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The History & Evolution Of Women's Bodybuilding

Bill Dobbins
The Body Photographer

Women's Bodybuilding Origins 

Charles Gaines, author of Pumping Iron, has pointed out that female bodybuilding, based on the idea of women developing their muscles for primarily aesthetic purposes, is a new archetype. But the idea of women possessing big, strong muscles isn’t new. We have the ancient myth of the Amazons. In the 1800s, virtually every circus featured a female who demonstrated impressive feats of strength.

According to IFBB Historian for Women’s Bodybuilding Steve Wennerstrom, “As time passed and with the growing popularity of Muscle Beach on the sands of Santa Monica, California, where muscle, power, and strength had long been a male domain, women were further introduced to the possibilities of achieving a more pronounced level of physicality through weight training and acrobatics.”

Prior to 1977, bodybuilding had been considered strictly a male-oriented sport. As Wennerstrom reports, the primary architect of competitive bodybuilding for women was Henry McGhee, an employee of the Downtown Canton YMCA, who carried a strong belief that women should share the opportunity to display their physiques and the results of their weight training the way men had done for years. McGhee also helped spread the news of his events by creating a short-lived United States Women’s Bodybuilding Association, and women from across the country took notice.

1980 would become a watershed year for women’s bodybuilding with events such as the United States Championships, the American Championships, and the Ms. Olympia. By 1981 the IFBB held its first European Championships with women from nine countries taking part. In addition, professional contests offering prize money became available to the top competitors. The “Best in World’ competition in 1979, the Zane Women’s Invitational, and the Ms. Olympia in 1980 served as additional motivation to encourage more women to enter the competitive scene.

Bodybuilding for women was fortunate to have as its first major professional champion somebody as attractive as Rachel McLish. Rachel won the first Ms. Olympia contest in 1980 and captured the title again in 1982.

Like most early female competitors in the sport, Rachel had only been doing serious weight training for a few years – not long enough to build what we now recognize as serious bodybuilding mass. But she came into competition incredibly ripped and was great at promoting women’s bodybuilding, appearing on countless TV shows and magazine covers and in photo layouts.

Publisher Joe Weider, who had recognized Arnold Schwarzenegger as a terrific promotional vehicle for bodybuilding, understood Rachel’s “flex appeal.” Soon her photos and articles about her were ubiquitous in Muscle & Fitness and Flex magazines.

Rachel went on to publish books and star in numerous movies, including the movie Pumping Iron II: The Women which, in my opinion, was edited like contemporary reality shows. The story was contrived and distorted in a way that wasn’t flattering to Rachel, who, after all her travels – mostly at the behest of the film production – wasn’t in her best shape.


When Bev Francis was “cast” in Pumping Iron II: The Women in 1985, she was a champion powerlifter who spent only a few months prior to filming doing bodybuilding training – and she looked it. But a few years later, after retiring from competitive lifting and concentrating on physique competition, she transformed her body and was able to win the IFBB Pro World Championship in 1987, defeating the beautiful Anja Langer – in part because of the personality and charisma she demonstrated onstage.

Bev went on to gain mass and get thicker, twice placing second in the Ms. Olympia in very controversial decisions. But whatever controversies surrounded these placings, she continued to be an admired and respected competitor. Throughout the sport’s history, everyone has always liked Bev.

The Famous Female Bodybuilders of the 1980's

“It was Corey Everson’s second Ms Olympia title defense, and the anticipated drama and excitement shot through the sold-out Madison Square Garden audience like a bolt of electricity from a lightningstrike. Hard to believe there was that much excitement and interest back then to be able to sell out Madison Square Garden. I was there for all of Lenda’s, Kim’s, and Iris’s wins! Somewhere the powers that be let it all slip away as they began picking more and more mus-cular winners to the point where no one was interested anymore!”

                                  —Garry Bartlett, Canadian Photojournalist

In the 1980s, when women had just begun to get bigger, female physique stars emerged who rapidly became major stars in the physique world. They were sought after for guest posing and supplement contracts. They appeared on magazine covers. Cory Everson, winner of six Ms. Olympia titles, also had her own cable television show and appeared in numerous feature films and network television programs.

Another fine bodybuilder was Anja Langer, who was the German and European Bodybuilding Champion in 1986. Anja was so attractive that many consider her (a matter of opinion, of course) to be one of the most beautiful champion female athletes ever in any sport.

Women’s bodybuilding began to wane in popularity when the industry magazines began to cut back on their coverage of the women. The evolution of muscle was also moving at an accelerated rate. Plus, there was the drug element. Much of the reason the sport was so popular in the early years was because it was so new and different. There was a strong curiosity—even from the mainstream population—about women who were challenging their physicality on a stage where the criteria and judging had to do with a muscularly developed physique, not a beauty contest. Women like Rachel and Cory had a little of both and were ideal to sell the idea.

                                                           Steve Wennerstrom, Photojournalist



Lenda Murray won the IFBB North American Championship in 1989 (the only international IFBB amateur contest held in the US), which earned her an IFBB pro card – and brought her to my attention.  Lenda came out to Los Angeles early in 1990. I did photos of her and wrote an article titled “The Shape of Things to Come,” in which I predicted she would win the Ms. Olympia title. I was that impressed.

Back home in Michigan, everyone from her gym was telling her she wouldn’t be able to win the Ms. Olympia that year on her first try because she “had to pay her dues.” When the layout appeared in Muscle & Fitness, she posted it up in the gym, and she says that was the first time she really believed she had a chance to win the championship that year. And that’s exactly what she did. This pretty much shut up her detractors.

Lenda was always aggressive and confident onstage but sweet and self-effacing in real life. She went on to win eight Ms. Olympia championships, and many consider her to be the most aesthetic female bodybuilder of all time.


Sharon Bruneau is beautiful and exotic (a Métis Indian from Canada). She was also a top pro bodybuilder back in the 1990s. Nowadays she is a sometime TV producer and a full-time movie stunt performer. While she still models on occasion, Sharon no longer has the kind of muscular, hard body she displayed onstage in contests. But, looking back, she realizes she had mixed feelings about her muscular development when she was competing.
When I look back at my photos taken when I was competing,” Sharon admits, “I have to wonder what the heck I was thinking [being so negative]. I actually like how I looked back then much more than I did at the time.” In reality, in the world Sharon operated in, she was considered almost the ideal combination of beauty, muscle, and sex appeal. And she got the guest poser offers, magazine covers, and layouts to prove it.
Because she’s been through some problems with self-image herself, Sharon is now the first one to step up and encourage young women physique competitors and give them as much support as possible.


Kim Chizevsky won the IFBB Ms. Olympia competition in 1996 (and for the next three years as well), defeating six-time champion Lenda Murray. Kim was simply too big for Lenda, who had been “protecting her lead” for years by concentrating on getting in her best competition shape each year but not getting any bigger or more muscular. But once she had the title, Kim ran into a wall of political opposition. One reason for this is that she was the first Ms. Olympia who didn’t have the looks of a “cover model” – at least not when she won that first time. Like Iris Kyle after her, early in her career Kim concentrated on her physique and made a big effort when it came to “overall presentation” – i.e., things like hair and makeup. Between 1996 and her move to figure contests in 2000, she was able to change her appearance radically – to the point where even her critics had to admit she looked very pretty onstage.

But it was too late. During this time, having bodybuilding accepted by the IOC as an Olympic event was a big focus in the sport. Having the massive women in the sport may have sent the wrong message. She was a sponsored athlete and was encouraged to switch from bodybuilding to fitness competition after winning the 1999 Olympia title.

She did exactly this, and in 2001 was given a sixth place at the Fitness International and fourth in an event the following year. Given the physiques and gymnastics ability of the fitness competitors of the time, this was obviously a huge accomplishment. Kim Chizevsky was a wonderful and impressive bodybuilder, but some criticized her as a fitness competitor.


The bodybuilding world has very mixed feelings about Iris Kyle. She has won eight Ms. Olympia titles, and she deserves them. But she has a couple of things working against her in terms of becoming hugely popular. For one, it has taken her a long time to improve her “overall appearance” onstage. What counts most is the physique, of course, but general attractiveness makes a big difference in promotion and popularity. Iris was very much a “plain Jane” for a number of years. This contributed to the fact that, in her first Ms. Olympia appearances, the judges didn’t so much as overlook her as ignore her entirely.

But Iris learned about how to look more attractive onstage. She appears to have taken guidance from Dayana Cadeau, who has always known how to present herself as extremely feminine and sexy. When the two bodybuilders sat together at a “meet the stars” table at the Ms. Olympia, it was striking how much alike they’d grown to look.

The Nature of Bodybuilding
Bodybuilding for women has produced some major stars. The fact that they have gotten bigger over time is simply the consequence of the nature of the sport.

The nature of bodybuilding dictates that when genetically talented people do the right kind of exercises with enough intensity and consistency over a long enough period of time, they’re going to continue to develop bigger and bigger muscles. This is true whether they’re males or females. Trained men are going to be bigger, stronger, and faster than comparably trained women, but highly developed women are usually much bigger, stronger, and faster than untrained or lesser trained males.

"There is no difference between men’s muscles and women’s muscles...when stripped of our skin and fat, the underlying muscles look the same and are located in the same places. What is different, however, is the relative size and shape of the muscles and the extent to which they respond and adapt to exercise." - John Cardillo, Canada's Premier Fitness Expert

During the 1980s, “the girls” (as the late IFBB President Ben Weider used to call them) started to develop some quite remarkable and, to some, very threatening levels of muscle. But bodybuilding was fortunate in having women to represent it such as Rachel McLish, the first Ms. Olympia, and Cory Everson, who was often the biggest woman onstage in contests, but was blonde and beautiful and so didn’t scare anyone. But many other women during this period did not fare as well because their looks didn’t conform to a conventional idea of what females should look like. It used to break my heart to see one after another of these competitors score lower in contests than they deserved, competition after competition, with many eventually dropping out of the sport.

Bodybuilding is tough for anyone. But women have to go through all the rigors that men do, and they have less muscle mass and a higher proportion of body fat, so dieting to get highly defined is that much more difficult. Plus, they’ve had to deal with all the obstacles created by being pioneers in something that many people, including their friends and families, often have difficulty accepting. And the bigger the women got (and looking back from a contemporary perspective, they weren’t really all that big), the more opposition they faced.

Women’s bodybuilding is still going strong today, but many aren’t aware of that fact. The IFBB amateur division holds massively successful contests worldwide. The IFBB World Women’s Bodybuilding Championship has produced recent successful pro competitors such as Brigita Brezovac from Slovenia and Alina Popa from Romania, both Ms. Olympia contenders. But sponsors have become convinced there is no interest in the women, the magazines (with the exception of MUSCLE INSIDER, of course!) largely ignore them, and the fact that there are huge audiences for all levels of women’s physique competition at the Ms. Olympia, at the Ms. International, and (especially) on the Internet, seems to go largely ignored.

Women’s bodybuilding is something new and represents a massive shift in our culture. As such, it’s going to encounter a huge amount of opposition before it becomes widely accepted and respected. As Mark Twain once said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” The same can be said for bodybuilding for women.