Anne Bolin. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport. Editor: Karen Christensen & David Levinson. Volume 1, Berkshire Publishing, 2005.
Bodybuilding is exercising with weights to reshape the physique including the addition of muscle mass along with separating and defining the various muscle groups. Male and female bodybuilders display their physiques on the competitive stage in a series of mandatory poses and through a routine of poses choreographed to music; they are judged on their symmetry, muscle density, and definition. Whether practiced by men or women, bodybuilding is both a competitive performance sport and a lifestyle. Women began entering the male-defined spaces of gyms in the 1970s as a result of the health and fitness movement of the era that subsequently snowballed into a huge industry in the 1980s. By 1990, Time Magazine proclaimed: “Work that Body! Fewer curves, more muscles: a sweat-soaked revolution redefines the shape of beauty … Across the country, women are working out, … even pumping iron” (Donnelly 1990, 68).
Female bodybuilders differ from women who resistance train by the subcultural context of their experience that includes competition as a significant self-identifying feature. Robert Duff and Lawrence Hong conducted a study of 205 women bodybuilders registered with the International Federation of Bodybuilders (one of several bodybuilding organizations), and found that 74 percent were active competitors, while many of the others were either anticipating their first competition or were temporarily sidelined due to injury.
Bodybuilding competitions for men and women may look fairly similar in format, but the process, the competition, and the milieu, represent different cultural domains in Euro-American society. Men’s bodybuilding is a sport that reproduces and amplifies Western beliefs about the differences between men and women. Muscles signify masculinity in Western culture, and they testify to the belief that these differences are primarily based on biology.
A different cultural agenda is represented by women’s bodybuilding. The female bodybuilder is in a position to do just the opposite, to challenge bioreductivist views that place biology at the center of male-female differences.The female competitor’s body is a statement of rebellion against this view, a way of contributing to the wider redefinition of womanhood and femininity underway in Euro-American society. Women who are bodybuilders challenge the Western view of women as the weaker sex; instead they live and embody a femininity that includes strength and muscularity.
The first bodybuilding competition for men was staged in 1901 and established a history with unbroken continuity. Although women’s bodybuilding followed closely in 1903; it was discontinued in 1905 and did not reappear in its modern form until 1975. The physique exhibitions of the music halls and theaters of the “strongman era” of the 1800s are, however, part of the ancestry of modern competitive bodybuilding for both women and men.
The mid to late 1800s were a period in which strongmen and muscular display provided the roots for the physical culture movement that branched out into various sports. This variety notwithstanding, the movement maintained some continuity through the late 1930s, when men’s physique contests started to become their own distinctive form of athletic contest. As discussed below, it was not until forty-five years later that modern women’s competitions were initiated.
Men’s History and Development of Men’s Competitions
The mid-nineteenth century health-reform movement with its emphasis on exercise was the springboard for the physical-culture movement. This was initially expressed in American and European popular culture as the strongman and physique showman era, buttressed by a developing industry associated with resistance and weight training, including equipment, programs, and the expertise of professionals. The growth of the fitness industry was linked with broader trends of an emerging middle class, increasing urbanism, and attendant concerns regarding the effects of increasing sendentarism. The strength and health elements of physical culture also appealed to the flood of immigrants to America in the early 1900s. Many occupied blue-collar positions that demanded sheer physical wherewithal as well. Into this milieu stepped Eugene Sandow, who first displayed his well-sculpted physique to Americans at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair after training with his mentor, former strongman Professor Attila Brussels. Sandow was able to capitalize and give impetus to a new Euro-American cult of masculinity that emphasized exercise, weight training, and an embodied health and physicality. Having gained British acclaim, his career skyrocketed in America and he became the masculine ideal for American men. His good looks, muscular physique, and great strength were coupled with an entrepreneurial genius that flourished in America and upon his subsequent return to England. He not only operated an active mail-order business and physical culture studios, but he invented and sold exercise equipment, published and founded the first bodybuilding magazine Physical Culture (1898), and promoted exercise for women. In 1901, he promoted the first bodybuilding competition, called the Great Competition in the Royal Albert Hall in London. His criterion for judging was remarkably modern, emphasizing balanced muscularity over total muscular size (Bolin 1996, Chapman 1994; Todd 1991).
In America, Bernarr Macfadden, a contemporary of Sandow who was, in fact, greatly inspired by him, was also extremely successful in translating physical culture into a successful business. He published magazines on physical culture, including Physical Development (1898), and like Sandow, his business flourished though an array of enterprises including health studios, physical culture clubs, personal appearances, lectures, books, the sales of home exercise equipment, and the promotion of strength and physique exhibitions and contests. He also was an advocate for women’s physical fitness. Macfadden may be credited with sponsoring the first major American bodybuilding contest in 1903 that was undoubtedly modeled on Sandow’s 1901 Great Competition. His contest gained notoriety in that it also included the world’s first women’s bodybuilding contests from 1903-1905.
Macfadden’s contest was based on a system of qualification through regional contests as a prelude to a national competition selecting the most perfect man in the United States. It became an annual event that continued through the 1920s and 1930s. Following Sandow, his contests emphasized that the winner’s physiques were selected on the basis of a balanced, proportional and symmetrical muscular development. It was Macfadden’s 1921 physique contest that gave America a glimpse of its first American bodybuilding media personality, Charles Atlas, aka Angelo Siciliano, who was hailed as the “Most Perfectly Developed Man in America” (Klein 1993).
Through the efforts of Macfadden and those who followed him, by the 1930s physique contests had gained in popularity so that the Amateur Athletic Union began integrating bodybuilding as a part of its weight-lifting competitions. The first Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national contest titled “America’s Best Built Man” was held in 1939 and subsequently became known as the “Mr. America.” Despite the popularity of associating physique competitions with demonstration of athletic expertise and strength, this was a period in which the idea of the physique competitor as a distinctive form became emergent.
As more national contests followed, men’s bodybuilding grew economically and in the consciousness of the American imagination, attracting a unique athlete whose interests were in celebration of the muscular physique. The development of physique competition was given impetus through the Californian Muscle Beach phenomenon. From the 1930s through the 1950s Muscle Beach thrived in its original location in Santa Monica but in the 1950s it relocated to Venice Beach. Muscle Beach included some of the most famous names in bodybuilding and fitness history, including Jack La Lanne, Joe Gold, John Grimek and Pudy and Les Stockton among many others.
The history of bodybuilding from the 1940s through the 1960s is intimately tied to the incremental hegemony of the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB) controlled by Joe and Ben Weider over the AAU’s incipient domination of the sport of bodybuilding, spearheaded by Bob Hoffman. The 1960s has come to be regarded as the Golden Age of bodybuilding. This is attributed in part to the flourishing of Venice Beach bodybuilding culture as well as the creation of the first professional bodybuilding title in 1965: the IFBB Mr. Olympia. The last twenty years have witnessed the continued professionalization of the sport, the full incorporation of women’s bodybuilding and the development of “natural bodybuilding” as a distinctive venue. Bodybuilding however, still remains a somewhat specialized sport with a following of beloved female and male “muscleheads” and gym rats.
Women’s Bodybuilding History
Health reform in the mid-nineteenth century combined with early feminism to promote the novel idea that exercise was healthful for women and that women’s muscles could be beautiful. This was contrary to the dominant white middle-class notion of femininity as fragile and ethereal, the embodiment of which was enhanced by the custom of tightly laced corsets that continued through the turn of the century. Health reform and feminism made some inroads, but women remained hesitant to exercise for fear of losing their “natural” curves (created by tight lacing) and developing muscular bodies. Then, in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, beauty standards evolved to include the athletic aesthetic of the “Gibson Girl.”
It was in this milieu in the first part of the twentieth century that Eugene Sandow began to bring women into his physical culture enterprises. Sandow challenged prevailing views of the passive and frail woman, and he was extremely critical of corsets. He promoted an idea of a femininity that included strength and exercise for all women to bring them good health and cure illness. Similarly Bernarr MacFadden saw an opportunity to include women in his enterprises. In 1889 MacFadden began to publish Physical Culture, a periodical, in the United States and his second issue contained his first articles on women’s health and exercise.
Macfadden was a strong advocate for the benefits of exercise for women. He founded the first women’s magazine, Women’s Physical Development, in 1900, and changed the name in 1903 to Beauty and Health: Women’s Physical Development. In addition, Macfadden may have been the first to sponsor a women’s physique competition, a precedent to modern women’s bodybuilding competitions: From 1903 to 1905 he held local and regional physique competitions that finished with a grand competition, where the “best and most perfectly formed woman” won a prize.
Macfadden, however, fell prey to his own success. His cultivation of women’s physique competitions inadvertently stopped the sport until the 1970s. In 1905, shortly before his Madison Square Garden Mammoth Physical Culture Exhibition that included the finale of the women’s competition, Macfadden’s office was raided by Anthony Comstock of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Comstock accused Macfadden of pandering pornography. Included among the alleged pornographic materials that Comstock acquired in his raid were posters of the finalists of the women’s physique competition who were dressed in white form-fitting leotard-like exercise wear.
Publicity about Macfadden’s subsequent arrest and the decision that he was indeed dealing in pornography was an advertisement that attracted even more spectators. The Mammoth Physical Culture Exhibition had an audience of 20,000 and turned away 5,000 more. That was, however, the end of his enterprise.
Music halls and circuses of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were also venues for displays of women’s physiques. This was the era in which very large and muscular strongwomen displayed their strength. One muscular diva was Sandwina, who performed with the Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1910. Standing six feet one inch, and weighing 209 pounds, she could jerk 280 pounds over her head and was able to carry her husband over her head using one arm. Another strongwoman, Vulcana (Katie Roberts) continued to perform through the 1940s, but no real audience for strongwomen developed until the final two decades of the nineteenth century and first two of the twentieth century.
According to Jan Todd, the 1920s and 1930s brought in wider societal acceptance of a new fit and slender physical ideal for women in contrast to the sheer size and mass of the “Amazon-like” strongwomen such as Sandwina, Minerva, Madame Montagna and others who weighed in at over two hundred pounds. It is Santa Monica’s Abbye (“Pudgy”) Eville Stockton who may be given credit as a central figure in popularizing a new embodiment of femininity as strong and fit dovetailing with America’s war effort. She was a regular in the developing Muscle Beach mecca of physical culture displaying her strength and athleticism through weight-lifting and acrobatics. Her athletic figure coupled with her striking looks made her a national figure. She may be seen as America’s first fitness model. She promoted products and graced the covers of forty-two magazines. In 1944 she began writing a regular column for women on the benefits of weightlifting for Bob Hoffman’s Strength and Health magazine that appeared for just under a decade. Indeed Bob Hoffman was one of the first promoters of women’s weightlifting in the 1930s. John D. Fair maintains that he did more “than any other promoter to advance the concept of weight training for women” throughout his career as physical culture business maven and Olympic coach. However as a sport, women’s bodybuilding is distinct from weight lifting and power lifting.
Two major influences in the development of women’s bodybuilding were the 1950s reintroduction of resistance training for women athletes and the feminist movement of the 1960s. Throughout the 1940s weight training by women athletes was at the individual level; however the 1950s ushered in an era in which national and Olympic athletic teams began using weight training in their respective sports. Resistance training for women in general gained a large following in the 1970s, as the fitness industry exploded. Health clubs and spas enticed women by offering aerobics classes, selling fashionable athletic attire, and providing color-coordinated locker rooms with amenities such as blow dryers and curling irons.
Hardcore bodybuilding gyms distinguished themselves symbolically from these health clubs and spas in the 1970s and 1980s through cultural features associated with the masculine such as a “no frills” atmosphere. In its infancy in the 1970s to early 1980s, women’s bodybuilding began to find a home in the hardcore gyms where men trained, and became part of the history of bodybuilding as it moved from these gyms into the scientific and contemporary pavilions of nutrition and training of today. As Tom Platz, Mr. Universe 1978, reminisces, “Prior to 1983, the gym was a man’s sanctuary… [t]here was also just a handful of girls who trained in those days.” In the new millennium, few of these “hard core” bastions of bodybuilding survive, having been replaced by contemporary chains such as Gold’s Gym.
Development of Women’s Bodybuilding Competitions
Since its inception in the 1970s, the sport of women’s bodybuilding has been transformed from one in which the competitors wore high heels and rarely performed muscular poses such as the iconic front double biceps with closed fists, which were discouraged. These bodybuilding contests were accused of being nothing more than beauty pageants. The seeds of early women’s bodybuilding lie in the occasional beauty body contest held during men’s bodybuilding events. For example, a Ms. Body Beautiful competition was held during the 1973 World Bodybuilding Guild Mr. America Championships, and the Miss America was held during the Mr. Olympia at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was not until the 1980s that women’s bodybuilding contests were legitimized as competitions in their own right, not just as auxiliaries for male competitions. The first Miss (now Ms.) Olympia, regarded as the zenith of women’s bodybuilding titles, was held in 1980 and set the standard for women’s international and professional titles that continues today.
Through the 1980s, 1990s and the new millennium bodybuilding continues to grow as a sport and as big business. The women competitors have, over time, achieved degrees of muscularity, symmetry, and definition once believed impossible for women to achieve. Nevertheless, since its beginnings, women bodybuilders have been involved in a debate over the issue of muscularity and femininity.
Women’s competitive bodybuilding is entrenched in men’s bodybuilding organizationally. No separate women’s organizations exist today, although in the early 1980s, Doris Barrilleaux founded and was president of the American Federation of Women Bodybuilders. Barrilleaux may be credited as the parent of women’s bodybuilding. At the age of forty-seven Barrilleaux began competing in what purported to be women’s physique contests, but were in reality beauty pageants. Her disaffection with these contests and her vision of women’s bodybuilding, which featured muscular development, led her to establish the Superior Physique Association and to publish the SPA News, a newsletter for women bodybuilders in 1979. As early as 1983, Barrilleaux lobbied the International Federation of Bodybuilders to test the women competitors for illicit performance-enhancing drugs. Currently, the NPC and the IFBB have women’s representatives as do some of the self-identified natural bodybuilding organizations such as the Organization of Competitive Bodybuilders.
Prominent organizations are the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB, www.ifbb.com) and the National Physique Committee (NPC, www.getbig.com), founded by Ben and Joe Weider. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU, www.aausports.org) was involved early on in bodybuilding, holding its first Mr. America Contest in 1939. Bob Hoffman played a major role in the development of American bodybuilding through his influence on the AAU. For nearly two decades, the AAU and the IFBB competed for control of muscledom. By the 1990s, the IFBB was able to claim hegemony over the sport although other organizations continue to hold competitions such as the National Amateur Bodybuilders Association (NABBA, www.nabba.com), an international organization with fifty active nations, making it the second largest organization for bodybuilders worldwide. The AAU dropped the physique competitions from their venue at the end of 1999, although some AAU competitions have been revived.
The 1990s also brought the establishment of organizations targeted to drug-free athletes, as well as the promotion of drug-free shows by existing organizations, such as the NPC (amateur), and IFBB (international and professional), from the local to the international level. Since the 1980s, a burgeoning of natural/drug-tested organizations has occurred in part because the public has become more aware of anabolic steroid use among athletes in general. There are over twenty extant natural drug-tested organizations such as the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF, www.wnbf.net), which sponsors professional-level bodybuilding shows with affiliates at the amateur level including the International Natural Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation and the North American Natural Bodybuilding Federation, NABBA International and its affiliates, the United States Bodybuilding Federation, and Natural Bodybuilding Incorporated, among others. The drug-tested organizations and competitions are international in scope. The WNBF includes a number of country affiliates including South Africa, Great Britain, Japan, Switzerland, and Germany. In 2002, the IFBB has formulated its anti-doping program for the Amateur Division following International Olympic Committee and World Anti-Doping Agency banned substances and methods protocols (IFBB 2002). The NPC also offers specified competitions that require drug tests.
This anti-doping program is part of a broader IFBB strategy to eventually gain Olympic status for bodybuilding. According it the IFBB president Ben Weider, “the overall goal of the IFBB is to gain Olympic participation.” In 1986 and 1987 doping controls were implemented at the World Amateur Bodybuilding Championships for men and women respectively and subsequently at all IFBB amateur events. Currently, the General Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) recognizes the IFBB as the only International Sport Governing Body (ISGB) for the sport of bodybuilding.
The debate over masculinity and femininity continues in women’s bodybuilding. The basic question is: how muscular can a woman be and still be feminine? From the beginning of women’s bodybuilding in the late 1970s the women athletes were confronted with this dilemma. They wanted to be taken seriously as athletes and despite their muscularity, they wanted to maintain their femininity. In 1979, after winning the first major women’s bodybuilding competition, Lisa Lyon stated, “women can be strong, muscular and at the same time feminine.” And female bodybuilders today still echo this concern. Kim Chizevsky, the 1998 Ms. Olympia, declared that “People need to start changing their views about women bodybuilders. We’re strong muscular women, but we’re beautiful feminine women too.”
Although the debate over femininity and muscularity was inflamed by anabolic steroid use among women competitors, this debate actually existed prior to the reported use of steroids among competitors. This debate surfaced in the infancy of women’s bodybuilding when Gloria Miller Fudge first kicked off her high heels. It arose again when Cammie Lusko, in the 1980 Miss Olympia, presented a “hardcore muscular routine,” using poses associated with men’s bodybuilding in displaying her muscularity; she drove the audience wild, but didn’t even place in the competition.
That women bodybuilders at elite levels have been becoming more muscular has been attributed by some to the increasing sophistication of anabolic steroid use and other doping technologies. In the early days, however, women did not commonly use steroids, yet the debate over muscles and femininity was well underway as a discourse.
Between 1980 and 1989, the sport of bodybuilding as epitomized in the Ms. Olympia contest deferred to society’s view of femininity. The judges selected athletic, slim, and graceful women, reflected in the embodiments of Rachel McLish and Cory Everson, as opposed to the more muscular physiques of competitors such as Bev Francis. The debate over the direction the sport would take was resolved with the retirement of Cory Everson in 1989. Cory Everson, six-time Ms. Olympia champion, was not known for having a great deal of muscle mass but was said to embody the perfect combination of symmetry, muscularity, and femininity.
In 1990 Lenda Murray won the Ms. Olympia over Bev Francis, known as a woman whose muscle mass had been way ahead of its time. Francis, who had the year before trimmed her physique down to be competitive with Everson, lost to the heavily muscled Murray because she was not muscular enough. The following year Francis muscled up again but came in second to Murray in the 1991 Olympia because this time the judges felt she was too muscular. Francis subsequently retired, and the 1992 Olympia became the stage on which the debate was resolved in favor of muscularity. Lenda Murray won yet again and remained undefeated until the even more muscular but also ultra-ripped (lean) and hard, Kim Chizevsky claimed the title in 1996 and continued to hold through 1998; retiring in that year from bodybuilding to go into fitness competitions. This trend for increasing muscle mass is illustrated in the increasing body weights of the competitors: In 1983 the average weight of the Ms. Olympia contenders was 121 pounds while in 1997 it was 155 pounds.
Although steroids and other doping techniques may play a role in enhanced muscularity, other factors have accelerated progress in both men and women bodybuilders. The competitors have been training over a longer period of time; their muscles have matured, and the sport has enjoyed an explosion in scientific research on training techniques, nutrition, and supplements.
Also caught in the muscularity/femininity debate are judging standards, known in the bodybuilding community to be unstable; even as the emphasis on muscularity seemed to be predominant, the female bodybuilder was often required to maintain a seemingly ineffable quality of femininity that was never defined or clearly articulated in the judging criteria.
During the period of Kim Chizevsky’s reign, professional women bodybuilders have shown they were willing to take their physiques up a notch, getting bigger and harder in the course of two years in the Ms. Olympia. However in 2000, after the near cancellation of the Ms. Olympia in 1999 and reduction in prize money at 1998 Ms. Olympia, the IFBB offered new rules in January 2000 for judging that would include the women’s face and makeup. In addition, women would be judged on “symmetry, presentation, separations and muscularity, but not to the extreme.” Bill Dobbins, bodybuilding journalist, social critic, and advocate of women’s bodybuilding, argues that women bodybuilders are victims of their own success; that is, they are just too good at building muscle. Chizevsky set what could be perceived by the IFBB as a dangerous precedent achieving a size and harness that had never been equaled on a bodybuilding stage.
To buttress the new direction for women’s bodybuilding, the IFBB reorganized the Ms. Olympia to include both a lightweight and a heavy weight title in 2000 and in 2001 introduced an overall title pitting the light and heavy weight winners against one another. From 2000 to present, the impact of the new judging standards has been represented in the physiques of the winners. In the 2001 Ms. Olympia, Juliette Bergmann came out of retirement after her last competition in 1989 to win the overall title with an aesthetic and softer look than her competition. And in 2002 Lenda Murray returned to the Ms. Olympia stage after a five-year hiatus to capture the crown and win her seventh Ms. Olympia against Juliette Bergmann, with a repeat performance in 2003. Murray is known for having the complete package of symmetry and proportion as well as the “cover girl” beauty that guarantees the endorsement success of so many women athletes in the contemporary world of commodification.
As a sport, women’s bodybuilding rebels against traditional notions of femininity and in doing so, contributes to a broader, ongoing redefinition of femininity and womanhood in society today. Bodybuilding as a sport symbolically sustains traditional images of masculinity as associated with strength and power embodied in the ideal of the male bodybuilder. Images of this body type signify youth, health, sexual virility, and power. Arnold Schwarzenegger illustrated this in his dialogue in the movie Pumping Iron, where he directly links pumping up the muscles to male sexual arousal and orgasm. Competitive women’s bodybuilding blurs gender differences. This occurs not only through the muscularity of the competitive women bodybuilder, but also in the subculture of bodybuilding itself where gender is enacted in the gym. In these less public spheres, serious athletes are serious athletes regardless of gender.
Bodybuilding Rules and Play
Women and men are judged by the same criteria, although femininity is an issue in the judging process for women. In assessing competitors’ physiques, judges rely on three primary criteria. These include the depth and development of muscularity; symmetry, or the proportions of the body parts/muscle groups in relation to one another (for example, shoulder width and muscularity in relationship to waist and thighs); and definition generally characterized as the degree of visibility of muscle striations and separation, leanness, and general hardness of the body. Related to this is the visibility of veins and the thinness or transparency of the skin, called vascularity.
Bodybuilders strive to achieve muscular size and density as well as make their body more symmetrical through development of various muscle groups. To do so, they follows a rigorous training plan and a strategy for continual improvement. Preparation for contests includes disciplined dieting, training, attention to nutrition, posing practice, and the preparation of a choreographed posing routine.
In the subculture of bodybuilding, muscular development and definition are not regarded as qualities that belong exclusively to men or women. The difference between the two genders is one of degree, not kind. Thus, bodybuilders do not consider muscles a physical symbol of masculinity, but rather a generic quality available to humans. Seriousness and training hard are the badges of those who are members of the subculture.
At the local, state, and national levels, competitions consist of two segments. In the morning or pre-judging portion, the majority of the judging decisions are made. The judges rank the competitors in each class usually from first to third and sometimes fifth place for trophies. In the evening show, usually the first five bodybuilders in each class are judged again and these scores are added into prejudging scores. Following this, the winners of each class compete against each for the over-all title. The overall winners are selected in night shows (bodybuilding contests are also referred to as shows because of their performance aspect) as the winner of each class competes for the overall title. The trophies are given in the evening show. National and international competitions, both professional and amateur, may have different agendas. For example, professionals in the International Federation of Bodybuilders are typically judged in three rounds based on symmetry, muscularity, and posing ability, as displayed in the choreographed posing routine and a “posedown” round. Posing ability is not usually a factor in the amateur contests, although it is significant in couples-posing competitions. Best posing-routine trophies are given out at some contests. Breaking a judging tradition, the 2004 Mr. Olympia has established a new approach to judging. A callout venue has been added wherein the top six competitors will be allowed to challenge one another on a bodypart/pose basis to establish the final ranking and winner of the Mr. Olympia (Perine 2004, 82-95).
Competitors are usually placed in weight categories, although some organizations include height categories. Master’s categories for women and men are also included at various shows. The age requirements vary among organizations; some begin the master’s category at age thirty and others at thirty-five years of age. The general trend has been for the competitions to offer more age categories for masters men than for women, with some competitions only offering master’s categories for men. Recently organizations and promoters have begun to offer more age categories for women at the local and regional level. Several organizations, among them the NPC and various national organizations, have national master’s competitions. At the international level, the International Federation of Bodybuilders’ Mr. Olympia contest includes the men’s masters Olympia, although the Ms. Olympia does not yet have a women’s masters Olympia.
Since 1995, with the inaugural Ms. Fitness Olympia and the increasing popularity of Ms. Fitness competitions (a competition that combines elements of beauty pageants with those of an aerobics competition), various bodybuilding writers have pronounced the death knell of women’s bodybuilding. More recently figure competitions have also been added to the bodybuilding venue. Figure competitions are similar to fitness competitions without the required fitness routine wherein competitors demonstrated flexibility and strength with the most successful women having gymnastic ability. Figure competitions, introduced at the national level in 2001 and the professional level in 2003 with the inaugural Figure Olympia are arguably the fastest growing segment with the most number of competitors among the three women’s physique sports (Bolin 2004).
Despite the competition for attention and resources (e.g. sponsors) by fitness and figure competitors whose physiques represent more traditional ideals of feminine embodiment, women’s bodybuilding continues to survive, although its growth is more gradual than that of the figure competitions with some evidence suggesting the numbers have peaked but stabilized. Data from the USA Bodybuilding competition are indicative. The USA Bodybuilding contest is a very competitive national amateur-level arena. In 1999, there were thirteen women competitors. However, this increased to fifty-three in 2000, escalating to sixty-six (an increase over the prior three years) in 2002 and dropping back down to fifty-two in 2003. The Ms. Olympia indicates a similar trend with peaks and valleys that stabilize at a threshold level over the twenty-four competitions since 1980. The Ms. Olympia went from a high of thirty-two women in 1993 to a low of twelve in 1996, 1999, and 2000. Numbers of competitors oscillated at a threshold level of fourteen to eighteen in half the competitions, but these numbers must be viewed in the context of the number of pro cards available within a given year and the special invitations offered by the IFBB to certain women.
Competitive bodybuilding is a sport that spans all age groups, from teen to masters. For either gender, bodybuilding requires no special skills except determination, although at the elite levels, those who are genetically predisposed with a symmetrical body shape, full muscle bellies, small joints, and muscle that grows readily, will have an advantage. Those not so endowed can compensate and successfully compete through discipline, the acquisition of bodybuilding lore, scientific training techniques, and good nutrition. There is a diversity of organizations at the local, regional, national, international and professional levels. Bodybuilding may be regarded as a very democratic sport, spanning all age groups and ethnicities. It can be a rewarding hobby or an exciting professional career.