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This is an ode to the girl who could literally lift her husband above her head.
With young feminists and allies lifting up old-school icons like Ruth Bader Ginsburg (aka The Notorious RBG) and Rosie The Riveter, there is one powerful figure that shouldn’t be forgotten: Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton.
The original Muscle Beach girl, Stockton paved the way for women in fitness. One of the first ladies of iron, she began working out long before crash diets or female fitness and social media stars could ever be imagined. For Stockton, fitness was simply fulfilling—she just happened to turn it into a lucrative and legendary career.
But it didn’t start out that way.
Born Abbye Eville in Santa Monica, California, in 1917, Stockton grew up in an era when women were discouraged from any physical activity that would make them “unfeminine.” This included most sports and, of course, lifting weights. Throughout high school, Stockton, who was nicknamed “Pudgy” as a child by her father because of her weight, would only work out in the privacy of her bedroom. In the 1930s, she worked as a phone operator. Growing restless with her office job, she decided to take her weight lifting to the next level by moving out of her bedroom and onto Muscle Beach. The bravery this young woman possessed to strut onto the famed Santa Monica beach—surrounded by the likes of Joe Gold and George Eiferman—and lift is astounding.
Stockton would lift with her future husband, Les Stockton, who was student at UCLA. Together they would perform gymnastics and feats of strength on the beach, including Abbye lifting her 180-pound husband above her head while he did a handstand. Another routine they would perform on Muscle Beach would be Les lifting Abbye above his head while she lifted a 100-lb. barbell.
Stockton described her initial feelings of insecurity on Muscle Beach and how she overcame them, saying that mastering the handstand was a major turning point for her, according to the book LA Sports: Play, Games and Community in the City of Angels by Wayne Wilson and David K. Wiggins.
In the book, she was quoted saying she eventually grew to find the atmosphere at Muscle Beach endlessly inspiring. “We may have been learning our acrobatics from each other, but we still wanted to do things perfectly—to make the movements impressive and beautiful…Everyone else was so good, I felt I had to be perfect too,” she said.
Standing at 5’2″ and weighing in at 115 pounds, Stockton’s personal records include 100 lb. press, 105 lb. snatch, and a 135 lb. clean and jerk, according to barbend.com.
Weightlifting for women wasn’t the only aspect of culture Stockton had impacted; she also changed the game for swimwear. Feeling restricted by the traditional “swimming costumes” of the era, Stockton and her mother designed two-piece swimsuits that would be easier for her to lift in. How did they do this? Stockton’s mother literally ripped the fitted bra out of the top of an outfit. In a 1988 interview with the Los Angeles Times, she recalled this moment, saying, “You couldn’t buy a two-piece, so my mother ripped apart an old brassiere to use as a pattern.”
How hardcore was that?
In 1944, Stockton went on to write a column for women in the popular fitness publication, Strength and Health—appropriately titled “Barbelles”—which she continued to produce for a decade. One could argue this makes Stockton not only one of the original ladies of iron, but one of the first female fitness “influencers” as well. All of today’s social media fitness personalities have a lot to thank her for.
Before Stockton, women who lifted were all delegated to sideshow acts in the circus, and most were inhumanly large. She showed that strength and physical fitness didn’t have to look inhuman to be impressive or inspiring.
She was the first woman to show the world that fitness and traditional femininity were not exclusive from each other. This was reflected in the WWII and post-war culture of pinup girls, with shots showing these women occasionally working out. Everyday women looked to emulate these icons, according to Venus with Biceps: A Pictorial History of Muscular Women by David Chapman.
Throughout the 1940s, Stockton posed with the top male bodybuilders of the time, including Steve Reeves and John Grimek. According to the Los Angeles Times, she even appeared on the cover of more than 40 magazines.
After WWII, Stockton opened a gym for women on Sunset Boulevard, which expanded to two more locations in California, and eventually partnered with 1950’s Mr. America, John Farbotnik, in 1952. In 1947, she and her husband hosted the first Amateur Athletic Union-sanctioned weightlifting competition for women. That same year, Physical Culture magazine honored Stockton with the Miss Physical Culture Venus Award.
Stockton was never afraid to push boundaries and speak out against those who didn’t believe in her. “People used to say that if women worked out, they would become masculine-looking or wouldn’t be able to get pregnant,” she said in Sports Illustrated Women in 2002. “We just laughed because we knew they were wrong.”
Les and Abbye remained married throughout their lives and had one daughter together. Les Stockton passed away in 2004, with Abbye following in 2006 from Alzheimer’s at the age of 88.
Abbye Stockton will always be remembered as one of the original women of iron, and the Queen of Muscle Beach who inspired women everywhere to go out and lift.