Female Bodybuilding: The Ups and Downs of Women Bodybuilders.

Aisha Powell
Sep 22, 2017 · 5 min read

“I don’t know, if you’re like really big and go to the gym a lot you are a body building, I think,” said a Penn State senior majoring in nutritional science. “A lot of big guys here at Penn State body build I am guessing, that’s how they get so big,” she continued.

When asked to describe a female bodybuilder, she paused. She fiddled with her pen for a little and had trouble getting her idea across. “A female body-builder is a girl who works out too much, she gets really big and muscular. It’s a little scary; not really what a guy wants I think,” she said. And the stereotype of the female building stereotype is enforced, again.

The idea that women with too much muscles are “unattractive” and “gross”, Unfortunately many people correlate female body building with those negative adjectives. Even from the beginning of bodybuilding, obstacles have been put in the way to steer woman away and keep it male dominated.


Creating by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, lifting weights to create muscles was orginally for entertainment; a circus side show. The initial purpose wasn’t for self-gratification or for personal gain, but for pleasing the hundreds of spectators that it drew.

As time progressed, this “freak show” changed into the first bodybuilding competition in 1891 called “The Great Show.” The prize was monetary and marked the start of bodybuilding for purposes other than circus entertainment.

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Winners of the first ever “Great Show”

Bodybuilding thus grew to a big corporate enterprise focused on people wanting to gain muscle mass for aesthetic and personal reasons. Mr. Olympia, was one of the first large scale bodybuilding competition, that drew thousands of bodybuilders to fight for the title. As their popularity increased, women began to enter the field as well, but not without resistance.

In 1980, Joe Weider’s Olympia Fitness & Performance Weekend, creators of Mr. Olympia, decided to expand the competition. They created Ms. Olympia, the female version of the super popular Mr. Olympia. Rachel McLish became the first winner of Ms. Olympia and broke the barriers for female in the fitness community. Other female body builders like Bev Francis, Anja Langer, Cory Everson, Lenda Murray and so much more continued the legacy for female body building and subsequently women’s equality.

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Rachel McLish (left) and Anja Langer (right) | Photo from girlswithmuscles.com

One of the more famous female bodybuilders and “The First Lady of Sports Entertainment”, could be seen maneuvering out of any chokehold on Monday night raw. Joan Marie Laurer or most commonly known as Chyna, was a regular on the World Wrestling Foundation’s (WWF) TV show, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).

Chyna made her debut in February 1997 and was with WWF for 5 years. She was the only female to be the undefeated Women’s Champion on WWF, Intercontinental Champion and the only female to qualify for Royal Rumble and Kind of the Ring tournaments.

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Joanie Laurer, the former wrestler known as Chyna, in an undated photo | Photo from the NYTimes

As more and more women dominated and popped up in the bodybuilding scene, the push-back grew.


In 2005, Joe Weider’s Olympia Fitness & Performance Weekend, implemented the “20 percent rule,” asking women to decrease their muscular body content, by a factor of 20 percent. The organization, gave a simple explanation about the new rules, but fans and contenders saw message clear as day; women were looking “too masculine”.

The talk regarding femininity didn’t stop there, female competitors were critiqued on factors that weren’t apart of judging. What there face looked like, how their voice sounded, if there were veins in their forehead, if someone could “tell” they were a woman.

In 2015, the accredited Ms. Olympia was dropped and the accesibility of seeing women in bodybuilding declined with it. People criticizing women’s appearances, derogatory name calling and defeminizing women was in full effect.

A forum on bodybuilding.com, under the “Misc” (miscellaneous) category has 7 pages of over 60 thousand comments bashing and criticizing female bodybuilders appearances.

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A comment from the forum

A term “man face” was beginning to be used to describe how female bodybuilders faces looked. People questioning the possibility of drugs (that some women were taking), specifically steroids, to achieve their “impossible” figures. The questioning continued, with people thinking women couldn’t compete with men and if women actually really worked hard to achieve their bodies in the first place.

The misogyny inAmerica was killing off female body builders, and creeped into girls just working in the gym.


“I want to get stronger and I want to get bigger. I am not thinking about what men want or how to please them,” said Jane Qiu a Penn State senior majoring in Kinesiology.

Qiu wrestled in high school but once she came to college she wanted something more excited and difficult. She started strength training and then she stumbled upon body building. From then she has been obsessed and trains 5 times a week.

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Jane Qiu (bench pressing) and Christian Ramos (spotting), during one of her training sessions, at Penn State’s gym Rec Hall. (photo by: Aisha Powell)

Although the two most prominent women’s body building competitions are no longer being presented, women today still enjoy body building like Qiu. She never fell into the ideology that women shouldn’t bodybuild or that it defeminized her as a person.

“When I am in the gym and squatting more than guys, they get nervous. It is funny to me, why can’t a girl be a girl and be strong?” Qiu said.

In 2015, the Rising Phoenix a female bodybuilding competition was created. Launchers Jake and Kristal Wood wanted to give women the opportunity to compete, since the other competition was annulled. The prize is $50,000 and jeep worth $55,000, more than Ms. Olympia ever had.

In fact, interest in body building for women, never went away. They are just being suppressed by people who were uncomfortable with women obtaining the same status as men.

The ups and downs of female body has a long history deeply rooted in gender norms and male preferences. Although, women got their feet into the door, they have a long way to go before they truly get accepted and receive fairness in the bodybuilding world. The key to equality is for society to stop telling women what they should look like and allow people to live their lives as they choose.

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