Is female bodybuilding on the verge of a slow death?
The question isn’t who’s going to let me; it’s who’s going to stop me. (Ayn Rand)
Society has long decided what women should look like, how they should behave and what should they do when facing certain situations mostly because history shows us quite often that there has always been a classical division of labour between men and women. Still, all the activities of our ancestor hunter-gatherer women would in our modern times be seen as heavy manual labour.
In her research, SIMPLY WOMEN’S BODYBUILDING: GENDER AND THE FEMALE COMPETITION CATEGORIES, SHEENA A. HUNTER stated that women’s bodybuilding is ‘by its very nature, defiant and disruptive of gender norms. As female bodybuilders have pushed against feminine ideals, particularly that of the slender body, the bodybuilding industry has responded by increasing the overt monitoring, limiting, and articulation of what the feminine body should look like. As a result, female bodybuilders now strive not only to build muscular physiques, but to do so while maintaining a feminine appearance’
When we say ‘female bodybuilder’ some people that are not in the fitness industry tend to gasp and frown and have opinions while those in the industry, although less bothered, seem to not be as impressed as when you would say ‘male bodybuilder’.
Nevertheless, we have to keep in mind that bodybuilding, just like any sport requires discipline and loads of hard work from both men and women but it seems that since it was officialised, women’s bodybuilding competitions have been quite controversial. In the lines that follow, we aim to have a closer look at what exactly is Women’s Bodybuilding.
Women’s Bodybuilding: past and present
For a long time, bodybuilding was a manly man’s sport and women weren’t competing. In November 1977 all this changed, with the first official female bodybuilding competition called the Ohio Regional Women’s Physique Championship that was held in Canton, Ohio. The judging was done strictly as a bodybuilding contest (just like men’s contests were judged) and Gina LaSpina was the first officially recognised champion of a woman’s bodybuilding contest.
The first “female bodybuilding” contest that awarded prize money (winner receiving $2500) to the finalists was held on 18th August 1979; the event was called ‘The Best in the World contest’ and it was the first IFBB-sanctioned event for women.
In time, the competitions have evolved as female bodybuilders themselves have evolved and new categories have been created to accommodate a broad variety of size, muscularity, presentation, and femininity.
There are now four main categories of female bodybuilding
- Bikini: “A softer look” that’s more focused on the traditional female body shape. Considered the least bulky of the three women’s bodybuilding categories, the bikini class emphasizes muscle tone and symmetry, but also some level of softness
- Figure: “still quite very feminine but emphasizes muscle definition and symmetry,”.
- Physique: This category is more about muscle size and development.
- Body Building: This is the heavily muscled/low body fat look most people usually think of.
Recently though, certain poses have been removed so it’s not an oversexualized flirt show, as the judges want to see a strong body without the extras.
Is Wonderwoman real?
Some women who unarguably work extremely hard on their physiques say they will never take part into these sort of competitions because they lack substance, they are vain and are only about appearance. Others find their way into the sport through friends at the gym and take part in bodybuilding competitions in order to prove something to themselves or to others, or just simply because they are hooked on the competing side of it. It’s a divided mindset for sure and for those who are new to it, women’s bodybuilding can be quite intimidating, but with so many women competing every year and the continuous rise of fitness on social media, women’s bodybuilding is one of the fastest growing athletic events.
But you heard it’s facing a slow death
There has been a debate concerning the subject of women bodybuilding competitions, having sides equally arguing for the fact that either this sort of sport is losing audience or it’s getting bigger (no pun intended) by the year.
In 2015, the Ms. Olympia contest was dropped, thus many concluded that this could potentially mark the end of women’s bodybuilding. It has been speculated that the audience for women’s bodybuilding is getting smaller due to the masculinisation of the whole thing, the drugs, the crazy diets, the judging, the financial aspects.
And there we were, thinking that women’s bodybuilding was easy business: work out, dress up, show up.
There’s loads more to these competitions than meets the eye; besides the disciplined lifestyle, female bodybuilders (just like their male counterparts) work with personal trainers a minimum of six months before competition go to the gym 90 minutes five or six days a week. They focus on weight training, followed by cardio and as they get closer to the competition, they add posing classes, where they learn to move in heels to a routine that best highlights their muscle tone and symmetry while showcasing their stage presence and overall attitude.
There are some athletes who a living through magazine contracts and sponsorships, but most just pay their costs out of pocket: personal trainers, memberships, registrations, travelling, costumes; everything ends up costing a small fortune.
Is it healthy?
The popular belief seems to think so but there are people who heavily debate the health aspects of these competitions, saying that it’s better to maintain a good health and a lean body all year round rather just before and during the competitions.
It’s important to keep in mind that just like male bodybuilders, women have to follow the same strict diet, having to weigh and measure everything that they eat, have to train twice per day and schedule when it the optimal time to eat in order to maximise fat burn.
In this complex and sometimes consuming world of female bodybuilding, we often times see women spend loads of hours in the gym working every part of their body to the limit, but might the price they pay for their 60 seconds on stage be just a bit too high? The effects on their bodies can be irreversible, and the subculture as a whole can be consuming, obsessive and dangerous. The extreme workouts, the yo-yo dieting, the overfeeding, the worry, the supplements, the restrictive lifestyle, they all take their toll on the overall and long term athletic performance.
It’s not all doom and gloom
Similar to every sport, female bodybuilding has good sides and bad sides. The important thing is to focus on the good things but always be wary of how certain decisions can affect the body.
At the end of the day, it is a sport that has a large following and some competitors make a living out of various sponsorship contracts, endorsements, representations or modelling for industry specific publications.
It’s a sport that many women feel passionate about, regardless of their motifs, it’s a way of life that some women choose and are happy to lead. As for us, as mere spectators, we should always leave judgement aside and applaud the athletic effort.