In the 1970s, many women were still reluctant to lift weights due to its association with heavily muscled physiques. But in 1979, with her win at the very first International Federation of Bodybuilding (IFBB) women’s bodybuilding contest — the World Pro Bodybuilding Championship — Lisa Lyon helped to provide a template for muscular, aesthetic, self-empowered women.
While that inaugural competition was Lyon’s only appearance on a competitive stage, she would go on to draw attention with her physique in mainstream television and movie outlets, as well as modeling for artistic photographers including Helmut Newton and Robert Mapplethorpe. Unfortunately, on Sept. 8, 2023, Lyon died of cancer at age 70.
After her initial foray into bodybuilding, Lyon authored a book to guide women toward weight training — “Lisa Lyon’s Body Magic” — before transitioning into non-athletic displays of her physical prowess. She was featured in several relatively low budget films before becoming a consistent muse to artists, most notably the controversial American artist Robert Mapplethorpe.
In the early 1980s, Mapplethorpe took more than 100 black and white photographs showcasing Lyon’s eye-catching physique. His work presented her then-uncommon muscularity in a variety of dramatic, sometimes provocative, poses. The collection of art culminated in a published book, “Lady, Lisa Lyon.”
Lyon’s striking figure also inspired comic book writer and artist Frank Miller in 1981 to create the athletic and formidable character Elektra. A native Californian and regular of bodybuilding hub Gold’s Gym, Lyon eventually struck up a friendship with bodybuilding legend Arnold Schwarzenegger.
For her achievements in helping to bring myth-busting attention to the benefits of weight training for women while redefining the concept of female muscularity, Lyon was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame in 2000. In a short video documentary released in 1987, “Lisa Lyon: A Portrait of Power,” she described her approach to training as a driver of aesthetic exhibition.
“… When I go into the gym, I’ve always defined myself as an artist. I’m talking about redefining my own body and my own image. Not just for myself, but as an art and product. As something that I will then present, aesthetically, to the public. So that’s my concept of resculpting my body, of creating an entirely different image of woman.
What I would like for people to do when they see me posing on stage is to say, ‘What planet did that come from? What kind of animal is that?’ To go beyond their idea of what a woman is, beyond their definition of what a human is. To make them question, through my work, their own concepts of themselves, their own limitations of the flesh.
When you have this kind of body where you’re able to do what you want, where you’re able to be more sensual, where you’re more capable, you’re able to become a better survival machine redefining yourself as an animal on this planet. And at the same time, to present a very classical aesthetic. To just present something that I consider is beautiful.”
As per an announcement from Lyon’s family, donations may be made to the Lisa Lyon Fund at StandUpToCancer.org/LisaLyon, which benefits cancer research and treatment.
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