SI Vault
Dan Levin
March 17, 1980
Women's bodybuilding has arrived—sort of. As Cammie Lusko and Kay Baxter show, the girls know what they're doing. But some judges don't
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March 17, 1980

Here She Is, Miss, Well, What?

Women's bodybuilding has arrived—sort of. As Cammie Lusko and Kay Baxter show, the girls know what they're doing. But some judges don't

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On the day Combes became Miss Tampa, another women's contest was being held, in Los Angeles—the Robby Robinson Body Building Championship. And it appeared that a rivalry was about to be joined, a meeting of two rising female bodybuilding stars with divergent styles. It would be a test, of sorts, for the new sport. One, a tiny blonde named Stacey Bentley, 23, of Venice, Calif., who had been third at Warminster, showed up complete with a mischievous smile and a flower in her hair. The other was Claudia Wilbourn, 28, of San Juan Capistrano, Calif. No smile, no wiles, just muscle. In June, Wilbourn had placed second in the first Women's World Body Building Championship, also held in L.A., in which Bentley had finished fourth. The winner had been 26-year-old Lisa Lyon, who hasn't competed since. At the Robinson Classic, Bentley was "feminine," and, to a lot of people, Wilbourn was scary. She wasn't pretty enough, some observers said, to get away with showing all that muscle. She had added several pounds of it since June, and her abdominals and pectorals—abs and pecs—were far more defined than any other woman's. But the promoter assured her the judges were looking for muscle.

The promoter was wrong. One judge said of Wilbourn, "If we'd wanted a woman who looked like a man, then the one with the big pecs and the deep striations would have won."

Another said to a bystander, who turned out to be Wilbourn's boyfriend, "Everyone was grossed out by her muscularity. And she wasn't pretty enough, either."

Bentley, who was pretty enough, won. To be fair, she was now also one of the best of the female bodybuilders, getting leaner and more muscular by the week. She had worked very hard, goaded by John Balik, her training partner, who would shout "Explode!" as she cleaned an Olympic bar from the floor or help her curl or press a dumbbell one more time and let her lower it alone. And Bentley had refined her posing routine; it displayed muscle, but more obliquely than before—"conveying power," she said, "though never at the expense of grace." She received 40 points for it. Wilbourn, who forgot about the grace, according to the judges, received one point for her routine and finished sixth.

Many people in bodybuilding, men included, were disturbed by what happened at the Robinson contest. Few found fault with Bentley's victory, but they saw something grievously wrong with the treatment accorded Wilbourn. "Not winning is one thing," said Bill Dobbins, who's collaborating with Schwarzenegger on a book entitled Arnold's First Book of Bodybuilding, "but to be told you can't even play the game because someone doesn't like the way you look, well, that's another."

Consider the sentiments expressed by one of the judges, Jim Morris, Mr. America of 1973. He owns a Hollywood gym, and he knows something of women's bodybuilding. When he volunteered to be a judge, he had a good idea of what he would be seeing at the contest, so it was surprising, to say the least, to hear him say afterward, "I think female physique contests should be discontinued. I'm no more in favor of them than I am of male beauty contests. To me, one is as repulsive as the other."

Which brings us finally to McGhee, 29, associate physical director of the Canton YMCA. After staging a number of "beauty contests," beginning in 1975, in 1978 he organized the country's first women's bodybuilding competition—the first, that is, in which the entrants were judged purely on their muscularity. Almost immediately, all those connected with the sport were united in disagreement with his views. As Balik puts it, "If McGhee has a hand in the sport, it will remain in the freak-show category."

McGhee is an amiable man who seems puzzled by such comments. "Most people say I'm trying to make men out of women," he says. "Well, I know the two sexes are different, but they do have certain similarities. Men don't monopolize strength. If they did, you wouldn't see fillies winning horse races. Women are incredible. We've just never seen them reach their potential. When I was a high school track coach, the girls would leave the team when they started getting muscular, and that was frustrating to me. I decided that I wanted to promote muscle on women as beautiful. I think that using traditional standards of femininity in a bodybuilding contest is like having a spelling bee only for those spelling on a fifth-grade level or less. We don't know the ultimate potential of women, and already they want to limit it.

"I feel that beauty-oriented physique contests will disappear the way the old minstrel shows did when the blacks decided they were a disgrace. I feel the whole concept of beauty contests runs counter to the interests of women.

"Every woman has the same capacity for starving to death, but before she does, she's going to be very lean and muscular. That's what we want in our competitions, muscularity, with proportion. Anything we feel is hereditary we don't consider—facial features, size of breasts, width of pelvis—and we're not concerned with traditional standards of femininity, either. Take the example of a really high calf muscle. Well, I don't want to hear a judge saying, I think high calves are ugly.' I just want to know, 'Is the muscle developed?' It's like a basketball game. A shot may be graceful or unorthodox, but either way, if it goes through the hoop, it counts for two points."

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