As a kid growing up in the 1990s, I was fascinated by pop cultural images of women and girls who possessed superhuman strength. There was Pippi Longstocking, who could lift her horse over her head. X-Men’s Rogue, who could absorb other superheroes’ powers. Eartha Brute, from “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?,” a bodybuilder strong enough to steal the Empire State Building.
If a woman was big and strong enough, I figured, surely she would be safe from men. (The news was full of stories of violence against girls and women; the danger men posed seemed omnipresent.)
Of course, life has shown me all the ways my childhood hopes were wrong. Most recently, revelations from the real-life world of women’s competitive bodybuilding have driven home how naive I was.
Bodybuilding — in which men and women are judged not on strength but on the size and leanness of their physiques — challenges, perhaps more than any other competitive endeavor, so many notions about biology, gender, sexuality, racial genetics and the limits of the human body.
When I first became familiar with this world, female bodybuilders represented feminine strength and power to rival men’s — a pushback against the male gaze. This is what it looked like when women rebelled against Western body norms that preferred them to be small, slender, without visible muscle, weaker or submissive-looking.
Turns out, muscles are still no match for the patriarchy. In “Built & Broken,” an investigation into the underbelly of the bodybuilding industry, my Post colleagues have rigorously documented the pressures female bodybuilders say they’ve endured in their pursuit of success.
In an article by Post journalists Desmond Butler, Amy Brittain and Alice Li, female competitors vying for the top spots in the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness Pro League (IFBB) and the amateur National Physique Committee (NPC) described facing pressure to participate in racy or nude photo shoots, the results of which were fed to soft-core pornography websites. To make matters worse, these sessions were shot by J.M. Manion, the son of Jim Manion, who runs the IFBB and NPC and has the power to make or break competitors’ careers.
Women interviewed by The Post alleged that fitness managers would send female competitors to judges’ hotel rooms before competitions or to J.M. Manion for the photo shoots. Some women who refused to comply said they ended up blacklisted from the sport. Instead of launching investigations, Jim Manion (through his lawyer) has denied “any and all wrongdoing.”
Women have also said the abuse goes beyond photo shoots. In 2019, former Mr. Olympia Shawn Rhoden was charged in Utah with raping a female competitor, who considered him a mentor. (He pleaded not guilty and died in 2021, before the case could be resolved.) James Ayotte, a bodybuilding coach, has been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct, and of pressuring female athletes through dangerous drug and exercise protocols that have landed some of them in hospitals. (He, too, has denied wrongdoing.)
Yet for all this, the abuse of female bodybuilders has not elicited the same level of outrage as abuse scandals in other women’s sports, including gymnastics and soccer.
Why? I spoke with a few coaches who train competitors and was told that many female bodybuilders are afraid that speaking out could harm their careers. The Manion family’s monopolistic hold over the sport is also a factor. Add to this that bodybuilding is not a regulated sport the same way gymnastics or soccer are, and female competitors simply have fewer legal options.
Then there’s the complication of optics, in a sport that’s all about the optics.
There appears to be little sympathy for women who choose to step onstage in bikinis for men to judge them, or who — in an industry where women earn a fraction of what men do — have sometimes turned to earning money by creating fetishistic internet content. As is typical in abuse cases, commentary about female bodybuilders is rife with victim-blaming; from Reddit: “they can choose to do the photoshoots or not.”
I also wonder whether there’s a “Killer Sally” effect here. That’s the title of a Netflix documentary about Sally McNeil, a bodybuilder who in 1995 shot and killed her bodybuilder husband, Ray — in self-defense, she asserted, after Ray’s years of violence against her and her children. Sally was of course big and physically strong. She also made fantasy videos for extra cash, in part to support Ray’s steroid addiction.
During Sally’s trial, lawyers and some in the media argued a woman that built couldn’t have suffered abuse. She wasn’t feminine enough, vulnerable enough, to be a victim. Sally was convicted of second-degree murder and served more than 20 years in prison, before being paroled in 2020. In the miniseries, she notes that the bodybuilding world did little to rally to her defense.
There has been a ton of fuss about transgender athletes in women’s sports, with some claiming that allowing trans women to compete is a form of “abuse.” No. The abuse of women in bodybuilding is a reminder that the biggest threats to women and girls in sports are — and always have been — men.