Campaign to save women’s bodybuilding

February 23rd, 2011  |  Published in Stumpblog  |  14 Comments

An interesting issue around the IFBB’s potential decision to eliminate women’s bodybuilding.

I haven’t followed bodybuilding much for years, but it’s always been an intriguing gym subculture. A petition launched on behalf of women’s bodybuilding and its fans reads, in part:

The IFBB talks about plans to eliminate its female bodybuilding division. We are shocked by this attitude, and demand its immediate reversal. We need the IFBB to firmly stand by and support this important sport well into the 21st century.

Not just a sport, female bodybuilding is also a form of self-expression and key to an active lifestyle for thousands of women of all ages worldwide. Just like their male counterparts, these athetes have been exploring the very limits of the human physique, turning their bodies into spectacular works of art.

Reaching way beyond a small yet dedicated fan base, female bodybuilding has helped drive the ideal of a strong, fit, healthy physique. Women bodybuilders also successfully challenge gender stereotypes, fight sexist discrimination, and help create a sense of empowerment for women.

I’d be curious to know more about the politics behind this decision.

At the institutional level (meaning in terms of the organizations and structures that control pro bodybuilding and the industry — for it IS an industry), women’s bodybuilding has always had a large ick factor.

Between sexism, money-grubbing, exploitation, and just plain skeeziness, many of the folks involved in the industry are not exactly great for women’s health. I’ve been at bodybuilding shows so creepily and explicitly sexist (as in, announcers describing at 130 decibels how, exactly, they would like to hit that muscular ass) that it made me want to scrub my brain with Lysol just for knowing such events existed.

If it’s a sport, then whey are so many of its athletes posing in lingerie in grimy hotel rooms? (Really guys? Could you find a nice background occasionally? It’s like all the bodybuilding cheesecake is shot at some airport Best Western, which makes me imagine that the implied photographer is an insurance salesman on his way through a Tri-States sales tour. Enjoy the minibar!)

If it’s about health, then why are most elite bodybuilders walking pharmacies and a few drops of liquid away from death when they step on stage? Actually, I love that some folks are brave enough to tap the chemical frontier — thanks to these fearless folks, we know a lot more about sex hormones, growth hormone, etc. and a lot more menopausal women are getting that testosterone replacement they need — but c’mon, competitive pro bodybuilding hasn’t been about health since a bunch of fresh-faced young men were cavorting on the beach after WWII.

At the person level, however, bodybuilding has inspired thousands — perhaps millions — of women to change their bodies and push the limits of human development.

For me, it was the 1980s women; things have changed of course, but nevertheless many of us find ourselves along the continuum. Most women never go the full Monty with drugs and years of pushing the boundaries. Most of us just like to throw a little iron around and hit a front double biceps in the bathroom mirror.

Thus, at the person level, and in the experience of most women who train reasonably seriously for physique enhancement — yes, it IS about all these wonderful things: health, empowerment, strength.

I’m not going to create an us-them division either, as many fitness writers do. Again, it’s a spectrum. We all find ourselves somewhere on it. Like it or not, we’re all in this together. Although there are some unique features to this situation, what happens to female bodybuilders is a microcosm of what happens to women in other spheres. Women’s push for bodybuilding equality in the latter 20th century made it possible, in part, for us to hit the “man room” at the gym now.

I see female bodybuilding as another body mod culture, like tattooing or piercing. Most of us have a tattoo or two, while a few intrepid folks take it to the next level and draw lizard scales on their face.

Much respect to those who live the extremes, ’cause it’s hard fucking work and in my opinion, a lot more interesting than becoming a bland carbon copy of something the Gap shat out. Rock on, my muscular sisters.

So, it’s a conundrum. Icky business, inspiring daily practice. And most importantly, real women’s lives.

Whatever happens, though, I’d like to see female bodybuilders control their own destinies and not be subject to the whims of a bunch of profitmongers and pimps in the form of industry trainers, promoters, etc. who chew people up and spit them out (much like pro wrestling, actually). Because of the power structure of the business, most bodybuilders — like most pro wrestlers — are circus acts or cash cows for their promoters. When one body is worn out, another one takes its place.

Does female bodybuilding need its Nina Hartley? Sisters — start doing it for yourselves!


  1. simma says:

    February 23rd, 2011at 10:18 am(#)

    I’d rather see women’s attention go to lifting sports, like powerlifting, Oly lifting, strong(wo)man competition, etc.

    But I admit that I’m judgmental about physique competition–whether we’re talking men or women. And while I try to reign in my high horse on these, I can’t bring myself to actively support them.

  2. Sahron says:

    February 23rd, 2011at 10:41 am(#)

    From the petition:
    “Reaching way beyond a small yet dedicated fan base, female bodybuilding has helped drive the ideal of a strong, fit, healthy physique”

    Uh, no. When I have typed in the words “Muscular Women” in the google images search, yes- the vein-y women pop up, but the women my friends are looking for are: Jessica Beil fron the Blade movies or Angela Bassett from “What’s Love got to do With it.” From what I observe in American mainstream culture, if your average woman imagines in her mind muscular woman in a (positive way)she is thinking buff celebrities or Olympic athletes.
    Women bodybuilders also successfully challenge gender stereotypes, fight sexist discrimination, and help create a sense of empowerment for women.

    Also, as we learned from the documentary “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” the women who win bodybuilding contests are juicing just as much as the men are. (The exceptions being the natural bodybuilders like Krista Schaus.)

    ‘Women bodybuilders also successfully challenge gender stereotypes, fight sexist discrimination, and help create a sense of empowerment for women.’ Really? How? By participating in a “sport” that focuses solely on what the body looks like, not on what it can DO?? Krista, I just can’t get behind this. I would be livid if the Olympic committee were trying to eliminate women’s lifting from the Olympics, but I could give a flying rat’s butt about any of the body-focused contests. The difference between a bodybuilding contest and a beauty pageant is what? Less body fat?

  3. Sahron says:

    February 23rd, 2011at 10:49 am(#)

    Holy crap! I must need some sleep cause my response is so badly done. My apologies.

  4. Ron Dykstra says:

    February 23rd, 2011at 12:54 pm(#)

    Hey K,

    You had a lot of interesting things to say here, as usual. I thought it was an excellent point that bodybuilding really is a part of the fitness spectrum, and not a deviant cult of some sort, although it has certainly had it’s share of deviants, pimps, panderers, murderers, drug dealers, drug users, etc. That is a whole ‘nother rant! Let me know if you want some material for that one!

    Regarding the politics behind the decision, my question is does this have to be political? Ticket sales have suffered in women’s bodybuilding, while figure and fitness competitions have picked up all the extra dough. Is there a net gain? I honestly can’t say. Are they better than a beauty pageant? How do I know; who watches these things?

    Not to ask anyone to cry for the men’s division, but I thought it was very interesting this past year at the Mr. Olympia that they did an over 200lb and under 200lb division, like the old days. The difference was the under 200lb division (which was spectacular in bodybuilding terms) got next to no stage time or prize money, while the over 200lb class had much more of both.

    The IFBB wants butts in seats. They have decided that women and small male builders are not making that happen. If we want to change their minds, we have to put butts back in the seats. I personally don’t care enough to do that :)

    However, I do support individual goals regarding fitness, and if you want to be a big, vascular freak that draws stares, then let your freak flag fly. Regarding the essential uselessness of bodybuilding, sure there are activities that are more inherently functional. Lets not pretend that doing Xfit is morally better than bodybuilding though. What gets caught in the filters of one person’s brain might be bodybuilding, another person might gravitate towards Xfit or whatever. The main thing is to get out there and do the thing that caught your interest; maybe that journey evolves into something else, who knows.

    All the best!

  5. Sahron says:

    February 23rd, 2011at 2:29 pm(#)

    I agree w/simma.

  6. Is Women’s Body Building Being Excluded? Should it be? | Harbinger Fitness and You says:

    February 23rd, 2011at 3:16 pm(#)

    […] White and others bemoan the (potential) loss, Krista over at argues that it’s a sport that could go. She argues that it is exploitative and sexist, a sport […]

  7. Kristen says:

    February 23rd, 2011at 6:26 pm(#)

    I’ve just been thinking about my own training-schizophrenia, so this article helped me sort out my ideas.

    Throughout my adult life (I just turned 50), I “weight-trained” off and on, not really sticking to it until about 7 years ago. “I’m doing it for me” I finally said to myself, not meaning that I exercised to have a nice bod for someone else to look at, but rather that I would let other people’s needs and ideas about how I spend my time determine my life.

    Fast forward…so wow, this stuff really does work! I’ve always loved being strong, and now it keeps me in my skinny jeans! And I’m at a crossroads…why do I want my biceps bigger? etc. I’m in the skinny jeans…so what am I training for now???

    People have asked if I’m training for a competition, and the idea did strike me as a kick – I could say to my future grandchildren “Grandma was in a competition in a bikini when she was 50! heh heh” – but the dieting and most likely having a trainer tell me what to do in the gym does not appeal. I like my “alone” time in a gym full of the energy of other people and learning more and more about how to make myself stronger and this or that muscle bulge (all right, I’ll admit it).

    SoOoooo…am I going for strength? “sculpted” muscles just fer show? just to stay in my skinny jeans? in that case, do I need to spend so much time at it??? or is there a need for me to be more athletic? before I really got going on weight training, I didn’t know what my body could do in the world of sports! all of a sudden I had strength and endurance and could do…something! I guess I came in it through the back door…but what?

    Reading your article made me realize the answer is yes yes yes yes to all of those! It makes training a little, well, unfocused, but I guess the best thing is that I go to the gym without fail and love the hell out of it. It’s mine.

    Oh, and I started taking karate (following my daughters!) in October last year, and I’m looking forward to learning how to train myself with weights to be better at karate once I learn how to turn around without falling over. :)

    (Oh, yeah. And that ripped look of the bodybuilders in competitions – I think it’s kind of disturbing – and I love muscles!! But it reminds me of that show that was traveling around to all the science museums a few years ago – where they showed the human body with all the skin off.)

    Doing it for yourself. Yes!

  8. Coupon Codes says:

    February 23rd, 2011at 9:03 pm(#)

    I support you all, where do you want me to sign? :)

  9. Linds says:

    February 25th, 2011at 12:12 pm(#)

    Wow!! I had no idea that the IFBB and other physique organizations were planning on doing away with women’s bodybuilding.

    This was a very interesting read and as it was mentioned, part of the reason why they are doing this is most likley because women’s bodybuilding at this point in time isn’t putting butts in the seats. After all it is an industry that is there to make money. With the influx of women in the figure division and the bikini division, they are probably wanting to focus more on that since that is was is considered to be appealing to the “general public”.

    It is quite strange to go to a show now and see how few women there are in both the bodybuilding AND the fitness division. NPC has even taken out the 6 required strength and flexibility moves in the fitness division in order to make the routines easier. The fact that they are lumping all female bodybuilders into this category of huge massive muscle freaks is a little disheartening as well. When you go to some smaller natural shows, the women who compeate in bodybuilding are freaks or super large at all. They are just muscular and lean. Women who compete in bodybuilding are also judged only on their muscles and symetry, there is no inclusion of hair, makeup, skin tone etc. like there is in figure or bikini which is also another interesting aspect in this decision. Female bodybuilders often don’t even wear makeup during the initial judging rounds (which I can deal with!).

    Your description of female bodybuilding as being similar or part of a body mod subculture really strikes me as true. I have kind of seen it that way for both men AND women. To attain physiques like this requires a TON of hard work and dedication and I feel that if we did away with female Bodybuilding it would do a disservice to those women that WANT to celebrate their bodies and their work. But liek you said, THEY need to take control of it rather then allowing a pimp/promoter to tell them what to do.

    I myself have thought about competing and my significant other is a former all natural bodybuilder. After thinking about it and experiencing some shows as a spectator, I decided that physique competitions were not for me. The thought of preparation for the show seems to take the fun out of my workouts, food prep and general active lifestyle. I am more motivated by what my body can do then how it looks in a bikini on stage wearing orange paint. I find more joy in mountain climbing, hiking, running, hitting people with wooden swords and even dog sledding :). I already judge myself enough when looking in a mirror, I don’t need to stand on stage for a bunch of people to judge me as well.

  10. Susan says:

    February 28th, 2011at 9:40 am(#)

    Hi krista!! I have been bodybuilding/powerlifting for 33 years. I treasure my old copies of Muscle and Fitness featuring women like Bev Francis and Lenda Murray. I was never really interested in appearance or looking good in a bikini, but the feeling of strength and confidence has been magnificent. Recent copies of Muscle and Fitness, however, have been very disappointing: absolutely no strong women or inspiring personal stories, only a few lingerie models in suggestive poses, young (no older) men, and, of course, advertising for steroid-like supplements. I am so saddened by the whole trend and see strongly political undertones.
    I certainly appreciate the contributions of the functional fitness movement, Crossfit, etc, but still love the iron culture of the ’60s, ’70s, and 80’s.

  11. Sharon says:

    March 1st, 2011at 1:25 pm(#)

    Sooooo- the consensus is “Women’s IFBB bodybuilding may go away, but we don’t mind because we don’t respect it anymore.” Yes? In that case, maybe a new “institution” will take it’s place, something better maybe.

  12. Joob says:

    March 1st, 2011at 7:38 pm(#)

    As a point of interest, not all organizations are considering doing away with women’s bodybuilding… also… the IFBB is an “untested” federation. In my opinion, the women who compete in bodybuilding in shows like that are not representing strength in female form and female empowerment but rather abusing their bodies and pushing them to unnatural limits.

    While there are always naysayers against organizations like the WNBF and IFPA (natural organizations that require both polygraph tests and urinalysis testing for every show), I think the female bodybuilders in these federations deserve MUCH respect. They are strong, powerful women who do not look like she-hulks.

    I am competing in shows for the amateur affiliate organizations of both these leagues this spring. I am a 120 lb, size 2, 5’5″ female – by no means a shehulk – and I am considered in the heavyweight bodybuilding class. Just to put things into perspective.

  13. Michael says:

    March 4th, 2011at 11:18 pm(#)

    Hey Krista,
    Well, I guess I have a slightly different take on the bodybuilding industry. While I think the industry launched the weightlifting genre as we know it, I think it has overall done some major damage:

    1. Many women today are afraid to lift anything over 10 pounds for fear they will turn into a bodybuilder. Thanks to sites like Stumptuous, women have models of just how strong and beautiful a fit, female body is. However, the average person, in the US at least, believes that women are weak and will look like champion bodybuilders if they deadlift heavy.

    2. The classic images of bodybuilders over the past several decades have led to so much frustration, despair and drug use (especially in men) in trying to achieve an unrealistic level of muscularity. Years ago, the newsstand had all of the bodybuilding zines and one Men’s Fitness type magazine. Now it’s just the opposite. I hope the magazines eventually get rid of the anorexic female models, and replace them with natural female beauty.

    3. Photoshop… Nothing else to say.

    Like the women who have commented on your post, I agree that I despise any sort of subjective comparison of physiques, especially one that is so distorted! Anyway, I think if the women are banned, the men should be also. I think it’s great that support is down so these body distorting contests eventually fall by the wayside. The bodybuilding industry brought weightlifting into the homes of the average person, but it also brought some downright lies and has outlived its usefulness.

  14. Terry Gibbs says:

    March 9th, 2011at 8:14 pm(#)

    Lots to think about here.

    Womens bodybuilding is in a way opposite to mainstream sports. At the junior / amatuer level it appears to have many supporters. At the pointy end very few.

    Opposite of Olympic sports. At our local track meets the kids, the amatuers at state level, compete in front of family and other competitors. No spectators and no community support. No one in their right mind considers going to a state level track meet and paying to watch. At the pointy end, the OG 100m final the 100,000 tickets are sold by scalpers for $1,000 and the TV audience is over 1/4 the planet.

    For womens pro bodybuilding elete, it is reversed at the pointy end. They compete mainly in front of family and peers.

    Not sure what is says but it says something ..

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