Female Bodybuilders & Women Who Lift Weights But Don’t Use Drugs Don’t Look Like Men
Bodybuilding for women has in recent times been relegated to the status of part freak show part circus act, with most of the female athletes today who we see in the media resorting to the use of anabolic steroids and other illegal and potentially dangerous drugs to achieve their almost unworldly look. They are often parodied in advertisements and movies and as a result, most women choose not to lift weights for fear of developing masculine features and over developed muscles. The sad part is that for most women, the goal of having a tight body and losing weight would be achieved only from high intensity weight lifting- but the specter of the artificially overdeveloped women in the magazines gives most women pause. (Read my article- Should Women Lift Weights Like Men). Nothing however could be further from the truth as there is absolutely no way that a woman not using drugs could ever achieve the look of a modern drug using female body builder or figure competitor unless they had a serious genetic abnormality- in which case they would already be hyper-muscular without ever having lifted a weight.
Female Bodybuilders- Then & Now
There was a time, not that long ago in the 1980’s when millions of women started going to the gym, not to take part in aerobics classes or spend hours on a stationery bike, but rather to lift weights. At the time, female bodybuilding was at its peak, with female bodybuilders adorning the covers of magazines that even non bodybuilding fans were apt to purchase. Women (and men) loved the look that bodybuilding could give them, wider shoulders with a beautiful V-taper shaping down to a tight and tiny waist with sleek lines in their legs that flared out slightly. A physique that not only was aesthetically appealing, but one that was also apt to make you a better athlete in just about any sport you could think possibly conceive. The training also made women stronger, empowering them with strength that not only made everyday activities easier, but also helped improve their self esteem and overall sense of self. The 1980’s exodus of women into the weight rooms also sparked a shift in the societal idea of women being the weaker sex. Perhaps not since World War II when the lack of male workers on the home-front created a situation where women helped win the war by successfully performing construction and manufacturing jobs requiring significant manual labor, jobs traditionally considered impossible for women to do, had their been such a shift in the societal idea of women as the weaker sex. The exodus of women into the weight room sparked a period where Western women once again saw that they could be strong and that equating weakness with femininity was a societal flaw, an imposed idea that kept women weak because they grew up being perceived as such. The gym served as a place where this myth was put to rest by the many women who dared cross over to the weight rooms and pump iron just like the men did. Weight training for women became in a sense a form of individualism and self determination- and the popularity of naturally muscled women in the media was strong proof that our society as a whole did not have a problem with it at all!
Before The Increase In Steroid Use Female Bodybuilders Were Once Very Much Part Of Popular Culture
There was a time when female bodybuilding competitions were so popular that they were televised on network television. It might be hard for a millenial to imagine but once upon a time you could turn on the television and see truly amazing looking female bodybuilders on mainstream sports programs. These women were not the product of pills or injectable drugs, but a perfect merger of femininity and muscle. A look that was not only popular enough to be on mainstream TV, but attractive enough that female bodybuilders were able to court contracts from major brands. My friend, Wayne Demilia- one of the pioneers of the Ms Olympia female bodybuilding contests once told me how dismayed he was by the current state of female bodybuilding. While the 80’s saw a huge upsurge in popularity for the sport with amazing athletes such as Cory Everson, Rachel Mclish and Gladys Portugues, like male bodybuilding the emphasis on trying to win by any means necessary ultimately brought about the fall of the sport in the eyes of the general public. Drug use started slowly among female bodybuilders, as winners gradually started getting bigger and bigger, with far more muscle mass on their frames than ever before. Looking at the women of the 90’s compared to those competing in female bodybuilding competitions in the 80’s you would see a stark difference in physiques. Looking at them objectively, body part by body part, the female bodybuilders of the later age were far more developed than their earlier counterparts thanks to drug use that would make for muscle growth that would not naturally occur on a woman regardless of how hard she trained. However while their body parts were unquestionably more developed and they were harder and more defined than the earlier athletes, their physiques on a whole were no where near as attractive.
While many involved in the sport saw the increased development and definition as being an advancement, the general public did not find the new physiques to be attractive and young women stopped flocking to gyms in droves as they no longer wanted to emulate the physiques featured in the muscle magazines. At no point in time was there ever a public admission that the increase in size and vascularity among female (and male) bodybuilders over the years was because of anabolic drugs and so women began to believe the well told tale that they too could look like the women in the magazines if they trained hard enough- which could not be any more of an absolute untruth as the female bodybuilders in drug tested shows train for decades on end and never look anywhere near what the women in the non drug tested shows look like. This lack of honesty about drug use is one of the prime reasons women shy away from the very activity that will help them reach their fitness goals and it is truly a shame. Keep in mind that the Ms Olympia contest, the highest level of achievement for a female bodybuilder was so popular (and profitable for promoters) that they were held at venues like Madison Square Garden- and were always sold out events! Wayne Demilia attributed the popularity of female bodybuilding for the creation of the modern fitness magazine as in the old days there were only hardcore male bodybuilding publications, like Muscle Builder and Ironman. When Ms Olympia Rachel Mclish was featured in Muscle Builder magazines (now Flex magazine) it sold more copies than ever- so much so that the publisher, (Joe Weider- the father of modern bodybuilding) felt that they should capitalize on the demand for female bodybuilders and appeal to a broader audience and thus Muscle and Fitness Magazine was created. Arguably the first real fitness magazine with a mainstream focus and it’s readership rivaled that of numerous established magazines thanks in part to the appeal of the female athletes on its covers and in its pages.
Men were not put off by the idea of natural female bodybuilders, as evidenced by the large number of male non bodybuiding fans who purchased the magazines to see the female athletes. The appeal was a universal one, illustrated by the fact that female bodybuilders became a part of American popular culture. Multiple Ms. Olympia winner, Cory Everson had a regular workout program on ESPN, Ms Olympia, Rachel Mclish starred in several action movies (as did Cory Everson), Tonya Knight, Gladys Portugues and others. The naturally muscled physique was so popular that the bodybuilding federation at the time put a ban on any female bodybuilder appearing in the nude- and several prominent athletes defied the restrictions because of offers from magazines like Playboy. It is difficult to imagine a female bodybuilder today being courted by Playboy magazine for a feature, but it does give a glimpse into how accepted the look was, and that there was by no means any societal ideas that women who lifted weights were masculine by any means.
Sadly, as the drug use became more and more rampant among female bodybuilders, instead of dealing with the problem of steroid use in the sport by establishing credible testing, the move was to instead have different contests for women where they didn’t have to be as big and defined as they were in the bodybuilding contests. Thus fitness and later figure competitions were born, but as the years went by- the same drive to win by any means saw drug use creeping into these categories as well- so much so that today the figure competitors are bigger and far more defined than the female bodybuilders of the early 80’s when drug use was not a major part of the sport. Promoters created the figure and later on the bikini categories in an attempt to bring the dwindling crowds back to female physique contests. As the steep drop in ticket sales and the lack of interest among television networks and mainstream media in showing hyper-muscular women meant that they had to do something to remain profitable. Which sadly has always been the driving force of sporting events.
The problem is that while figure and bikini categories were designed to have women present a more “feminine and softer look”, drug use and an artificial appearance that most members of the general public would find somewhat off putting soon became the norm. The problem is that since the judges at non drug tested bodybuilding competitions are almost always former competitors who use or used drugs in the past, women in figure and bikini competitors who used drugs and push the envelope in terms of size and muscle definition beyond what is possible for a female are rewarded with high placings. Judging is a subjective endeavor and if a drugged out look is normal for you then that’s the look that you will score higher than the women who look more like women. Hence the practice of using drugs among women in the newer categories of figure and bikini inevitable became inevitable as judges demand ripped lower bodies, unnaturally wide shoulders and abnormally developed abdominals. In the journalistic spirit of not resorting to hearsay, I took the time to speak with several prominent “coaches” who do a triple duty of working with non drug tested female athletes to help them with their training, diet and drug use for figure and bikini competitions. Based on their consensus, this is the reality of what it takes to attain the look common among women today in these categories that were ironically created to promote a more feminine look:
Anabolic Steroids– to retain muscle mass while dieting and create the degree of density required that women do not naturally have and to harness the little known side effect of testosterone-like drugs to minimize body fat in the abdominal and lower body regions.
Ephedra– to help reduce body fat, especially in areas where there are difficult fat deposits.
Clenbuterol– a dangerous asthma medication that has the effect of increasing metabolism for fat burning while preserving muscle mass.
Growth hormone– to create the paper thin skinned look and help build and preserve muscle mass.
Diuretics– to minimize the water retention so as to create the ripped to shreds appearance.
Thyroid medication– to increase metabolism and reduce body fat.
The result is a woman who looks unfortunately not too different from a man in drag as these drugs not only have the effect of the desired physique effects, but facial features, jawline, head size, skin tone and hair are all affected by the masculinizing effects of many of these drugs, even when used in ways described as “mild” usage. This statement not meant to be disparaging, but it is the reality of the average man and woman confronted by an image or individual using these drugs. It’s a statement that I myself would not use, but it is a substantive point of view that I have been rather troubled to hear time and time again over the past decade and a half since these new categories have been created. The newer category, women’s physique calls for an even more cut and muscular look and this image does a great amount of damage towards the idea of female empowerment as it has prompted many women to avoid weight training like the plague for fear of looking like a man, when nothing could be further from the truth. The public is largely unaware that the popular organizations, the NPC and IFBB do not implement drug testing, as to do so would mean a complete collapse of the sport, since usage is close to 100% at the higher levels and the reason for this ignorance is the fact that athletes routinely either lie or omit the fact that they use drugs. It’s all about profit and in order to maintain sponsorships and social media followings it is critical that the athletes never admit to drug use. Thus exacerbating the problem of women not wanting to lift weights for fear of looking like “a man in a wig with fake breasts.” Unfortunately, with the profitability of a large social media following, many popular and high level female CrossFit athletes also exhibit the unmistakable signs of drug use, which also turns off most women from the prospect of lifting weights, making activities like spin cycling and aerobic type dance classes more socially acceptable, except it doesn’t give them the bodies that they are trying to achieve.
Female Bodybuilders & Women Who Lift Weights Are Not Masculine
Today the Ms. Olympia bodybuilding contest has been discontinued and hardcore bodybuilding magazines don’t cover female bodybuilding because of the lack of interest (or profit) in the idea of women chemically enhanced to the point where they look more like their male counterparts. A sorrowful end to a movement that once embodied the idea of female strength and empowerment on so many levels and it is unfortunate that at the end of the day, the drug tested competitions are not as popular and tested athletes are not highlighted to the point where they achieve household name status. As the look that they embody is one that most women would kill to have, but are unaware of the weight training and years of patient dedication required to get there. Female natural bodybuilding and physique related contests in general is in dire need of an Arnold Schwarzenegger type iconic figure to help show what is possible without using drugs and help women turn away from the misconception that lifting weights and bodybuilding will create a masculine physique.
In spite of the changes in female bodybuilding and physique sports over the years, the aesthetic appeal of naturally built female muscle has not changed in any way- we just are not presented with it as much as we were in the times when non drug using female competitors were part of popular American culture. The lack of visible, strong women who are not the product of a pharmaceutical cocktail does women a true disservice. As does advertising that tries to promote aerobic exercise and class type activities as being more appropriate for women, when the only way they can possibly achieve the toned and sculpted physique that they seek is through serious weight training. So ladies, if you really want to get into great shape- don’t be afraid of lifting weights. Step away from the classes and the treadmills and start lifting- I can guarantee that you’ll like what you see!
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Currently the international fitness consultant for UNICEF and featured everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to CBS News, Personal trainer NYC Kevin Richardson is an award winning personal trainer, natural bodybuilding champion, creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Personal Training and one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City. Learn more about his award winning personal training services here!