I was one of the very first pioneering women bodybuilders from 1981 until 1988, at a time when the sport was virtually unheard of in the UK. I was right in at the start of it all in Britain.
When I started, I had no idea that women’s bodybuilding was just taking off like a rocket in the USA and that the 1980s would become its ‘Golden Decade ‘. It was a pure coincidence that I began when I did, with absolutely no role model to influence me. I just wanted to ‘get fit, lose weight and tone up’, but it soon turned into a lot more.
Bodybuilding has always been a very controversial sport even for men, but for women it challenges a host of intractable stereotypes about the acceptable physical appearance of women and their role in society. Entire Ph.Ds have been written on this subject in the USA and volumes of articles, so it is hard to convey the impact that the first women bodybuilders had in the early 1980s. It was the era of the Jane Fonda aerobic craze and women were expected to look toned and slim, not to be strong, confident and muscular and flex their muscles on stage. It scared men and women alike, but it fitted well with the emerging feminism of the time.
I first saw pictures of early female competitors in the USA Magazine ’Muscle and Fitness’ and was simply amazed by their physiques, which in those early years were really little more than athletic and toned. It would be the mid -1980s before real muscularity became the standard for contests and in later decades, went too far along this route.
By the time I had trained hard for about three years, if I walked down the street in Covent Garden in a skimpy outfit, it stopped the traffic-literally. Nowadays, no-one would look twice at a gym trained woman, when every pop singer looks that way. But in 1982, admiration or amazement was only a part of it. I once had hot coffee thrown at me by a lorry driver, as I jogged on the pavement. I also had a great deal of trouble at my workplace, where my superiors regarded my appearance in a newspaper report of a contest in a bikini as ‘improper’. I received an official reprimand which went on my annual report. So being a bodybuilding pioneer had its serious difficulties. Opposition merely made me even more determined to stick to my guns and win some major contests.
For me the hard training had really wonderful results, not just to do with my appearance. I had always been undersized, thin, weak, rather sickly and short sighted, highly stressed in my job and had always loathed sport. But weights can sculpt your body like nothing else and quickly too. In two years I was able to compete successfully and looked quite different. My health was 100% improved.
With the improvement in my appearance, came a huge boost in my self confidence and self esteem. I had to appear on stage and perform a posing routine in front of a large crowd and spotlights, so I had to take lessons in posing and learn how to project myself to the best advantage. It helped me in many other ways in my life apart from bodybuilding contests.
My new found interest led me to meet many new people who were completely outside my academic context at work. A whole new world suddenly opened up and with it came the ability to express myself creatively. It changed my outlook on life and my personality.
In 1984, I met by chance a literary agent, who asked me to write a book on womens’ bodybuilding. So I wrote ’Designer Body: A Bodybuilding Handbook for Women’’, which was published in 1985 and which was a fitness best seller. This involved me in a nationwide publicity tour and an appearance on the Terry Wogan Show on live TV, as well as many other interviews on TV, radio and in the press.
By 1987, I had the physique I had always wanted. Contests are judged on symmetry, proportions and muscularity, and I knew by then that I had developed what it took to win. I was 43, so I was a lot older than most of the girls who had by then started to train and compete, but seven years of training beat youth hands down. I decided to go in for the Austria Cup in 1988 and placed third in this international, which was won by the Austrian champion. It seemed a good moment to retire from the sport, at the top of my game.
I look back on this period in my life as one of the best. I had challenged myself to the utmost of my ability physically and mentally, as any elite athlete must. It had been a very hard slog, but worth every moment of heavy lifting, rigorous dieting and combatting out- of- date and ingrained attitudes to women. I had been able to be a role model and guru for many young women who would be empowered and benefit as I had done
I can’t say that when you train for a contest you are at your fittest, but when you stand on stage holding a winner’s trophy high, with all the flashbulbs going off and the crowds cheering, it takes some beating. I felt like I’d won an Oscar.
Marilyn is author of Designer Body;A Bodybuilding Handbook for Women under the name of Marilyn Luscombe Granada Books (1985). Available on Amazon.