The first U.S. Women's National Physique Championship, promoted by Henry McGhee and held in Canton, Ohio in 1978, is generally regarded as the first true female bodybuilding contest—that is, the first contest where the entrants were judged solely on muscularity.[13] In 1980, the first Ms. Olympia (initially known as the "Miss" Olympia), the most prestigious contest for professionals, was held. The first winner was Rachel McLish, who had also won the NPC's USA Championship earlier in the year. The contest was a major turning point for female bodybuilding. McLish inspired many future competitors to start training and competing. In 1985, a movie called Pumping Iron II: The Women was released. It documented the preparation of several women for the 1983 Caesars Palace World Cup Championship. Competitors prominently featured in the film were Kris Alexander, Lori Bowen, Lydia Cheng, Carla Dunlap, Bev Francis, and McLish. At the time, Francis was actually a powerlifter, though she soon made a successful transition to bodybuilding, becoming one of the leading competitors of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Due to the growing concerns of the high cost, health consequences, and illegal nature of some steroids, many organizations have formed in response and have deemed themselves "natural" bodybuilding competitions. In addition to the concerns noted, many promoters of bodybuilding have sought to shed the "freakish" perception that the general public has of bodybuilding and have successfully introduced a more mainstream audience to the sport of bodybuilding by including competitors whose physiques appear much more attainable and realistic.

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