The Female Bodybuilders of India

Bodybuilding is one of the most extreme avatars of gym culture. Despite taboos and financial constraints, female bodybuilders in India continue to compete.

Karen Dias

September 3, 2019

The Female Bodybuilders of India
Competitors attach their trunk numbers to their bikinis. (Karen Dias)

Oye! Squeeze kar, flex na kar! Glutes dikha! Left se khich le, paaji! Thighs dikha!” (Oye! Squeeze it, don’t flex! Show them your glutes. Pull it from the left, brother! Show them your thighs!)

Shouts and cheers from the crowds competed with electronic music, Punjabi rap, and Bollywood tunes. Men dressed in underwear with a trunk number dangling near their crotch walked on stage. Though I searched the stage — and backstage — for women bodybuilders, I found none. 

We are in Chandigarh, a planned city of slightly over a million in northern India that modernist architect Le Corbusier designed meticulously. Chandigarh’s Government College in Sector 46 was playing host to the 8th Senior Men’s and Women’s Bodybuilding Federation Cup, a day-long event that started with the Men’s Bodybuilding & Men’s and Women’s Physique event, where winners earn the title of Mr. & Miss Chandigarh 2019.

In Chandigarh, the women’s bodybuilding segment has been running for seven years. It’s grown in popularity as more female bodybuilders have gained visibility nationally. Though national-level federations don't have official figures, Mamota Devi Yumnan, one of the country’s most senior bodybuilders, estimates that there are about 30 women pursuing bodybuilding professionally across the country. “Come to any national level championships, you won’t find space onstage for the number of women that are participating,” Yumnam said. The number of female bodybuilders she came across in her early years — less than a handful — has grown to a few handfuls.