I’m Judging You – The Emergence of the Bikini Body

The sociocultural ideal of women’s bodies has been used as a tool of subordination for the purposes of political and economic gain. This subordination is epitomised in the expanding industry of physique competitions.

On November 7th 2010, a new category was introduced to the competition world and took its place as the ‘softest’ of the women’s classes alongside figure, fitness, physique and bodybuilding. Introduced by the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB), the Bikini division stepped onto the stage with glamour and Jessica Rabbit style curves, bringing a new breed of impossible ideals in its wake. Hailed as a more accessible and achievable category of bodybuilding, according to Muscle and Body Magazine the Bikini class was created ‘[t]o accommodate even more women into the world of physique competitions’ and ‘to appeal to a wider audience.’[1] In other words, to generate additional profit for what had previously been a somewhat narrow industry, based on the specialist sport of bodybuilding. This move away from a more muscular appearance has been criticized, however, with many observers feeling that the IFBB has previously instructed judges ‘to select the most marketable aesthetic physique, not the most muscular.’[2] Again, the term ‘marketable’ emphasises the fundamental nature of the competition industry as a business that aims to profit from the women who compete in their shows.

Despite such controversy, Bikini became an instant success and was extremely popular with both competitors and audiences. Since its introduction in 2010, the number of competitions has more than doubled.[3]

This ‘feminine’ and curvaceous Bikini body emerged 50 years after female physique competitions began in the 1960s. These included ‘Miss Physique, Miss Body Beautiful U.S.A., W.B.B.G. and Miss Americana, I.F.B.B.[4] It was not until 1977, however, that the first official female bodybuilding competition was held. This was the Ohio Regional Women’s Physique Championship and took place in Canton, Ohio.[5] Contrary to the modern scoring system that rewards athletic curves and fitness model looks, these competitors were judged in the same way as the men ‘with emphasis on muscular development, symmetry, and physique presentation.’[6]

Soon afterwards, however, there was a definite shift in favour of a more feminine form. 1979 saw the first IFBB Women’s World Body Building Championship, in which ‘the women wore high-heeled shoes, and did not clench their fists while posing. Additionally, they were not allowed to use the three so-called “men’s poses” — the double biceps, crab, and lat spread.’[7] The competitor’s physique became more achievable and was increasingly representative of women within the general population. This was evident in 1980 when individuals who took part in the first Ms. Olympia were selected to compete ‘based on their potential to be fitness role models for the average American woman.’[8]

A decade later ‘the IFBB made an attempt to “feminize” the sport….The judges’ guide to the competitors stated that they were looking for a highly feminine and optimally developed, but not emaciated physique’.[9] By 2000, the look became even softer as the IFBB stated that although competitors must still demonstrate ‘”symmetry, presentation, separations, and muscularity”’, it must not be ‘“TO THE EXTREME!”[10] Further criteria were added to female bodybuilding when it was announced that the women would not only be scored on their physiques: the judges would also take into account a ‘healthy appearance, face, makeup, and skin tone’.[11]

Women of the Bikini class in 2015 epitomise a contemporary beauty ideal. They reflect a wider social trend for the ‘bikini body’ that combines disparate elements of fleshy curves with slenderness.  Exploring women’s body image over the last century, one author states that ‘these two conflicting images appear to have merged into a modern synthesis of what is considered beautiful: an almost unhealthily thin and bony frame, combined with a substantial bust.’[12] The Journal of Psychology (2015) accords with this social interpretation, stating that the modern ideal is ‘a slim physique that is also fit and toned’.[13] The creation of the Bikini division has been interpreted as ‘part of the IFBB’s effort to change bodybuilding’s image from freakishly strapped ectomorphs to something sleeker, more modern, and…sexier.’[14] Or perhaps its addition is less about image, and more about profit.


[1] http://www.muscleandbodymag.com/whats-the-deal-with-bikini-contests/ [accessed 03/01/15]

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_bodybuilding [accessed 03/01/15]

[3] http://www.buzzfeed.com/ashapiro009/training-tanning-and-branding-with-the-bikini-bodybuilding-s#.de5pNQ7zd [accessed 16/02/15]

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_bodybuilding [accessed 03/01/15]

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_bodybuilding [accessed 03/01/15]

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_bodybuilding [accessed 03/01/15]

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_bodybuilding [accessed 03/01/15]

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_bodybuilding [accessed 03/01/15]

[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_bodybuilding [accessed 03/01/15]

[10] http://www.billdobbins.com/PUBLIC/art/miscart/criteria.jpg [accessed 16/02/15]

[11] http://www.billdobbins.com/PUBLIC/art/miscart/criteria.jpg [accessed 16/02/15]

[12] http://www.rehabs.com/explore/womens-body-image-and-bmi/%5Baccessed18/01/15%5D

[13] The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied Volume 149, Issue 2, 2015 , The Sporting Body: Body Image and Eating Disorder Symptomatology Among Female Athletes from Leanness Focused and Nonleanness Focused Sports , Published online: 04 Mar 2014, Peiling Kong & Lynne M. Harrishttp://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00223980.2013.846291#tabModule, research by(Homan, K. (2010)

[14] http://www.buzzfeed.com/ashapiro009/training-tanning-and-branding-with-the-bikini-bodybuilding-s#.de5pNQ7zd [accessed 16/02/15]

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