In 2014, the Ms. Olympia competition came to an end. That same year the IFBB announced that the Ms.International competition, second largest female bodybuilding competition, and held at the Arnold Sport Festival, would also end. Speculation surrounds the termination of such competitions: some discuss lack of funds, loss of popularity, and low revenue from the sport. However, is it possible that both these contests ended due to something beyond the market? Is it possible that the proverbial gender line, dividing masculinity and femininity was being blurred by the presentation of such muscle on a women’s body? It is also plausible that this very notion of gender ‘blurring’ lead to the aforementioned speculations. As mentioned, A LOT of opinions arise with regards to the end of the Ms. Olympia contest.
This idea of gender anxiety did not emerge in 2014 with regards to bodybuilding. A quick presentation of Beverley Francis will show that this ‘fear’ was always lurking within the sport of female bodybuilding.
Before becoming a prominent gym owner with her husband and IFBB judge Steve Weinberger, Bev Francis was a successful powerlifter and impactful professional bodybuilder.
In terms of powerlifting, as of 1980, Francis held all of the world records in the 182lb weight class. In 1981, she was the first female to bench over 300lbs, setting a world record press of 330lbs during the World Powerlifting Championships. Her weights for her best lifts are as followed: Squat 500lbs, Bench Press 335lbs, and Deadlift 501lbs.
As six-time World Powerlifting champion, Bev Francis enters her first bodybuilding competition in 1983, participating in the Caesars World Cup. According to authors Roussel, Griffet, and Duret, Berverley Francis’ physique broke away from the traditional aesthetic profiles of female bodybuilding, and her physique would be engraved in people’s memory. Francis’ 8th place finish in the Caesar’s World Cup pushed her to change her look – to conform with feminine ideals if you will. Opting for makeup and a feminine hairstyle, Bev Francis would make her Ms. Olympia debut in 1986.
Although Francis was never crowned Ms. Olympia (second in 1990 and 1991) her implication in the female bodybuilding world can be defined as unprecedented.
As discussed, her physique changed the dynamics of female bodybuilding; offering a new representation of the female body and its possibilities. Although this might seem liberating for female competitors, the extent of Francis’ physique was frowned upon in the greater scheme of things. The narrative surrounding her physique was specific, and at times, worrying. Her physique was said to be “extreme”, “androgynous”, “repulsive”, and “horrifying”.
As one will notice, her implication in the world of female bodybuilding is quite impactful, however it can be argued that it is more so in the sphere of gender studies. Beverley Francis represented the non-conforming female, an athlete who blurred the proverbial gender line, a woman who caused gender anxiety. This is strengthened by her controversial loss of the 1991 Ms. Olympia. Leading the first two rounds of the competition (known as the rounds that count the most) Francis ended up losing by one point to Lenda Murray. Without removing credit to Murray, it is discussed that the IFBB officials were told to tip the scales in Murray’s favor due to Francis’ appearance as “too manly.” It is clear that for the IFBB, Beverley Francis was questioning the constructed gender polarity; she was challenging the constructs of gender. Her impact on the sport even led the aforementioned authors to place Francis as one of the three subcultural influences that led to the demise of female bodybuilding in France – clearly showing the questioning of Francis’ physique and its repercussions.
A scene featuring Bev Francis in Pumping Iron II: the Women resonates with this. Finishing her Ms. Olympia routine, Francis is backstage with what seems to be a young Steve Weinberger. Bev Francis wipes the sweat from her forehead and asks: “Did I look like a girl?” A concise yet strong question, sending ripples into the essence of female bodybuilding and into the idea of gender division.
1977 – Breaks Australian Shot Put Record.
1982 – Australian national shot put champion.
1980 to 1985 – Weight Class gold medalist in the International Powerlifting Federation Championships.
1986 Ms. International – 3rd.
1986 Ms. Olympia – 10th.
1987 IFBB Pro World Championship – 1st.
1987 Ms. Olympia – 3rd.
1988 Ms. Olympia – 3rd.
1989 Ms. Olympia – 3rd.
1990 Ms. Olympia – 2nd.
1991 Ms. Olympia – 2nd.
1987 – Inducted into the International Powerlifting Federation Hall of Fame.
1987 – Gym Owner. Name change to Powerhouse Gym. Known as the East Coast Mecca.