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​The Changing Body Image of WWE Wrestlers

August 1, 2015, 2:46pm
Photo by PA Images

This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

There once existed a belief that the best wrestlers needed to be the biggest, most muscular and aesthetically blessed guys out there in order to succeed.

Now, there is an amalgamation of these aesthetic gods with smaller, less muscular, and even scruffy (but nonetheless incredibly talented) pro wrestlers, who have thrown two fingers up to the status quo, redefining what a WWE competitor looks like.

This shift partially owes credit to changes made to the Wellness Policy in 2006. In a nutshell, this clamped down on the pill-popping culture – be it steroids, sleeping pills, or a concoction of other drugs –that had existed in the WWE.

If Vince McMahon's history is anything to go by, you'd be forgiven for thinking a stricter stance on drug use merely serves to protect corporate interests. As told by Wrestling Pundit, who provide the most thorough recap of steroid abuse within pro-wrestling that you're likely to find, the health of wrestlers was being compromised by illogical laws. For example, McMahon banned marijuana use in the 1990s; while illegal, this contributed far less to heart palpitations and the like than prescription drugs and alcohol.

By 1996, Kevin Nash says the WWE (then known as WWF) had scrapped its drug-testing policy, as it became a heavy burden to both profits (WWF was competing against WCW at the time) and wrestlers, who were presumably becoming annoyed with tests before and after shows. With that, the WWE relaxed its laws.

Then came the Attitude Era, which was marked by the rise of steroid use. Triple H told ESPN radio that he used steroids to recover from his quad injury in the early 2000s, before suggesting that if steroids were to be banned, so too should lifting, weights and cardio exercises, as these are also performance enhancing. It is unlikely that the corporate Triple H of 2015 would echo similar sentiments, but it demonstrates the willingness of stars to use drug to enhance their image as a wrestler. It is this phenomenon that is quickly trending towards smaller, less Hercules-like wrestlers you see today in the WWE.

The Wellness Policy was a dual response to years of negligence in the '80s and '90s towards the dangers of drugs, which cost many superstars their lives, but also the more recent deaths of Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit. With steroids seemingly in the rear-view, next came an era of atypical wrestling stars taking centre stage; an era of smaller, less-defined and scruffier wrestlers becoming etched in the minds of fans as main event stars.

From the 1980s through the mid-2000s, almost every main event wrestler you saw (bar Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart and for a short-while, Rey Mysterio) fitted the common stereotype of a pro wrestler. The heavy focus on image has slowly been eroded, and replaced with a ''speedier, more fluid pace of play''. Now, fans care less about how you look, and more about what you can do for them.

Rey Myserio, waxed and oiled | Photo via Flickr

Take Daniel Bryan, a man who could easily be mistaken for a lost homeless dude in dire need of introduction to a razor. Kevin Nash once said ''you're not gonna watch a porno with a guy with a three-inch dick – that's not the standard in porno films'', suggesting a star like Bryan has no place leading a paradigm shift in pro wrestling, which prioritises towards entertainment over image.

He wasn't part of WWE's Royal Rumble match in 2015, but even as the beefy Roman Reigns won the rumble, it was Bryan's ''YES'' chants that rang loudest, a clear depiction of the fans' anger that Bryan was eliminated from the match way too early.

Let's recap: Roman Reigns wins one of the biggest matches in pro wrestling, and the crowd chant ''YES'', the signature chant of a 5ft 10 man who looks like a goat with a ginger beard, who didn't even make the final stages of the match. Kevin Nash's pornography preferences aside, that moment in 2015 was a clear as any that the WWE was firmly entrenched in a new era.

At the crux of any entertaining wrestling match is realism and the ability to make the audience forget they are essentially watching two grown men wrestle in a pre-scripted bout. While there is something enthralling about Brock Lesnar welcoming people into 'Suplex City', the audience find it much easier to buy into guys who in some way resemble themselves. How can the average viewer ever engage with the beast that is Brock Lesnar?

The CM Punk (now of UFC) and Daniel Bryan feud of 2012 embarked upon a "dynamic that cannot be defined by words when it is as its best". That feud demonstrated the tremendous chemistry between two wrestlers who were ''the same height as the fucking referees'', which is the same rhetoric which led Nash to initially make such a statement when he saw Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero hug at the end of Wrestlemania 20.

Take a guy like Seth Rollins: he's the antithesis of the steroid movement that so ungracefully colonised pro wrestling. He is the current WWE World Heavyweight Champion, WWE's most prestigious honour. Rollins is the epitome of the new era of wrestlers: sleek, agile and extremely athletic. He was also given a larger push than the notably bigger Reigns has received, despite both disbanding from their previous rebel-faction, 'The Shield'.

Bray Wyatt – arguably The Undertaker's on-the-job-intern-soon-to-be-replacement – is a far cry from what his mentor represents as a tall, built, domineering athlete. He is notably smaller, slightly podgier, and possesses a far more Nebraska-lost-drunk type of look than he does the look of a man who would become heir to the legendary Undertaker's throne.

Still, WWE fans adore him almost religiously, so much so that ''the villagers have started rooting for the dragon and not the dragon slayer''.

The divas are seemingly trending in the opposite direction, with WWE sourcing an increasing number of models, rather than talent from the independent scene. Few in wrestling actually care for the diva scene, but for those that do it's become more about beauty and less about ability. Generally speaking, the WWE want their divas to look better than they can wrestle in 2015.

So it comes as no surprise that the WWE embraces a shift from steroid-chomping-body-building monsters towards allowing a wider variety of wrestlers to flourish in its upper echelons. The image you had of a WWE wrestler is no longer what it once was, and you can thank the organisation's harsher stance on drugs for this shift.