Strong Has Always Been Sexy

Skinny is Sexy

Strong is the New Skinny

Strong Has Always Been Sexy

Written By: Lisa Bowden

In recent years, I have seen mainstream media and advertising portraying muscular women. Active, healthy, competitive, kick-ass women. In commercials, print, and marketing, women with real muscle can be seen displaying all their hard work and it’s a beautiful thing

Some 40-odd years ago when I was a girl, this was not a thing. This was not heard of. THIS was taboo.  You just didn’t see it.  And if you were athletic with muscle, somehow that something was wrong with you. Later I learned that every insecure person, whether a man or a woman, challenged muscle or my attempts to obtain it.

The women who were athletes 40+ years ago moved through that time with grace and dignity: being proud of being different. From strong women in the 1800s in a circus or side show (yeah, that’s right) to the women weightlifters who first made the strength scene in California in the ‘50s to the women who pioneered women’s bodybuilding and weightlifting in the ‘70s, there is a quiet history here. And these women are the gate keepers. Sorry CrossFit, you didn’t start the fit woman trend, or the strong woman trend for that matter. These pioneers who came before did. How do I know this? Because I was knee deep in it and watched it develop.

I chuckle to myself every time I see another Facebook article exclaiming that CrossFit somehow allowed women to finally accept being strong. That it has changed the way some women view themselves. Maybe. I never thought of myself as weak or inferior, so if there are millions of women who harbor those characteristics and somehow found their way out of lazy-land to feel better through CF, bravo. But let’s not get mixed up.

Start of a Story

I would be welcome in any gym today, but when I started training with weights back in the late 1970s, that wasn’t the case. Usually I needed a man to get into some hardcore lifting gyms that were exclusively men’s gyms and would be considered and sexist by any standard today. That wouldn’t happen now. I was repeatedly asked if I was gay or wanted to be a man, which was not the case. And it would never happen now. After gaining entry into a few of these gyms, I definitely earned my place. I trained just as hard as anyone else there.  I wasn’t there to socialize or get a boyfriend.  Most women’s gyms during the ‘70s were fluffy, social spas where women went to chatter and complain about kids, housework, or their husbands. At best, the exercise was passive and the women attending were not encouraged to really move. This was not something I was interested in.

My counterparts in the early days of bodybuilding were women, who wanted to push beyond the stereotype of the norm.  For me, it was starting out as a small slip of a girl who my mother had trouble containing. I physically pushed past my limits from a very early age and I knew it felt good. I pushed my way, always moving, always wanting to be better. I started it out as a gymnast, so taking my physical form to the next level was a natural progression.  A perfect storm of seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger on TV in the ‘70s coupled with a chance encounter with bodybuilder in my neighbor’s yard made me curious as to people got that way.

The year was 1977. That was the same year I received Arnold Schwarzenegger’s book The Education of a Bodybuilder for Christmas when I was 14. My mother, being the progressive woman she was, gave me my first weight lifting set. When she went to pick it up at the store, the man who helped load it said “Wow, this is a great gift for your son for Christmas!” She matter-of-factly replied, “Thank you. It’s for my daughter who is 14”. She glanced in her rearview mirror as she drove off. The man was still standing there shaking his head with a funny look on his face. Years afterward, she still liked to tell the story.

About a year or so later I found a few Muscle Builder magazines while rifling through a stack of books at a used book store. Muscle Builder was Joe Weider’s first magazine dedicated to bodybuilders.   I slowly sat down; I was transfixed. All the bodies, piles of muscle, statue-like… I felt like I had found my people.  I kept flipping until I saw an image that I had never seen before.  It was a woman. A woman bodybuilder, to be exact. I had not heard of such a thing, and I devoured each word dedicated to the women displayed on the pages.  It made sense to no one but me.

She was shaped like a superwoman of sorts. Broad shoulders, tiny waist, and defined legs. I was determined to look like her. No Google or Internet meant going to the library in the hopes of finding information. However, I could not find any information relatable to women, so I took the information in Arnold’s book and paired it with the Gold’s Gym Weightlifting book I had found, and started there.  I trained alone in the basement, occasionally going to a hotel health club to supplement.

There was a Grand Prix of men’s bodybuilding in 1979 held in Worcester, MA, and I dragged my poor father to see it. I sat in the audience transfixed, and took my paper program backstage hoping for autographs. The janitor cleaning up saw me, and led me back to the small pump up room where I obtained four or five signatures, including ones from Ray Mentzer and Johnny Fuller.

I had no clue about dieting yet, but had strong arms and big biceps for a small girl. The first show I competed in was the Ms. North America in 1981 held in Boston.

I was met with resistance everywhere. But it never deterred me. I was strong and had always been strong. Nothing anyone would say would have stopped me, nor would I have ever wasted my time explaining what I was doing.  If we had had social media back then, would it have been different? Would I have felt compelled to respond to every hater or negative comment? Maybe. The difference was that people back then didn’t use a monitor and keyboard to hide behind. They said what they were thinking to my face. I would shake my head and walk past, never acknowledging them. When I was 18 and getting ready to compete, I realized that things out of the ordinary will always garner attention and being different made people uncomfortable. I was happy not being ordinary.

Big Girls Don’t Cry

When women starting training more than forty years ago, they were usually ostracized. The ones who kept going and training, competing and getting stronger, paved a clear path for those in any weightlifting or CrossFit sport today. Of that I am sure. What amazes me to know now, and not in a good way, is that decades later, in the year 2017, women are still explaining why they do what they do. They are defending their right to be muscular, to be strong, to be competitive, and I just don’t get it.

To the women who are whining that someone thinks they are too muscular – do you have nothing else to talk about on social media? You can’t teach the uneducated or ignorant, and there is a difference between muscularity and masculinity.  Every time you address your muscularity, you feed into the system of body shaming and allow people to singe you with self-doubt. They say they don’t care, but if you didn’t care you wouldn’t be talking about it. The bigger question is “Why do you care?” People’s opinions don’t matter. The general public is trolling on your pages of Instagram or Facebook and putting you down? Block them.

I’m happy that women’s lifting is getting the time and attention it so rightly deserved all these years. It’s here to stay and I love to see women being beasts in the gym, on the field, on a track, or on the competitive platform. I respect anyone putting the time in and doing the work. I do, however, get weary of all the posts claiming CrossFit is changing women’s bodies for the better. Did women need CrossFit to venture into a gym? Did they need CrossFit to break barriers and push themselves physically and want more for themselves? By and large, I guess the numbers and testimonials give a resounding yes. Women ventured into a box and started hoisting heavy weight, much to the disdain of family and friends, and they are loving it, and can’t stop talking about it.  Whatever led them there, I’m cheering them on. Forty years later I am cheering them on.

I just hope one day they realize they had it in them all along. That everything else was bullshit, and people can tell you no – a thousand times no – but that doesn’t mean you listen.  We are all finally going in the same direction, but some journeys take longer.

Misty Watercolor Memories

When I went back in memory to try and find the difference between training then and training now, what I came up with was that times were just simpler. Something has to be said for it. Back then the training was for physique, shape, and conditioning. With all due respect, CrossFit has forged itself into a seemingly superhuman competition: a stealthy combo of great genetics, a do-or-die attitude, and maybe 5% craziness. I will watch the CrossFit Games every year, with my mouth hanging open, just like everyone else.

The fittest on earth? CrossFit owns this category. There really is nothing fit about bodybuilding. It was an art, a show, a display. Yes, you needed to be strong, but that was about it.

We lifted on a split or push-pull routine, did some biking or running during contest time, ate chicken or fish and stayed away from red meat, got a tan and slept.  That was it. We didn’t need an audience or friends, or fans, or likes. We didn’t need cleanses, or selfies every day; we just weren’t distracted.  And we didn’t need to justify it. We didn’t try to PR every workout. We just didn’t talk about it.

Training in CrossFit now can be brutal and rigorous, especially for those competing. Purveyors of new products and dietary ideas and supplements for CrossFit have flooded the arena, and we can now choose from Paleo, Whole 30, Organic or Gluten Free, Good Fats, Dairy Free, and Sugar Free diets (sugar is the devil!). We can cleanse with Isagenix and Advocare and energize with Kill Cliff and caffeinate with Bulletproof Coffee. Boy, things have changed a lot.

But maybe, sometimes, they don’t need to. I am not conned or lulled into thinking anything except hard training and a good diet will assist in any athletic endeavor I have. But I am not gracing a podium anytime soon, so for those looking for an edge, even if it’s mental, I get it.

I’m happy that people on the planet are more progressive, more willing to see beauty in all shapes and sizes. Seeing a women’s physical form for something other than bearing children or something to ogle over is mind-blowing after all these years and, seeing muscular women accepted? For me to see it occur in my lifetime? It’s like I birthed that baby and now can put it to bed.

Is CrossFit responsible for changing women? Or have women finally decided to step up and literally own their power, to match intellectual strength with physical strength? I sincerely hope it’s the latter. It’s been a long time coming.  And CrossFit is just along for the ride.


For the female lifters out there, if it weren’t for the women noted below, you would not be where you are today. These women trained with real weight in a male-oriented arena, and pushed the doors open for so many today.

The muscular crusaders well ahead of their time whose names you should know (this is by no means an all-inclusive list): 

Turn of the century women:

  • Sandwina (Katie Brumbach)
  • Athleta Van Huffelen
  • Vulcana (Kate Williams)
  • Olga (The Cannon Woman, Miss Lala) and Kaira la Blanche – the two often performed a strong woman show together (late 1800s)

Mid-20th century:

  • Pudgy Stockton – Muscle Beach fixture from the 1950s who did feats of strength, performed strength acts, and was well-respected.
  • Doris Barrilleaux, who was widely known in the ‘80s as a promotor of women’s bodybuilding,had a new letter called SPA (Superior Physique Association). I still have my member certificate and a few issues, from the early 1980s.
  • April Nicotra and Patsy Chapman, who both competed in The Best In The World woman’s bodybuilding contest in 1979.
  • Lisa Lyon – one of the first women I recall seeing. She competed in one of the first bodybuilding shows held in Pennsylvania in 1979, called Best In The World.
  • Stacey Bentley – another competitor from the mid ‘70s, anda fixture on the Muscle Beach scene
  • Cammie Lusko – strength athlete and bodybuilder
  • Claudia Wilbourn – one of the early bodybuilding competitors.
  • Gayle Olinekova, a track athlete who somehow made her way onto a bodybuilding stage. Her legs were some of the most beautifully developed that I had ever seen.
  • Laura Combes – one of the first women I had seen at that time with actual muscle size, undeniable strength, and separation.

Into the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, other notables:

  • Rachel McLish – arguably one of the most popular woman bodybuilders of all time. A household name, and revenue-generating woman for Joe Weider’s brand at the time.
  • Cory Everson – became a legend by winning six Ms. Olympia competitions. Cory was big and muscular but didn’t scare women away from the sport. She went on to host a fitness television show and appeared in movies.
  • Carla Dunlap – great musculature and even better posing skills. She is a fierce competitor who began her athletic career as a swimmer.
  • Bev Francis – a weightlifter turned bodybuilder, she was showcased in Pumping Iron II: The Women. Bev never got much credit and was one of the the first female where whispers alleged  that perhaps her musculature was not based on her ability but something else.  Her sheer muscle size, hardness, the thinness of her skin, made me pause. And sigh.  And realize, that what I had come to love, was forever changed and would implode on itself some years later.
  • Deborah Diana – beautiful symmetry and beautiful posing.


About The Author

Lisa Bowden is an old ex-bodybuilder and a novice CrossFitter. She’s pretty horrible at CrossFit, but she likes and respects it, so she tries nonetheless. Lisa never trained for endurance and can safely say she has a love-hate relationship with endurance and cardio training. The weights will always be her first love.

At almost 55, Lisa’s not apt to push as hard as she used to. She knows my glory day PRs and she’s fine with them. She just modifies and keeps moving.

In the past, she has contributed to Flex Magazine, Muscular Development, and other periodicals.


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