Modern Female Bodybuilding

Lori Bowen


How It All Got Started

By Steve Wennerstrom

IFBB Women’s Archivist/Historian and Editor of Women’s Physique World

Photo: Bill Dobbins​

Rachel McLish won the 1980 US Bodybuilding Championships and was favored to win the first Ms. Olympia later that year.

Women’s curiosity regarding their own strength and physical capabilities is really nothing new. In the history of humankind – and in this case womankind – there have been many examples of women who possessed considerable strength, and dating back to the 1800’s, for example, virtually every circus featured a female who demonstrated impressive feats of strength.

Photo by Bill Dobbins

Prejudging was held in private, so the audience never got to study all the competitors at length.

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.

Led by Abbye ‘Pudgy’ Stockton and a handful of others, these earlypioneers of the women’s physical culture movement became internationally known and helped pave the way for a coming generation of females who would dedicate themselves to reaching an ultimate levelof physical development.

By the 1960’s and into the 70s, increased participation in women’s sports and Title IX added to the deeper awareness and the growing interest girls and women possessed.

There have been strong women in history, but the most famous in the 20th century was Pudgy Stockton. As was generally recognized during those days, one of the oldest and most widely accepted rules of the ‘Great American Femininity Game’ used to decree that it was all right for girls to be good sports, but never to be good at sports. That thought process was about to be dramatically altered with the coming of the 80s.

Photo by Bill Dobbins

Runner up Auby Paulick at the first Ms. Olympia had great abs and a terrific posing routine but couldn’t match Rachel in aesthetic symmetry.

Prior to 1977 bodybuilding had been considered strictly a male domain.The contests offered men the opportunity to display the hard-earned results of toiling long hours in the gym to develop maximum muscular development, and judges, following a specific set of guidelines, selected the individual who best demonstrated the look of the ideal physique. There was no such opportunity offered to women. From a simplistic standpoint, it could be assumed that the sport of women’s bodybuilding developed on its own as an outgrowth of the men’s sport and coupled with the phenomenon of the women’s sports movement during that time, it was an overwhelming certainty that sooner or later women would take their place on the bodybuilding stage.

Photo by Bill Dobbins

The pioneer female bodybuilders hadn’t been training long enough to build much mass, so they primarily competed by hard dieting.

But the birth of women’s bodybuilding did not happen by chance. Theprimary architect was Henry McGhee – an employee of the DowntownCanton YMCA – who carried a strong belief that women should share the opportunity of displaying their physiques and the results of their weight training the way men had done for years. These contests bore no relation to a conventional beauty pageant – and when an Ohio woman named Gina LaSpina won his first event in 1977, it was clear by her lean, muscular physique that the women of bodybuilding would be very different from any prior event where bikini-clad females had taken the stage in a judging format. 

Indeed, women’s bodybuilding would be about the development of muscle with the winners chosen by a combination of their given genetics, overall proportions, and muscular balance, all in tandem to present the most aesthetically pleasing female physique.

So, with McGhee’s events serving as ground zero in the birth of the sport, they helped lay the groundwork for women’s bodybuilding contests in the immediate future. 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.

Steve Wennerstrom was editor of Women’s Physique World, dedicated to the promotion of female bodybuilding. The idea quickly caught fire and by 1978 Florida bodybuilder Doris Barrilleaux(who, herself, had competed in one of McGhee’s contests) founded the Southeastern Physique Association (later to become the Superior Physique Association) promoting women’s contests throughout Florida and eventually across the country. Often calling herself ‘The First Lady of Women’s Bodybuilding’, Barrilleaux was also pivotal in the founding of the AFWB (American Federation of Women Bodybuilders), an organization- affiliated with the IFBB – that grew very quickly in the early 80s.

Photo by Bill Dobbins

Joe Weider was quick to feature Rachel McLish in his magazines.

 Vintage photo

Acrobat Louise Leers, AKA Vulcana, predated modern female bodybuilders..

All the while, naysayers consistently proclaimed that women simply weren’t capable of developing a level of musculature that would support a successful sport, and that the fledgling efforts by women to promote bodybuilding for women would surely fade in a short period of time. The reality was, however, that those who were disbelievers had sadly miscalculated the desire, perseverance and dedication these early competitors possessed. 

By 1979 women’s events were taking place across the country, offering titles such as Ms. Western America, ‘Best in the World’ and the 1st Women’s World Bodybuilding Championships. Meanwhile, contest sat the local, state and regional levels also began to spring up nationwide.Winners of these early events, such as Lisa Lyon, Stacey Bentley, Kay Baxter, Laura Combes and Rachel McLish, gained rapid notoriety and were sought after for numerous appearances on television.

Lisa Lyon was the first female bodybuilder to really come to public attention – on TV and in a book by Robert Mapplethorpe.

Shows such as David Susskind, Phil Donahue, Merv Griffin, MikeDouglas, 20/20, Good Morning America, and Real People all hurried to book female bodybuilders as the sport exploded on the national scene. Mainstream magazines and newspapers as well as the bodybuilding and fitness industry publications of the time all included stories about these pioneering women and their newfound fascination with developing muscle. And with these early contests came controversies over exactly what judges would be looking for in a championship female bodybuilder. At the forefront of these controversies was the level of muscle that would be deemed ‘acceptable’ for the female form while attempting to adhere to what was traditionally looked upon as feminine. Thesearguments and discussions still rage today.

But with almost each major contest, a new standard of development was set as the inevitable evolution and progression of the sport moved at warp speed.

Nineteen Eighty would become a watershed year for women’s bodybuilding, with inaugural events, including the United States Championships, American Championships and the Ms. Olympia, all

Photo by Bill Dobbins

When bodybuilder Mike Mentzer first saw Rachel McLish at the 1980 Olympia, his response was “What a thoroughbred.”

Photo by Bill Dobbins

Synchronized swimmer Carla Dunlap won the Ms. Olympia in 1983.

Finnish celebrity Kike Elomaa was the second Ms. Olympia, giving further rise to the burgeoning growth and popularity nationwide.Internationally, there was also an explosion of interest as countries around the globe held their first national championships. 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 Ms. Olympia in 1980 served as additional motivation to encouragemore women to enter the competitive scene.

In the first five years of its existence, women’s bodybuilding welcomednumerous women who had competed in other sports during their athletic careers. Gymnasts, swimmers, and track & field athletes all realized the base muscle structure they had developed from their prior sporting endeavors would offer a distinct advantage in higher contests placements. This pool of former athletes was enormous andcontributed notably to the growing numbers of women embarking on serious progressive-resistance weight training programs. These former athletes would not only enter the competitive arena, but they would also become legendary figures in what would become the early history of the sport.

The evidence of these former athletes achieving success in bodybuilding was clear and unmistakable. A winner of the 1983 Ms. Olympia, Carla Dunlap had competed as a top-level synchronized swimmer. Another future Ms. Olympia – Cory Everson – was a nationally ranked track & field performer, and former gymnast Lynn Conkwright won the first IFBB Pro World Championship. Australian Bev Francis was a world-class powerlifter before she became the IFBB Pro World champion. And many more would follow.

Laura Combs

But if there is a singular link drawing all these very special women together, it is the desire to explore their physicality in the most visual of ways, and in what has always been the most intensely personal platform– a woman’s self-image and how our society and culture perceives that image. For some it is a very difficult road. For others it is almost indescribably freeing.

More so, perhaps, than in any other sporting endeavor, women’s bodybuilding has been an experience that has helped women explore not just the exterior revelation of building a unique ‘container’ to live in, but also an interior journey in discovering the empowerment of life itself.

Photo by Bill Dobbins
Arnold was on hand for the first Ms. Olympia
in 1980.

Now, after just over three decades of existence, women’s bodybuilding continues to undergo much in the way of change. But if there is a certainty about its existence, the evolution and revolution most decidedly continues.

Steve & Friends

Photo by Bill Dobbins

Writer and photographer Steve Wennerstrom was editor of Women’s Physique World and IFBB Women’s Archivist/Historian.

Proof sheet from 1980 Ms. Olympia

Photos by Bill Dobbins

Editor in Chief.