How Bev Francis Changed Women’s Bodybuilding Forever

Bev Francis was introduced to the world of bodybuilding in 1985, starring in the movie Pumping Iron II: The Women. Bev was a successful and famous athlete, powerlifting champion and national shot put champion. She also had more muscle and was stronger than other female bodybuilders of the time. But to understand why she was such a disruption in the sport, you have to look at the history of bodybuilding for women up to that point.

When Bev Francis first appeared on the scene in PUMPING IRON II, she had the body of a champion powerlifter. After a few years of bodybuilding training, her physique was more symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing. Bill Dobbin

The first modern women’s bodybuilding contests, according to Steve Wennerstrom, IFBB Women’s Archivist and Historian, began in 1977. But female competitors at the time hadn’t trained long enough or seriously enough to have built up much muscle. At that time, it was mostly women who dieted pretty hard to get very thin. Until the first Ms. Olympia in 1980, it was basically diet contests. In the beginning, in many cases, women were discouraged from doing bodybuilding poses, and in some, they had to wear high heels, like a beauty pageant.

Muscular Woman Bev Francis Performing Dumbbell Workout
Bill Dobbin

Now we understand today that it takes many years of serious training to create what we recognize as a true bodybuilding physique. For example, it took decades for male bodybuilding to see onstage physiques like Steve Reeves or Bill Pearl in the 1950s or Arnold or Sergio Oliva in the 1960s. Actual sports, rather than skills like billiards or dart throwing, are progressive by definition. Today’s athletes are still better than those of the past. So the first female bodybuilders didn’t have a lot of muscle, but as more women got involved, trained for more years, and set higher goals, in the early 1980s, female bodybuilders on stage began to show more and more muscle mass and muscularity.

But not much more. This kind of evolution takes time. And a problem at that time was that federations and judges tended to react negatively if a woman

bodybuilder showed more muscle than the given norm of the day. As Pumping Iron author Charles Gaines has observed, women who build muscle for primarily cosmetic purposes are a new archetype, something never seen at any time or place in history. Their appearance represented a challenge to popular ideas of femininity, body type, and sexual and gender identity. Much of the culture frowned upon these women as they began to build more muscle and, of course, federation officials and judges are part of the culture.

Old School Cool image of Bev Francis sitting on a pedestal
This kind of photo has convinced its detractors of the aesthetic qualities of the physique of Bev Francis. Bill Dobbin

In the 1980s, Rachel McLish started the decade by winning the first Ms. Olympia. Rachel was slim, sleek and beautiful, so she was a great example to be the first famous female bodybuilder to introduce the sport to the world. Then Rachel was followed a few years later by Cory Everson. Cory was tall, 5-foot-9, and had a physique developed through years of athletic competition as a heptathlete. Cory had plenty of very aesthetic muscle, but not the degree of muscularity that would soon characterize female bodybuilders like Lenda Murray. Cory won the Ms. Olympia title six years in a row, starting in 1984, and her body and beauty helped her find success on television and in several films. For this reason, during this period of the late 1980s, Cory was the face of female bodybuilding as far as the public was concerned.

It is in this context that Bev Francis entered the scene. With the body of a powerlifter, including lots of muscle, Bev only trained as a bodybuilder for a few months before filming Pumping Iron II. Thus, his physique lacked the aesthetic we associate with bodybuilding. This presented the contest judges with a dilemma. Bev on stage next to someone with so much less muscle, like Rachel McLish, was really all about apples versus oranges. The judges had never seen a woman on stage with such strong muscles. So there was really no precedent for making a judgment like this. It was totally new territory.

Female bodybuilding legend Bev Francis posing in one piece
Even from the start of her bodybuilding career, Bev Francis was capable and confident when it came to posing. Bill Dobbin

If you watch the movie, you’ll see that Bev finished eighth in the competition. This was controversial in part because many women’s bodybuilding advocates believed that Bev was subject to the same type of rejection for having so much muscle as has happened to other competitors like Laura Combes or Kay Baxter. But that wasn’t really true. A good way to demonstrate this is to compare Bev’s physique in 1985 with how she looked winning the IFBB World Championship in 1987, beating the incredible Anja Langer. After several years of bodybuilding training, Bev showed much better symmetry and proportion, a short stature and excellent conditioning. In other words, a REAL bodybuilding physique. Along with these vast physical enhancements, Bev also overwhelmed Anja with the quality and vibrancy of her presentation. Anja seemed hesitant on stage, while Bev radiated energy and confidence.

Bev Francis was the first to showcase impressive size and definition on the competitive stage. She paved the way for those to come like Lenda Murray, Kim Chizevsky, Yaxeni Oriquen and Iris Kyle in the 90s, and our current champions, Andrea Shaw, Helle Trevino and Margie Martin. Women with a lot of aesthetic muscle and muscularity have become the norm and the standard in the industry. It may be hard for young fans to appreciate just how disruptive Bev Francis was during those early years, but she definitely was.

Bev Francis Professional Accomplishments

Member of the Australian Athletics Team: 1977, 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982

  • (Missed 1980 track season due to knee injury)
  • Events: shot put, discus, javelin and 100 meter reserve
  • Broke the Australian shot put record: 1977

World Powerlifting Champion: 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985

  • Has broken more than 40 powerlifting world records

Bev Francis: first woman to bench press over 300 pounds

  • Best lifts: Squat – 500 lbs, Bench Press – 335 lbs, Deadlift – 501 lbs
  • Star of the film “Pumping Iron II-The Women” filmed in 1983, released in 1985

IFBB World Professional Bodybuilding Championship: 1st place – 1987

  • Ms. Olympia Bodybuilding Championship: 3rd place – 1987, 1988, 1989
  • Ms. Olympia Bodybuilding Championship: 2nd Place – 1990, 1991

Opened “Bev Francis Bodybuilding Gym” – Long Island, New York in 1987

  • Extension of the gymnasium at “Bev Francis Gold’s Gym” – Syosset, New York in 1990
  • Name change to Powerhouse Gym, Bev Francis in 2005
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