On October 25, 2022, the Washington Post published an article describing the widespread sexual exploitation of female bodybuilders within the bodybuilding community. The sport of bodybuilding requires competitors to both diet and weight train to sculpt their bodies. The athletes perform poses on stage highlighting their muscles and are judged based on their performance. The sport is divided into categories and weight classes, which are dependent on the degree of the bodybuilder’s muscles. Men can compete in three different categories: bodybuilding, classic physique, and men’s physique. Women can compete in the four categories: bodybuilding, women’s physique, figure, and bikini.
Those entering the bodybuilding world first begin by competing in amateur regional competitions. The athletes can then proceed to national competitions, only if they perform well at regionals. In order to move to the professional league of bodybuilding, a competitor must win a “pro card.” To win a pro card, a competitor must finish in the top three of a national competition. A pro card is considered a “golden ticket” in the bodybuilding world. Pro cards open the door more opportunities and significant financial benefits such as prize money and sponsorships. However, pro cards are incredibly difficult to achieve due to the number of competitions the competitor must win.
The Washington Post conducted interviews with various individuals involved in the bodybuilding community such as competitors, judges, and officials. These interviews revealed the widespread exploitation of female bodybuilders. Some of the women interviewed disclosed that they felt as though their scores and results were dependent on their willingness to pose for sexual photographs and/or to appease the male judges, promotors, and managers.
In one interview, a bodybuilder named Mandy Henderson, told the Washington Post that she agreed to nude photography in an expected exchange for a pro card. However, Henderson did not receive her pro card and did not initially place well in competitions. Henderson then inquired why she did not place well enough to earn a pro card. A prominent judge told her it was “because you didn’t come to my room last night.”
Jim Manion, the president of the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness Pro League, is considered a “powerhouse” of the bodybuilding community. J.M. Manion, Jim’s son, has been photographing female bodybuilders and operating a network of paid soft-core pornography websites for years. These websites advertise over 30,000 photographs of the athletes in the sport. The photographs range from athletes in competitions bikinis to “graphic, sexual images, including those of nude women together in beds, bathtubs and showers.”
Numerous women told the Washington Post that individuals close to J.M. encouraged them to do “whatever he asked” so he could launch their careers. Jenn Gates, an esteemed bodybuilder, refused to pose nude for photographs with J.M and, instead, posed in her swimsuit. However, the photos of Gates in her bikini ended up on one of J.M.’s pornography sites without her consent.
Ava Cowan, a bodybuilder, denied a contract with J.M. after she was warned by a lawyer who reviewed her contract not to work with him as J.M. would “own” her. After she denied a contract with J.M. she placed poorly in a national show. She voiced her frustration on an online bodybuilding forum. The Manion’s learned about her online post, and she was “blacklisted” from the bodybuilding world for four years.
Aly Garcia, a bodybuilder, signed a contract with J.M. after she was informed that she could place higher in competitions. During a photo and video shoot in a pool with another male athlete, J.M. edited the video in a way, without Garcia’s consent, to make it look as though the two were engaged in a sexual act. When Garcia refused to pose naked for photographs, J.M. terminated her contract. Garcia considered the termination to be a result of her refusal.
The sexual harassment of female bodybuilders is not hidden in the community and seemingly thrives out in the open. Judges, promoters, and sponsors often openly ask female athletes to visit their hotel rooms and direct explicit sexual comments at them. These individuals in the bodybuilding community are in positions of authority and have the power to determine whether to propel or stunt an athlete’s career. Men, like J.M., have the power to determine whether female athletes financially benefit from the sport. These individuals use their power to control, manipulate, and sexually exploit those who are in positions of vulnerability.
These power dynamics and manipulation tactics in the bodybuilding community are also commonly used by others who exploit individuals for their own gain. For example, we also often see these types of behaviors in sex and human traffickers. Traffickers are adept at targeting those who are vulnerable and then exploiting their vulnerabilities. In the bodybuilding cases that the Washington Post described, female bodybuilders can be vulnerable targets as their career success is often contingent on those who are most powerful in the industry. By reading about other situations of exploitation and abuse, those in the anti-trafficking and anti-exploitation movement can better identify and speak out against these forms of violence and manipulation.
The CSE Institute commends the bravery of those who spoke to the Washington Post about the widespread exploitation and abuse in the bodybuilding community. The voices of survivors have the power to bring change to a sport flooded with systematic exploitation.
The CSE Institute will provide updates as they become available.
All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.