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Female bodybuilding originally developed as an outgrowth of not only the late nineteenth-century European vaudeville and circus strongwomen acts, Bernarr Macfadden’s turn of the century women’s physique competitions, and the weightlifting of Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton, but also as an outgrowth of the men’s bodybuilding. The contest formats of men’s events during the 1950s to the mid-1970s had often been supplemented with either a women’s beauty contest or bikini show. These shows “had little to do with women’s bodybuilding as we know it today, but they did serve as beginning or, perhaps more properly, as a doormat for the development of future bodybuilding shows.” Physique contests for women date back to at least the 1960s with contests like Miss Physique, Miss Body Beautiful U.S.A., W.B.B.G. and Miss Americana, I.F.B.B.. Maria Elena Alberici, as listed in the Almanac of Women’s Bodybuilding, won two national titles in one year: Miss Body Beautiful U.S.A. in 1972, promoted by Dan Lourie and Miss Americana in 1972, promoted by Joe Weider. Mr. Olympia, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a judge at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York when Maria Elena Alberici (aka) Maria Lauren won Miss Americana. It was not until the late 1970s, after the advent of the feminist movement and female powerlifting events that women were seen as capable of competing in their own bodybuilding competitions.
Prior to 1977, bodybuilding had been considered strictly a male-oriented sport. Henry McGhee, described as the “primary architect of competitive female bodybuilding”, was an employee of the Downtown Canton YMCA, carried a strong belief that women should share the opportunity to display their physiques and the results of their weight training the way men had done for years. The first official female bodybuilding competition was held in Canton, Ohio, in November 1977 and was called the Ohio Regional Women’s Physique Championship. It was judged strictly as a bodybuilding contest and was the first event of its kind for women. Gina LaSpina, the champion, is considered the first recognized winner of a woman’s bodybuilding contest. The event organizer, McGhee, told the competitors that they would be judged “like the men,” with emphasis on muscular development, symmetry, and physique presentation. In 1978, McGhee organized the first National Women’s Physique Championship, along with the short-lived United States Women’s Physique Association (USWPA), which he formed to help organize women interested in competing in bodybuilding. The USWPA became defunct in 1980.
On August 18, 1978, promoter George Snyder organized a “female bodybuilding” contest known as The Best in the World contest, which was the first IFBB-sanctioned event for women that awarded prize money to the top finishers, with the winner receiving ,500. It was considered the forerunner for the Ms. Olympia competition. Although sanctioned as a bodybuilding contest, women were required to appear on stage in high heels. Doris Barrilleaux found the Superior Physique Association (SPA) in 1978, the first women’s bodybuilding organization run for women and by women. She also began publishing the SPA News, a newsletter dedicated exclusively to female bodybuilding. SPA disseminated information to women about contests and proper training and dieting. On April 29, 1979, SPA held Florida’s first official women’s contest in which thirteen women competed. She also began publishing the SPA News, a newsletter dedicated exclusively to female bodybuilding. SPA disseminated information to women about contests and proper training and dieting. On April 29, 1979, SPA held Florida’s first official women’s contest in which thirteen women competed. Also in 1979, the IFBB formed the IFBB Women’s Committee; Christine Zane was appointed the first chairperson to serve as head of the newly formed committee. One of the significant differences between the SPA and the IFBB was that while the IFBB was organized and run by men, the SPA was run by women and for women.
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