Is Women’s Bodybuilding Dead?

Some people would say that Women’s Bodybuilding has been dead ever since Rachel McLish hung up her posing trunks back in 1982. But that would be short-changing the women who were inspired by Rachel and sought to improve upon the foundation that she lay for female bodybuilding enthusiasts everywhere — women like Cory Everson and Lenda Murray.

Cory Everson held the Miss Olympia title from 1984-1989. To many, Cory was the epitome of female bodybuilding — muscular, but not TOO muscular and lean — but not TOO lean.  For many years, Cory represented what most people thought women’s bodybuilding should be all about — an attractive woman with muscles and definition who didn’t appear to exhibit any obvious signs of steroid use.

Cory’s successor, Lenda Murray, simply improved upon everything that Cory had accomplished by delivering a slightly more muscular package, with slightly better definition, and better shape. Some might point out that Lenda’s face seemed slightly more square and masculine than Cory, but Lenda still represented a feminine and muscular physique with perhaps a bit more power than Cory had delivered to the masses. Lenda Murray was Miss O from 1990 to 1995, losing the title in 1996 and placing second in both 1996 and 1997.

Which brings us to the woman who took that title away from Lenda Murray — Kim Chizevsky. Now to put this all in perspective, the mid-90’s are what is now known as the Dorian Era — or more aptly — the drug years. During the 90’s both men’s and women’s bodybuilding took a turn for the worse. The Mr. Olympia title went from the hands of a genetically gifted champion (Lee Haney) with classic symmetry and superior shape into the hands of a genetically average hard-working bodybuilder (Dorian Yates) with no particular aptitude for shape or symmetry. Experience tells us that the only way a genetically inferior bodybuilder can make up for shape and symmetry is to pack on size, and the only way to pack on more size is to ‘up the dosage’.

Throughout the 90’s, Dorian continued to beat genetically superior bodybuilders such as Shawn Ray, Kevin Levrone and Flex Wheeler through a combination of hard work and drugs. Which is not to say that the aforementioned bodybuilders were drug-free — simply that we witnessed a shift in the judging perspective that went from rewarding size, shape, definition and symmetry to rewarding traditionally less important details like drug-induced graininess, drug-induced hardness, and drug-induced mass with little to no importance placed on separation, detail, symmetry or shape.

Kim Chizevsky

By the same token, Kim Chizevsky came along when the genetically superior Lenda Murray was the long-reigning Miss Olympia. With no chance to beat the genetically-perfect frame and shape of Lenda, Kim followed the Dorian path and made up for her genetic weaknesses with that same graininess, hardness and mass that made Lenda appear to be downright soft and in less than top condition. Did that make Kim Chizevsky a better bodybuilder? Absolutely not. But it started a new trend.

A frightening trend.

A trend that would see the Miss Olympia champions and contenders begin to morph not into female bodybuilders with more muscle, but into male bodybuilders with less muscle. The competition became less about who was genetically superior in shape and symmetry and more about who was more shredded and massive.

What had been questioned during the Cory years and suspected during the Lenda years became an indisputable fact during the Kim years: These women were on steroids. LOTS of steroids.

The women stopped looking like women and began to resemble circus freaks. In many cases, were it not for the mounds of make-up, bikini tops and the breast implants, it would be difficult, if not impossible to tell the difference between a female bodybuilder and a male bodybuilder.

Having successfully alienated virtually all of the fans (particularly women) who once admired and aspired to be the next Cory Everson, women’s bodybuilding was left in a lurch. Some wanted a return to the days of yesteryear, while hardcore fans shouted ‘Onward’ in the name of women’s empowerment.

Juliette Bergmann

The result was a compromise of sorts. Who could save women’s bodybuilding? Who could help restore it to its glory of yesteryear in which Weider or Muscular Development could proudly display a Miss Olympia on their cover without fear that it would cripple newstand sales? To get their answer, the powers-that-be called upon one of Cory Everson’s contemporaries — Juliette Bergman. Rising like a phoenix from the ashes of a 12-year retirement, the 43-year old competitor was widely seen as the last chance for Women’s Bodybuilding. At the 2001 Olympia, the judges went along with the plan and awarded a less muscular, more symmetrical and visually-pleasing Juliette Bergman the Overall title over Heavyweight Winner (and future 6-time Ms. Olympia Iris Kyle).

The project didn’t quite go according to plan. With sparse coverage of events, cancelled shows, and a lack of interest from the major magazines, women’s bodybuilding continued to shed fans. Juliette stuck around for another two years to win the Lightweight Olympia crown, but the die had been cast: Women’s Bodybuilding was dying and even a superhero from a bygone era couldn’t save it.

So they gave up trying.

The powers-that-be attempted to put the genie back into the bottle by anointing Lenda Murray Ms. Olympia again in 2002-2003 but the damage had been done — in an effort to keep up with the Joneses (and the Kyles), Lenda no longer resembled the same woman who had taken the torch from Cory but instead featured shredded and separated glutes and other details indicative of a hardcore diuretic and drug regimen.

By 2010, the spectacle of women’s bodybuilding bore absolutely zero resemblance to the sport that played to sold-out crowds 25 years earlier. Having marginalized its fans to the point that only a handful of men with a particular fetish for hypermuscular women continued to purchase tickets, women’s bodybuilding found itself in a hospital bed with barely a token of life support provided by the once-supportive IFBB.

Which is not to say that the business of women’s bodybuilding is dead. The BUSINESS is alive and well. Webcam, wrestling sessions, private posing, and escorting provide a financial and emotional lifeline to the hundreds of women who have sacrificed so much for the sport they love. Sadly, we can’t say the same for the SPORT of competitive women’s bodybuilding.

But possessing the knowledge of who killed women’s bodybuilding still begs question for  which everyone wants to know the answer: Who Will Save It?

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