia and IFBB competitions, which only became popular after the 1970s. Strong women, as we know them today, didn’t actually come around until the 1940s when 5’1, 115-pound Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton stormed the bodybuilding scene.
Stockton’s encounters with physical fitness began in a similar area to her circus performing predecessors: acrobatics and gymnastics. She would work out with her husband, Les Stockton (also a strongman), on the beach, and they became the hottest couple in California.
One of her famous acts was when she lifted her 185-pound husband above her head in a hand to handstand. They began performing together with a friend, showing off Abbye’s prowess at lifting, and her fame continued to grow. In 1948, she was named “Miss Physical Culture Venus.” We should also thank her for competitive weightlifting for women because she sanctioned the first female weightlifting contest in 1947. In 2000, she was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame. She will forever hold the title, “Queen of Muscle Beach.” Whatta Babe!!!
Betty Weider was another 1940–50s bombshell bodybuilder, well-known for her perfect bod. Hoping to achieve a body ideal like hers, women began lifting waits to enhance their curves. The hype eventually cooled down in the 1960s. Around this time, the cultural ideals returned to traditional beliefs of femininity.
It’s obvious that the bombshells of the 40s and 50s look nothing like today’s bodybuilding women (keep in mind that they didn’t use performance-enhancing drugs). Women weren’t encouraged to “look like men.” Weightlifting was to enhance feminine body ideals like curves, not for physical performance.
The popularity of women’s bodybuilding, as we know it today, didn’t get fired up until the late 1970s when the “Best In The World” contest took place. In 1979, women of all backgrounds—bodybuilding champions, strippers, and models—went head-to-head on stage. Known for their success in the physique world, April Nicotra and Patsy Chapman were two of the best contestants. Chapman was ultimately named the winner.
It wasn’t until the 80s that bodybuilding and beauty pageants were finally distinguished from one another. The Ms. Olympia competition began as the female counterpart for the Mr. Olympia contest. Women were expected to fulfill the same guidelines as the men’s competition. The first Ms. Olympia was Rachel McLish, a bodybuilding champion known for her sleek and beautifully toned physique. Her free routine was praised for its exoticness and femininity. Even in 1980 and 1982, the years when McLish was named Ms. Olympia, she was not as ripped as the women competing in competitions today. She had only just begun training a few years prior, not having the time to build a seriously competitive body mass. Despite her short training, she still entered the competition with serious muscle definition and in incredible physical form.
After the first few competitions, women’s bodybuilding flipped its requirements. Women whose body looked “too feminine” were considered weak, and a more masculine and muscular physique was preferred. Nevertheless, McLish is responsible for bringing weightlifting to the “common” woman.
From 1985 and on came the rise of bodybuilding as we know it today. Bev Francis, an amateur lifter, was cast in the movie Pumping Iron II: The Women in 1985. She had only begun lifting a few months prior, but by 1987, she completely transformed her body. She won the IFBB Pro World Championship, defeating Anja Langer who is known as one of the most beautiful bodybuilders of all time. She went on to take second in a Ms. Olympia competition and has always been known as a respected competitor. Langer was the German and European bodybuilding champion in 1986. Other famous bodybuilders named Ms. Olympia include Lenda Murray, Iris Kyle, Sharon Bruneau, and Kim Chizevsky.
Many of these competitors had to figure out how to bulk up and sculpt their muscles bodies while retaining feminine sex appeal, which is important when the judges are males. *scoffs*
Weightlifting for women had a downturn in the 1990s. In America, weightlifting became popular for women working out regularly at home. Women’s pro bodybuilding is continually threatened with a loss of followers because the beauty component seems to be mainly important for audiences and judges. Currently, we are going through another cultural return to beauty pageant bodybuilding, and it seems like most fitness competitions are following suit. Swimsuit that is.