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Keeping Women's Physique Sports Thriving and Surviving

  • Written by Doug Schneider

For all intents and purposes, the sport of women’s bodybuilding is dead. Sure, you can still find a smattering of competitions here and there, but even the IFBB ceased putting on the Ms. Olympia in 2014, which sounded the death knell. It was once the sport’s most prestigious competition, not mention a popular draw – in 1986, the Ms. Olympia was held at the Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden, a 5500-seat theater.

So what happened to women’s bodybuilding?

I believe the demise of women’s bodybuilding can be blamed on one thing: drugs. Nothing else, really. I’m talking mostly about steroids, but also the many other drugs that are part of the bodybuilding culture: growth hormone, insulin, diuretics, clenbuterol, you name it. They were used by the women to build their bodies up and, ultimately, tear the sport down.

Exactly how did drugs kill women’s bodybuilding? In a nutshell, because of how they changed the looks of the women competing.

Ms. Olympia 1980Ms. Olympia 1980 (Rachel McLish in center)

When women’s bodybuilding started, the women didn’t use drugs, so those who competed in it had an athletic look – and other women loved it, as did men, and it was accepted by the mainstream. Rachel McLish, the first-ever Ms. Olympia winner, in 1980, was absolutely beautiful then and still is now. (McLish won the Ms. Olympia again in 1982.) Rachel was featured in magazines everywhere and, over time, she even got a few small parts in movies. Talk about a great start!

But it didn’t take long before the judges began to emphasize muscle size and the women began using drugs – first a little bit, then a lot. In due time, the female bodybuilders started looking more like male bodybuilders, and in some cases actually became more muscular that some men, not only in the Ms. Olympia, but at every competitive level. I remember being backstage at a national amateur show about 13 years ago and seeing the heavyweight women standing beside the lightweight and welterweight men – and some of the women were more muscular than the men!

While some might see that level of muscularity on a woman as impressive, most do not, both within the sport and outside it. In the early ’80s, women’s bodybuilding used to be featured on television; however, it wasn’t long before the women began getting too masculinized from the drugs that the TV stations didn’t want it on anymore, so they cancelled coverage. By the 1990s, women’s bodybuilding became what most thought of as a “freak show,” and the sport became nothing more than a strange curiosity that, if the mainstream media did provide coverage of it, was usually something they poked fun at or told some sordid tale about, of which there are many.

Iron Eagle IIIRachel McLish in Aces: Iron Eagle III

A good question today is: Could the women’s physique disciplines such as figure, bikini, and athletic physique that are alive and thriving today also die? The answer is: yes.

The way I see it, since women’s bodybuilding was flourishing until drugs entered the picture, then it stands to reason any of the current women’s disciplines could succumb to the same fate if the pursuit of muscle size becomes paramount and there’s no drug testing in place. This can even happen in the bikini division, as ludicrous as that sounds, and has – I’ve watched as organizations that don’t drug test battle to keep the femininity of the competitors in the various disciplines in check as the drug abuse becomes more and more prevalent. It’s a constant tug-of-war.

Of course, if an organization has proper drug testing, which Physique Canada has, then it is no longer an issue, because the extreme masculinization of any women’s discipline cannot possibly take place – simple as that. (Know this: if a woman has the masculinity of a man, it’s the result of drugs, not a hard training program or some magical diet.)

Julie-Christine and Jess KanstrupJulie-Christine Cotton and Jess Kanstrup

What’s more, the quality of a clean competition can still be extremely high, as evidenced by competitors Julie-Christine Cotton and Jess Kanstrup, who are both featured in the photo above. (Jess is also featured on the cover this month, and Julie-Christine is also highlighted in the “Iron Shots” gallery.) Both women are Tier 1 Pro athletic physique champions with Physique Canada, and they’re both drug-free and an inspiration to women who wish to follow in their footsteps – right now there are women training to emulate Jess’s and Julie-Christine’s looks.

If you took the drug-testing out of Physique Canada, mind you, in no time you’d have . . . exactly what happened to women’s bodybuilding and what’s happening in other organizations in the women’s disciplines as they wrestle with the destruction that drug use brings to physique sports. Luckily, that’s not going to happen. Physique Canada is committed to providing a drug-free competitive stage that makes for fairer competitions and healthier competitors, and ensures what happened to women’s bodybuilding doesn’t happen to the women’s disciplines that are alive and thriving in the organization today.

Doug Schneider
SeriousAboutMuscle.com Founder and Publisher

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2016 Canadian Competitions

April 2 – SAF Spring Spectacular (women’s categories only)

June 10-11 - SAF Summer Spectacular (women's categories only)

June 11 - Physique Canada National Classic (men's and women's categories)

October 21-22 - SAF Fall Spectacular (women's categories only)

October 22 - Physique Canada Canadian Championships (men's and women's categories)

Note: Competitions and dates subject to change without notice

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