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The Perilous, Secret World of Steroids for Female Bodybuilders

Steroid use, while far from normalized or acceptable, has become much more commonplace since the advent of the internet. It’s now easier to learn about steroids, easier to sell steroids, easier to purchase steroids, and thanks to the miracle of social media, easier to showcase steroid-enhanced bodies than ever before. Hell, for people like ex-baseball star Jose Canseco and recently deceased celebrity bodybuilder Rich Piana, it’s become much easier to talk openly about using and abusing these drugs for fun and profit.

Easier for men, anyway. Women who use steroids remain extremely circumspect, often discussing the topic only in the context of public apologies of the sort made by disgraced record-setting sprinter Marion Jones or serving as a source of public ridicule since they’re a “woman who has turned into a man,” as in the case of East German shot-put champion Andreas Krieger (formerly Heidi Krieger).

Of course, women do use steroids, and steroids are often extremely effective for them. Countries that employed systematic state-sponsored steroid doping programs, such as East Germany and the Soviet Union, did extremely well overall in international competition but absolutely cleaned up on the women’s side of the ledger. Today, the People’s Republic of China, which has yet to be exposed in the way the former USSR and GDR have been, is dominating many women’s events in a similar manner. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Jones, a two-sport star at the University of North Carolina, took an already-impressive natural physique, and with the pharmaceutical assistance of her then-husband and star shot-putter C.J. Hunter and the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), became a GOAT on the order of fellow BALCO client and all-time home run king Barry Bonds.

“It’s still verboten for women to talk about their steroid use,” says fitness journalist Anthony Roberts, the author of Anabolic Steroids: Ultimate Research Guide. “Women who use steroids conjure up images of Chyna and Nicole Bass with those messed-up faces from prolonged hormone abuse. Even those women whose careers clearly depend on steroid usage, at least at very low levels, won’t discuss it. Right now, there’s no female bodybuilding star who is open about taking steroids; there’s no outspoken female steroid expert. Women who rely on steroids to sell the sports nutrition products they endorse have to pass themselves off as ‘fake naturals’ in a way that men don’t. And it’s weird, because more women are lifting weights and doing strength-building exercises than ever before. It’s a terrible double-standard that benefits men. Women are forced to stay quiet, or even worse, lie about what they’re doing.”

Over the years, Roberts has advised, consulted with and interviewed hundreds of women involved in professional bodybuilding. “It’s pretty common to hear folks say things like ‘even women’s fitness competitors use a low dose of Anavar or Winstrol here and there, maybe some [of the decongestant and bronchodilator stimulant] Clenbuterol,’” he says. “This is absolute bullshit. Competition level doses I’ve seen for women are much higher than people think, never less than 10 milligrams of Anavar, stacked with an equal amount of Winstrol and a bunch of Clenbuterol. I can’t remember the last time I’ve read a female bodybuilder or fitness girl’s drug program and not seen growth hormone in it.”

“The side effects I’ve seen are manageable, and only temporary,” Roberts continues. “Permanent deepening of the vocal cords and clitoral enlargement are very uncommon, while the most common side effect is the growth of body hair and the loss of hair from the head. As for acne, if you had clear skin your whole life, the addition of steroids won’t likely produce much of it, whereas users who had breakouts during their teen years often see them recur if they use anabolics.”

“To be perfectly frank,” Roberts adds, “most of the drugs that so-called male ‘contest prep gurus,’ also known as drug dealers, recommend for their female clients are steroids that are used in the world of male bodybuilding as cutting agents. This includes Anavar, Primobolan, Proviron and Winstrol. These steroids don’t provide huge weight gains but do provide high-quality gains of muscle and little water retention. Sounds great, right? This is surely why men recommend these drugs to women. Of course, these are also among the most expensive anabolics on the market, and thus provide healthy profits to the male ‘gurus’/drug dealers who recommend them.”

However, Roberts concedes that there is only so much either he or I could say about the use of steroids by women. A conspiracy of silence surrounding this topic made it difficult to get women to talk on the record, understandable given the continuing cultural stigma directed at the practice. That said, one of Roberts’ friends and former clients, a National Physique Committee and Strongman athlete who has been sponsored by various supplement companies throughout her two-decade career, agreed to speak with me under the condition that, owing to the constraints of her full-time job, her identity be kept secret — a regular “Jane Grow.”

The rest of this story is Jane’s, as it should be.

I’m from New York City, where steroid use has been mainstream for a long time. I dare you to visit a New York or New Jersey gym and not find some random dudes who are using steroids recreationally — to enhance their beach bods or look good in the mirror. As for me, well, I’ve lifted weights since my late teens.

People at the gym would say, “Wow, what are you training for?” and I had no answer. So I fell into bodybuilding as a form of competition, because how many other sports outlets are there for adults to compete? I competed naturally for a little while, then began dabbling with drugs like Primobolan [a mild steroid with no propensity for producing estrogenic side effects]. I took a break to start a family, and when I returned to the sport in my early 30s, I realized I was competing with other people who were already juicing, although I didn’t talk to them much about it. But I understood I was handicapping by not using performance-enhancing drugs.

In terms of gaining access to steroids in the pre-internet era, you could basically go to any gym in the Tri-State area [New York, New Jersey and Connecticut], strike up a conversation with a meathead, and get what you needed. Of course, most of these bros had some really dumb ideas about steroid dosages for women. They might be taking 50 milligrams of Anavar, and their thinking was, “Okay, take half my dosage.” That’s terrible advice, because it’s too high a dose for a woman to start with.

Therein was the problem: Women were going to men for access to steroids and advice about steroids, not to each other. I actually got to know Anthony [Roberts] in part because one of his earlier books had interesting, useful stuff about dosing that was directed specifically at women and supported by detailed research and investigation.

In terms of how my body reacted to steroids, well, you’re obviously going to do better at the gym. My recovery times were faster, I gained more size and I generally felt healthier and stronger. I would do a cycle for 10 weeks, because with women longer, lower-dose steroid cycles work better, whereas men do better with shorter cycles and higher dosages. Hormonally… well, we’re already hormonally screwed up to begin with.

I went through my second full cycle a few months after my first. At that point, I tried Anavar at the 5-milligram level — since then I’ve gone much higher than that — but I eventually realized this was a bad drug to use, since the cost-to-benefit ratio is low, and unless you’re buying from a trustworthy source, it’s often a faked compound. You’re sold Winstrol or even Dianabol [a potent steroid with many dangerous side effects].

This happens a lot. As I said, women often don’t talk to other women, and the results can be disastrous. Women end up relying on deceitful or dumb trainers, boyfriends and husbands who don’t have the slightest clue. In some ways, we’re going backwards, since in the early 2000s there were some private internet forums where women would gather to discuss side effects and results. The one I remember most clearly was moderated by Chad Nicholls [the husband of four-time Ms. Olympia Kim Chizevsky and the “contest prep guru” for Dallas McCarver, a bodybuilding star who died of a heart attack last year and whose autopsy revealed testosterone levels elevated far beyond anything else on record].

In fact, most of the moderators and administrators of these forums were men, now that I think about it, and sometimes the men butted in more than we would have liked, but they were reasonably safe spaces for discussing these topics. There was a woman-specific forum called “Sioux Country” that had a male admin who became this kind of creepy “white knight” savior. The discourse on there was pretty vibrant, but you always ran the risk of shit like that happening.

Now these forums are long gone. You can’t even find traces of them via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. In addition to the posts from people like Anthony, who was a legendary expert on those forums, I remember these amazing, woman-specific posts from someone using the nickname “NPCChica.” I referred to them all the time early in my bodybuilding career, but now they’ve disappeared from the record.

Since the forums dwindled, most of my steroid talk with women hasn’t occurred in real life except for a few competitors in my area. Now that I’m doing Strongman events, most of the women I train with don’t discuss it at all. Certainly some of these women are using, but likely not to the extent women in bodybuilding are. The best people are probably always using, but it’s not for me to determine who is using what, nor do I care. Is [tennis star] Serena Williams doping, or is she just very thick-bodied? Hard to say, because she doesn’t have enough fat-free mass for me to make an accurate judgment.

The same goes for fitness models. If they’re using something like [bronchiodilator / stimulant] Clenbuterol, that’s nothing. A person on Clen is a natural, in my book. But women’s bodybuilding at the highest level did require significant steroid use to achieve that fatless, hypertrophied look.

I loved that look. The decision by the International Federation of Bodybuilding to demonize and then kill the women’s bodybuilding Olympia [in 2015], after years of dominance by [10-time Ms. Olympia] Iris Kyle, was unforgivable in my book. I participated in those shows and attended those shows because I wanted to see freakshows; I wanted to see the best of the best. And Iris Kyle, in terms of symmetry and muscle development, was the best. Nor was she huge, even if the way the media talked about female bodybuilders was that they were these hulking monstrosities. Kyle was 5-foot-7 and weighed 150 to 155 pounds onstage, maybe 175 pounds in the offseason.

It wasn’t a lack of interest that led to women’s bodybuilding disappearing from the Olympia and Arnold Classic stages, the two biggest events of the bodybuilding calendar. The Wings of Strength Phoenix Rising event, which showcases women’s bodybuilding, pays out good prize money and has plenty of sponsors. It’s a big deal. Yet when women’s bodybuilding was removed from these events, it was pushed into its own boutique area. I was astonished at the lack of solidarity shown by male competitors. Can you imagine if even one top male bodybuilder had stood up for us? If one of the big stars, like Phil Heath, had said, “I’m going to boycott if you cut this because these women are my colleagues?” I haven’t gone to an Arnold or an Olympia since women’s bodybuilding was cut.

I’m still angry about that. All our lives, women are told to be “less than.” As a trainer, what do my female clients say to me? “I want to lose my love handles.” Or: “I want to lose this underarm fat.” Whereas a male client will tell you exactly what they want to accomplish: “I want to get real strong.” All our lives, women are shrinking, vanishing, disappearing. Then the IFBB, this organization that should be helping all of us achieve our goals since we’re paying them megabucks in competition fees and membership dues, publishes these memoranda saying women should “downsize” by 20 percent. Bullshit. I use steroids because I want to be “more than,” not “less than.” I want to take up space. I’m only 5-foot-3, but I weigh 150 pounds. I take up space. I want to see other women take up space, too. I want them to spread out across the stage, as big as training and chemistry allow them to become.

I’m talking to you about all this because I desperately want there to be more candor, more honesty. I want to be able to go on the record with the life that I lead. I want women to help each other use steroids, not men holding themselves out as “gurus” who say shit like, “Women can’t take this drug, that’s a man’s drug.” There are a handful of private, secret Facebook groups that function a bit like the forums used to, but there are men on there, too. They’re the ones mansplaining what to take and often selling the women the steroids and other drugs they need. These men consider themselves “experts” and their windbag pronouncements may carry more weight than the opinion of a woman who has used her body as a laboratory and can tell you which drugs work for her and which ones don’t.

Basically, bodybuilding is the sport of steroid chemistry. There’s training and nutrition, too, but at the upper ranks, you must know steroid chemistry. I can tell you right now, having competed on growth hormone, that it’s just way too expensive as a drug, and if you combine it with insulin-like Growth Factor, you can end up with fibroids, tumors and diabetes. But GH really does help out with your skin. Your skin will look great.

Lots of women love Clenbuterol, but I don’t care for it — or need it. My drug of choice is Masteron. It’s a steroid that has mild anti-estrogenic properties and used to be given to women for breast cancer; look at the etymology of that brand name [“mastos” is Greek for breast]. It’s fantastic for retaining strength during a caloric deficit, has few side effects at the low dose I use and pairs well with Winstrol when you’re hardening your body for a major bodybuilding competition.

As much as I like Strongman sports now, I loved bodybuilding. You’re working to create a picture of perfection at a certain point in time. You can create the physique of a superhero, and then, months or years later, you can look back at the pictures and marvel at how cool you looked. And when you’re backstage with all these other female bodybuilders, you fit right in. It’s amazing. All these women who are suddenly “more than,” not “less than.” We’re all the same back there. We’re not competitive at all. We’re checking each other’s wardrobes and makeup. We’re all in it together. There’s such tremendous solidarity. My one real regret is that when you go out there and perform, you’re doing it in front of judges who are primarily male. There aren’t enough female judges, women who understand what a muscular woman’s body should be, just men who bring with them their own biases.

Recently, I almost got in a fight with a guy on a train. “Are you a dude or a girl? Are you trans?” People say that more frequently than could ever imagine. And when they ask me this, I think, You don’t have any muscle, so I guess you’re a girl. Imagine approaching a skinny man and asking him if he’s a crack addict or suffering from AIDS. I’m just a short woman with fake breasts and large muscles walking down the street. I can’t even fathom what bigger women encounter.

But behind the scenes at bodybuilding shows, with other women who look like me, with many women who are using steroids like me, it’s totally different. Everything we’ve done to ourselves is intentional. We wouldn’t trade these skinsuits we’ve made via chemistry and training for anything in the world. Any other sport you’re doing, from NASCAR to baseball, you leave your tools and your gear in the shop. I can’t put my body down and leave the house as anyone but me. That’s why when we go out, ignorant douchebags sometimes refer to us as “sir” or “bro.” Still, we’d never dream of doing anything but treasuring this one spectacular moment when none of that crap matters. Up on that stage, we’re everything we hoped and dreamed we could become.