‘Love Lies Bleeding’ and the History of Female Bodybuilding Reveal Society’s Fear of ‘Monstrous’ Women

feature images via cyd gillon, yaxeni oriquen

It might seem otherwise from the outside, but a bodybuilding show isn’t supposed to be about our traditional views of physical beauty or attractiveness. Bodybuilding — the literal act of building your body to fit a specific set of criteria — is about muscle composition and visibility, muscle size, muscular symmetry, muscular striation, and a competitor’s ability to pose down well enough to showcase the development of each different muscle group on their bodies. It’s not enough to just be the biggest competitor on stage. They also have to make sure the muscle groups on their body are in near-perfect proportion to one another. As a sport, bodybuilding is one of the most disciplined practices in the athletic world, one that takes great sacrifice and a willingness to live on a strict schedule both in terms of lifting at the gym and eating macro- and micronutrient dense foods several times a day. But unlike other sports, bodybuilding has always been so niche that people rarely, if ever, rack up a wild amount of cash or accolades doing it. It is, for most people other than Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno, a true labor of love that mostly costs more than what it gives back.

When female bodybuilding started in the late 1970s, no one expected it to be as big as it became, and no one expected the women to get as big as they did, either. Emerging on the heels of second-wave feminism, the passing of Title IX, an explosion in gym and health club openings, and the subsequent rise in women’s involvement in “fitness” and other traditionally “masculine” sports like powerlifting, the early female bodybuilding shows — the first of which was held in Canton, Ohio by Henry McGhee — weren’t what you’d think of now as a bodybuilding show and certainly didn’t fulfill the definition of what the sport was supposed to be. Physically fit women competed in these shows, but the competition judges rarely followed the same sets of rules and standards set up for the men’s shows. As Tanya Bunsell writes about in her book Strong and Hard Women: An Ethnography of Female Bodybuilding, women had to wear bikinis and high heels, and they were prohibited from clenching their fists and striking a list of “masculine” poses — like the “crab most muscular”, the “double biceps”, and the “lateral spread” — during their pose routines. Although they purported to be judging the women based on the same expectations they had for the men, Bunsell notes that most of the women who won these competitions were exceedingly “slender” in size with “small, stringy muscles.”

Throughout the late 1970s, a series of small federations for female bodybuilding began popping up all over the U.S., including a short-lived federation called the Superior Physique Association (SPA) founded by Doris Barrilleaux (known as the “First Lady of Female Bodybuilding”), the only federation founded by a woman. With female bodybuilding competitions being held multiple times a year in different regions, people began to take notice, and in 1979, the National Physique Committee (NPC), a national governing body for amateur bodybuilding contests, held its very first women’s bodybuilding nationals competition. The International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness Professional League (IFBB), the largest and most prestigious governing body for professional bodybuilding contests, followed suit by creating and holding the Miss Olympia (now Ms. Olympia) contest, the female equivalent to its well-known Mr. Olympia contest, the next year. Soon after, in 1982, the IFBB Congress, the board of officials that creates and maintains both the IFBB’s official rules for bodybuilding competitions and their events, enshrined female bodybuilding as a fully recognized sport in the federation.

When Barrilleaux originally founded the SPA, she explained, “All they had were beauty contests, and I thought there should be recognition for women with healthy bodies as well as for those with pretty faces. I believe there can be a happy medium between women with extreme definition and the body-beautiful type.” What Barrilleaux and the SPA and the rest of the federations that followed would come to define as the “body-beautiful type” would continue to be up for debate throughout the early 1980s. Many of the early female bodybuilding shows were plagued with upsets where the women who won were given those titles as a result of something beyond their builds. It became clear that the women in these competitions were judged not only on their physique and the typical criteria expected for bodybuilders of the time, but also on their attractiveness and “femininity.”

Although the IFBB was very clear on what made a competitive bodybuilder a winner, the judges of the women’s shows were consistently awarding the competitors who most closely met their definition of what a “feminine” body is “supposed to” look like, as opposed to the competitors who were larger in size and had better defined muscles. With the rapid growth in the availability of competitions, many female bodybuilders began gaining national and international recognition for their accomplishments and, in response, female competitors began taking the competition to new levels. The early 1980s saw a drastic split in what was considered the “ideal” female bodybuilder’s figure with women like Stacey Bentley, Georgia Miller Fudge, Rachel McLish, and Carla Dunlap exemplifying the muscular but lithe build while other women such as Laura Combes, Kay Baxter, Cammie Lusko, and Mary Roberts were challenging people’s perceptions of just how big and defined female bodybuilders could be. Some women, like Claudia Wilbourn through people close to her for example, were outright told that spectators believed their muscularity was “gross” and they weren’t “pretty enough” to be winners.

In her book Bodymakers: A Cultural Anatomy of Women’s Body Building, Leslie Heywood observes, “Since the first women’s bodybuilding contests, the most controversial point in judging is just how far a woman’s body should be allowed to stray from the dominant cultural feminine ideal of smallness and delicacy.” This debate — a dilemma, really — over aesthetics versus size would perhaps come to be most notably documented in George Butler’s 1985 documentary Pumping Iron II: The Women, Butler’s follow-up to the massively popular 1977 Pumping Iron documentary that essentially made Schwarzenegger a household name. For Pumping Iron II, Butler and his crew, with the help of the IFBB, created a female bodybuilding competition (The Caesars World Cup) and then hand-picked the competitors he wanted to follow for the filming of the lead up to the competition and the competition itself. Butler’s choices included a mix of known professional and amateur bodybuilders — including McLish and Dunlap along with Lori Bowen, Shelly Gruwell, and others — and a few newcomers to the sport like Gladys Portugues and Bev Francis.

Prior to her involvement, Francis was a professional powerlifter in Australia who set world records as the first woman ever to bench press over 300 pounds in competition and the first woman in her weight class to squat 500 pounds in competition. As you can imagine, the differences in body type needed to move this kind of weight and compete in bodybuilding shows is substantial. Shortly after breaking the 300 pound barrier on bench press, a picture of Francis doing the “crab most muscular” in a bikini and showcasing her bigger-than-expected physique was circulated widely in muscle and fitness magazines discussing her record-breaking lift. As is shown in the documentary, Francis had never competed in a bodybuilding competition before and was personally invited by Butler to take on the challenge of competing because of that photo.

In the film, she is not only the strongest competitor in terms of what she can lift, but she is also the biggest, most muscular woman in the competition. Watching Pumping Iron II, it’s not difficult to see that this appears to be an intentional set up on Butler’s part. Pitting Francis against the likes of the other women — particularly McLish, who Butler specifically poses as a rival to Francis even though the two had never even heard of each other before the competition — brings out exactly what Heywood was getting at in her book. Throughout the documentary, Butler shows the other competitors, most of the IFBB judges, and other people involved in the filming and the Caesars World Cup commenting on Francis’s size and the “masculinity” of her body. Whether it was fully Butler’s intention or not, these discussions show over and over again just how deeply misogynistic (and, I would argue, transmisogynistic) people’s understandings of what a woman’s body should look like are, even in the context of a sport that was specifically created to bring people’s bodies to the most absurdly built proportions they can possibly get to. As is noted in Alan Mansfield and Barbara McGinn’s “Pumping Irony: The Muscular and the Feminine,” Francis was told, after her appearance in the film and as she went ahead with plans to continue competing in female bodybuilding, to “get feminine or get out of bodybuilding” — a demand that would come to haunt her throughout her career and would come to define the sport, even now.

The contentious and contradictory nature of the judging continued to plague the sport throughout the rest of the mid- and late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, even as female bodybuilding got big enough to be featured on ESPN. Francis, for instance, never came first in a single Ms. Olympia competition, and other women like her were continually neglected by the sport. And it spilled over into mainstream culture, as well. Conversations on what level of muscularity is acceptable for women intensified in the early 1990s with people declaring female muscularity that challenged their perceptions of what a woman should look like as “masculine” and “monstrous.” When Terminator 2 came out in 1991, for example, the majority of the conversation surrounding the film was about Linda Hamilton’s jacked physique. She was simultaneously praised for her body and criticized harshly for the muscularity she was able to achieve for filming.

As Heywood discusses in her book, what emerged from these continued cultural conversations on women’s bodies was another drastic split in both the strength sports world’s and popular culture’s beliefs of what a muscular female body should look like and what a woman’s muscular body represents. She says this is most notably represented by a switch in the way female bodybuilding shows were conducted — specifically with the addition of the “more feminine” competitive categories of “fitness” and “figure” competitions — and how fitness magazines began to showcase their muscular models in increasingly sexualized ways. In a section discussing these female “fitness” pictorials of the early 1990s in Flex magazine, Heywood writes,

The Flex layouts focus on making female muscularity sexually attractive, and the discussion has stayed on this level. […] As such, unnatural masculinity has to go, and the women are expected to conduct themselves more in terms of the feminine norm — that is, softness and openness. Paradoxically, according to Flex, women bodybuilders are unnatural when they are in competition shape, when they have reached the goal and end of the bodybuilding process. What are [women bodybuilders] “threatening” — perhaps the idea that gender is “natural,” that the “real, natural side of women bodybuilders” is “softness”? To reveal that masculinity is a set of characteristics that women can possess as well as men? While bodybuilding fanatically relies on the rhetoric of self-determination — that you can, in Sam Fussell’s words, “defy both nurture and nature and transform yourself…you can become the person you dream of being” — the Flex pictorial contradicts that dream for women, who are not allowed to have masculinity […] Despite the bodies women manage to create, the text says, they are really soft, “naturally attractive.” Hardness is a pose: these women really are women after all — soft, feminine, sexually available, corrected to cultural norms. But is this really all women are, all women can be?

Her question at the end has become even more poignant as the years have gone by. With the creation of those alternative and more “acceptable” fitness and figure competitions at both the amateur and professional levels, the female bodybuilding of the late 1980s and most of the 1990s has become even more niche than it was before. Women who look like Baxter and Francis and later, Lenda Murray, Iris Kyle, and Yaxeni Oriquen-Garcia, have not been and are not the stars of the women’s fitness and strength sports world, and they don’t even have a chance to be. Instead, they are relegated to the fringes of sport altogether, where even still, their bodies are constantly speculated on, belittled, and treated as an affront to how women are supposed to conduct themselves and construct their physiques. You can see this in countless sexist posts on the subject all over the internet. In these posts, the writers often discuss how female bodybuilding — especially with the use of anabolic steroids in the sport — became “uglier” over the years. Translation: these writers (and many other people like them) no longer find female bodybuilders fuckable enough to consider them “real” women, and these writers don’t respect them as real athletes either. A conclusion that can be applied to a lot of different kinds of women doing a lot of different kinds of things in our society. But I don’t think that’s the only thing going on here.

The more you look at this, the more it becomes obvious that the threat of upending people’s ideas of a strict binary between what is feminine and what is masculine goes beyond the way women look. When we see a muscular body at rest or in motion, we ascribe a certain level of expectation to it. More specifically, we expect that body to be strong, to be able to perform incredible feats of athleticism, and to be difficult to destroy. To me, this is what is most threatening to our culture about the “monstrous” female bodybuilder or weightlifter’s body. She challenges the stark contrast between what people believe is masculine and feminine and collapses the construction of masculinity and femininity into nothingness. You can tell just by looking at her or seeing what she does in a gym that she can’t be overtaken or controlled so easily. In 2024, you can most commonly see this in the comments section of social media posts made by women in strength sports. A dive into the abyss of those sections reveal people of all sexes and genders making it known that women “shouldn’t be that strong,” among many other disgusting criticisms. Seeing these female athletes doing what they do presents people with a quandary that instead of challenging their deeply held beliefs about gender, often just entrenches their patriarchal understandings of how people are supposed to exist in the world. The “strong woman” has always been a threat to society’s traditional understanding of womanhood, which in turn is also a threat to the very structure of our society, but the physically strong woman presents an additional threat: She can also, possibly, beat anyone’s ass if she wanted to. And people — especially men, but also a lot of other women and gender-expansive people — simply cannot deal with that.

In her new film Love Lies Bleeding, Rose Glass takes this idea and brings it to its most absurd (complimentary) end. The film is set in 1985 and follows a bodybuilder named Jackie (Katy O’Brian) whose hopes for bodybuilding glory come to a halt after she falls in love with gym manager Lou (Kristen Stewart) and makes a decision that upends both of their lives. In it, we see Jackie preparing for the competition through her diet and lifting regimen, and we also see Lou introduce Jackie to anabolic steroids as a kind of insurance to help her bring her body to the level of readiness she needs to win and, in her mind, completely transform their lives.

Jackie’s physical prowess is established early on through shots of her training inside of and outside of the gym, and also in an early scene where she punches a fellow (male) gym goer — a very large man, at that —- who’s hitting on her and insulting Lou at the same time. He punches her back, and she takes it well enough to get back up immediately, barely even bruising. But Glass strikes an interesting balance with Jackie. She isn’t just strong. She’s sensitive, she’s inquisitive, she’s sweet, she’s messy, and she’s sexy as hell. Contrary to how our culture has come to view women like Jackie, she’s desired, most notably by Lou but also by many of the men on the periphery of their lives, as well. In terms of how queer relationships are often defined, Jackie is the seductive, muscular femme bottom, and Lou is the anxious, scrawny butch top — a dynamic that is more common than people think but is underrepresented, even in some of the most underground queer media you can find. And on top of all that, she gets to be a little perverted (again, complimentary) and have a lot of hot gay sex.

About a third of the way through the film, we learn that Lou’s abusive brother-in-law, J.J. (Dave Franco), has beaten her sister, Beth (Jena Malone), so badly that she has to be hospitalized. Lou and Jackie arrive at the hospital to find Beth’s face and body so bloody and swollen you can barely tell it’s her. When Lou’s dad and Jackie’s boss Lou Sr. (Ed Harris) arrives at the hospital to visit Beth, it becomes apparent this isn’t the first time J.J. has done this. Upon hearing this, Jackie leaves the hospital to confront J.J. at his and Beth’s house. When Jackie enters their home, she appears larger-than-life, towering over J.J. and almost hitting the ceiling with her head. She proceeds to smash J.J.’s head into a coffee table until he isn’t J.J. anymore.

Lou eventually finds Jackie in the bathtub of the house, disoriented and in shock about what she just did. For Lou, violence and the gruesome results of that violence don’t faze her. But for Jackie, this is all new. This isn’t who she ever expected to be. From there, J.J.’s murder initiates an increasingly violent reality for the two of them, one that tests their love for one another and threatens to get them both killed, and it isn’t the last time Glass uses this kind of magical realism to help them beat the odds and flip the cultural perception of the “monstrous” female body — and the “monster” who possesses it — on its head.

The idea that Jackie’s body is outside of the norm — and therefore, “monstrous” to other people — is brought home even further through the commentary of one of the film’s only other queer characters, Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov). From the beginning of the film, we know Daisy has an unrequited crush on Lou, and as the film progresses, we see Daisy watching Lou closely and speculating on what Lou’s relationship to Jackie is. At one point, she describes Jackie as “that big girl,” said in the kind of tone that implies Jackie’s “bigness” is abnormal, unsightly and something Lou shouldn’t be attracted to at all. Lou reacts with a frustrated wince, one that is supposed to signal to the audience that Daisy’s judgment is not only unwelcome but also ridiculous. Choosing to give this line to another queer woman is very clear in its intent: Even the people who should be more conscious about the way they interpret non-normative bodies existing in the world are often perpetuating the same kind of violence towards them that the rest of the dominant culture does.

Throughout the rest of the film, Glass continues to use this perception, along with Jackie’s steroid use, to play with, deconstruct, and redefine the idea of the “strong woman.” There are shots of Jackie’s muscles bulging to an unrealistic and obscene degree. She beats up a fellow competitor in the competition in what looks like a fit of “roid rage.” And at the end of the film, Glass literally makes Jackie a “monster” by turning her into a 50-foot woman in order to help save Lou from being murdered by her father. Jackie is physically strong, obviously, but it’s not for nothing. Jackie’s strength is only showcased in moments where she is doing one of the things viewed as quintessentially “feminine” in our society: taking care of the person she loves the most. That she is doing it in a way most people wouldn’t expect and probably wouldn’t define as “feminine” is what helps Glass bring these ideas to their most preposterous conclusion. Her actions, like her body and what her body can do, don’t easily fall into one gendered category or another. Jackie is just a woman in love trying to survive in the face of a world bent on destroying her.

In a piece in Empire about the film, Stewart is quoted as saying, “We are constantly watching movies about women triumphing over oppressive forces because we’re somehow ethically or morally superior […] It’s like, ‘No, fuck that. I’m so sick of that. I’m so sick of that fucking movie.’ And so this one just felt like we were allowed to pull our dress over our head and run down the street, use the boys’ toys and shove them in their faces – and then also be like, ‘We’re nothing like you.’” And I think that encapsulates exactly what Glass was able to accomplish in the film. She took our traditional definition of what it means to be a strong person and blew it up in our faces in a way that should push people to think more deeply about why she would need or want to do that in the first place.

In Love Lies Bleeding, the two main female characters exist outside of the dominant cultural ideas of what makes a woman and what makes a man, not just in their bodies and in their actions, but also in their queerness. They turn those ideas into a farce, into something that should discomfit people and make them reconsider how those definitions play out in their understandings of gender, sexuality, bodies, and everything they view as “natural” and “normal.”

Knowing what I know about female bodybuilding and about how people view queerness, it shouldn’t have surprised me that reactions to the film are colored with some of the same sentiments people have when they’re talking about female strength athletes. But unfortunately, it did. Social media, particularly on TikTok, has provided most of the weirdest commentary on the film so far. I have, to my great dismay, experienced it in my own life, too. These criticisms, for the most part, barely comment on the quality of the film or the way Glass is playing with people’s expectations and perceptions. Instead, they’re focused on Jackie’s body and her sexuality (“Love Lies Bleeding is a muscle mommy fetish film” said derogatively) or they’re focused on that and the audience (“Love Lies Bleeding is a muscle mommy fetish film for men”) or they complain about a lack of character development (which seems like a basic critical literacy problem to me, because becoming worse is, technically, a development).

With the first two, we can see specifically how the perception of the muscular female body as an object of horror and a slight to what people’s beliefs about what makes women desirable is still alive and well in our culture. Like the female bodybuilders and strength athletes who Jackie is modeled after, Jackie can’t possibly be seen as more than a freak or a fetish object because the dimensions of her body and what she’s able to do with it unsettle people’s understandings of desirability. Again, instead of making them reconsider those understandings, it makes them question how anyone could be attracted to something so grotesque outside of a perverse, sexual curiosity. Not only does this strip Jackie of the version of femininity she is granted in the film, even as she becomes a “monster,” but it also marginalizes her body and the bodies of women who like her even further. It proves, once again, that anything existing outside of what’s considered “normal” or “natural” cannot be sexually desirable. Women can be strong, but only to a certain extent; anything beyond that is offensive and undignifed.

Glass choosing to also make Jackie bisexual and in a queer relationship with another woman where they both unabashedly enjoy fucking each other brings in an additional element to these criticisms — one that many queer women and people are extremely familiar with. People’s internalized misogyny is so unchecked that they can’t see two women fucking on screen without labelling it as appealing directly to the male gaze. Similar to the way people speak about how female bodybuilding has gotten “uglier” over the years, these criticisms simply cannot imagine two women having sex with each other without the sole intention being to arouse the men in the audience.

Heywood writes, “Persons who ridicule female bodybuilders, who call them monstrous, unfeminine, and want to return the female form to weakness overtly refuse to grant self-realization and personal freedom to women. […] I have to believe that consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or no, any babe who sports a muscle symbolically strikes a blow against traditional ideas about male supremacy. […] A woman with muscles shouts out about female sovereignty, about women’s right to be for themselves, not others, about their right to exist, take up space.” And I think this is oddly fitting in response to these criticisms of Love Lies Bleeding, as well. Female bodybuilding, marginalized people’s participation in strength sports, and Love Lies Bleeding all present us with a unique opportunity to challenge these deeply held perceptions and understandings about gender, our bodies, and what we’re able to do or not do with them in our society. As the persistence of female strength athletes shows and as Glass demonstrates in the film, it is these ideas themselves — many of which are constantly being weaponized against queer and trans people in the current moment — not our pointed deconstruction and disruption of them that are a threat to our shared reality. And like them, we should be propelled to continue blowing them up in the most extreme, ridiculous ways possible.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 81 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. Excellent article! I had no idea about the history of body building, nor have I been keeping track of the reactions around the movie. Very insightful and makes me love the movie even more. I’ve been even more inspired to get buff lol.

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