Rebuttal to John Romano’s “The Death of Women’s Bodybuilding Did “Ugly” Kill Female Pro Bodybuilding?”

The Death of Women’s Bodybuilding Did “Ugly” Kill Female Pro Bodybuilding?

There have been many reasons for why female bodybuilding is struggling to survive. John Romano is a personal trainer and gym owner. He has been involved in the fitness industry for years and also writes for various fitness magazines including being a regular contributor to the T Nation Forums. He pontificates the reasons for female bodybuilding’s slow decline. These arguments lack cogency and thoughtful analysis. Romano’s claim is that female bodybuilding declined due to lack of femininity, what he refers to as “man face” ( colloquial term for virilization), and the subculture of schmoes that emerged in the sport. John Romano’s claims can be challenged with facts. Female bodybuilding during its early stages was never fully accepted by the mainstream. Women’s sports have in general never been accepted by the public. Bodybuilding has in general never been a mainstream sport. Yet, women still cannot escape the culture of sexism that exists in sport. Their presence was never wanted or appreciated. While there are competitors who do use drugs, not all do. If this is such a problem then one should question why the IFFB does not have a vigorous drug testing policy. The statement that the sport is a beauty contest is inaccurate. John Romero seems to not respect the sport or the fans. He ignores the gender bias that still remains in the industry. The sport still has a fan base that the corporate gatekeepers do not target in marketing. Female bodybuilding is not dying, but going through a decline. It is not because the women were incapable of being great athletes, but they were too good. This is unacceptable in an atmosphere that devalues women and their accomplishments.

        The major problem with bodybuilding in general is that it is not a mainstream sport. It does not have the same level financial investment as the NFL or Major League Baseball. It is small niche in the sports world. Men who compete would never make as much as a football player. Men do have the opportunities to get supplement contracts. Women are on the other hand at a disadvantage. Bodybuilding as a sport is already underground and women’s sports in general get little attention or coverage. ESPN used to cover both men and women’s events. It is rare that a major cable channel covers bodybuilding events. Women were usually regulated to a secondary status next to their male counterparts. Even when the Ms.Olympia was at its height, when it was broadcast on TV it seemed like a form of charity for the women. It was a side event compared to the more important men’s event. Being an underground sport does not help women. Usually, they will be further marginalized because they are entering a male dominated activity. This underground atmosphere gives bodybuilding a unique  subcultural atmosphere that makes it interesting. The problem is it is cut off from the benefit of mainstream consumption. Bodybuilding survives by being connected to the fitness industry through supplement companies, exercise equipment, and magazine publishing. Women have been present in the sport, but they still face prejudice.

         Sexism has been a part of sports since its existence. Bodybuilding continues to be the sport most blatant in their intolerance of women. During the golden age of women’s bodybuilding muscle was never accepted on women. Currently, there are many who object to this, but it was worse in the early years. Women stated entering contests in the 1970s and even judges were questioning whether women should be there.

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The same arguments appeared back then are often spoken today. Statements such as the women were too big or they were mannish were uttered vociferously. This mainly came from the general public who still believed in rigid gender roles. Men are suppose to demonstrate power, while women are to be fragile and delicate. Rachel Mclish became the first Ms.Olympia exhibiting a physique that was muscular, but not large. As the 1980s progressed the size issue became a problem for women. Women according to IFBB judges needed to have muscle, but not too much. This was not a problem for men, because it was assumed they would be the better athletes. The traditional convention was that women should not be more powerful than a man. Women showing physical strength caused discomfort among traditionalists and people who did not want to see women involved. Some women challenged the vacillating judging criteria and shifted the aesthetic. Bev Francis decide she was going to put on as much muscle as possible. Bev Francis never won a Ms.Olympia even though she was a great bodybuilder in terms of size and symmetry. If she were a man, she have been awarded and praised. Yet, in a male dominated sport she was condemned. downloadShe was considered too huge to be feminine. The judging criteria after 1991 started focusing on femininity. This was a ludicrous decision considering there was never a masculinity criteria for males. This was in a sense policing gender. None of the women changed their  biological sex by becoming athletes. The fact that women were becoming skilled at strength sports bothered more of the conservative elements. The Weider Corporation wanted not to present woman as athlete, but sexualized  commodity. The goal was to sell magazines with women who were attractive to the general public. Portraying women as sex objects was and continues to be more profitable to corporate gatekeepers. The gatekeepers realized portraying women as accomplished athletes would not suit their purpose. This emphasis on femininity was a way to control women who were showing themselves as capable athletes in the sport.  Bev Francis’ impact already influenced other female bodybuilders. Women continued to gain size despite sexist attitudes. Lenda Murray went on  to break Cory Everson’s  record. Romano mentions Corey Everson as the ideal saying that it was femininity that brought fans. He states “when Corey Everson was Ms. Olympia from 1984 to 1989, the contest was often held in Madison Square Garden in front of a sellout crowd of screaming fans.” Here he is implying that the audience was not impressed with an athlete, but looking merely for a sexual thrill. John Romano reduces her to a sex object and ignores her accomplishments. Fans loved Corey, because she was the first to win the Ms.Olympia on multiple occasions. Six times she was victorious and retired undefeated.

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It cannot be ignored that she is an attractive woman, but that is not why she is a great athlete. She inspired many female bodybuilders who emerge in the 1990s and 2000s. Besides only valuing women for their looks or as objects , rather than people he forgets other important Ms.Olympia winners. Lenda Murray broke Corey’s six Olympia win, but he does not mention her as a model of beauty. It would be presumptuous to say that their is an ethnic bias here, but a reader would have to wonder. Lenda besides displaying a powerful physique  is also  a woman of high pulchritude. It is odd that the writer does not use some visuals of her to demonstrate his point. The only concern to John Romano is that the women are attractive based on his standards ( whatever that maybe), not that they are great athletes. This claim is the most revealing : “issues of femininity aside, a female bodybuilder, even with extraordinary muscle, could be hot as hell if her face weren’t busted.” What one’s face looks like has little relevance, considering the muscles of the face are not being judged.At this point readers now understand that this man only values women as pieces of meat. He has a sexist perspective, but denies that he has a prejudice.

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Doubles standards are prevalent in the sport. Never on any occasion is a man asked how handsome he is. Femininity becomes as issue only when people are view through a system of binary opposites. Here woman is defined in relation to men. Woman is defined as less than and femininity is constructed culturally. This is the element of gender appropriateness and it puts extra restriction on females. Women showing strength ( physical or mental ) is not proper in this context. This has changed in certain places around the globe, because like culture definitions of masculinity and femininity transform. Then Romano makes one of the biggest generalizations :” now, obviously, there’s a general consensus of what we find feminine, attractive, admirable, etc. It is those attributes that attract an audience willing to support women’s bodybuilding.” If he means there is a media constructed paradigm of what is presented as attractive, that has validity. A thin body type is valued more in western culture and is presented constantly through mass media outlets such as television, advertising, and film. What is feminine or attractive varies from culture to culture. Large breasts can be a mark of beauty in American culture, but not in Japanese culture. Being feminine in more traditional cultures would be women being passive and obeying a male figure ( husband, father, or boyfriend). The Middle Eastern nations like Saudi Arabia differ on views of women and femininity  compared with countries like the UK. It was at one time considered unfeminine for women to focus on their careers or get an education. Relevant to this conversation, most people believe bodybuilding is an activity women should not do.

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While Romano mentions that during the golden era it was easy to sell out a Ms.Olympia, he ignores the negative aspects. Women received little financial gain in terms of prize money. They did not get much press coverage like their male counterparts. Only a select few magazines focused on women’s bodybuilding. Women’s Physique World  and Female Bodybuilding Magazine were a few publications available to a wider reading public women not getting that media exposure put them at a disadvantage. So from the beginning, the Weider brothers failed to promote a product that was popular and had a fan base. Investment was meager in female bodybuilding compared to the men’s division. This was only setting the sport up for decline.

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 The rise of the internet however gave women another outlet and exposed the sport to  a larger audience. Athletes now have personal websites, others are devoted to photography, and commentary including competition results. There is a fan base present, but the corporate gatekeepers do not want to utilize it. Limited financial reward, double standards, and limited exposure contribute to a culture of sexism. This institutional prejudice is a major reason for the sports decline. Romano seems to indirectly suggest that is the women’s fault.

       Another topic expressed is the concept of beauty. According to John Romano, if the women were more beautiful the sport would not be in decline. This argument is flawed on multiple dimensions. Beauty has different meanings to people. Aesthetics have changed dramatically in the evolution of bodybuilding. Among fans there is not consensus. Some prefer the lager hyper-muscular body as a model. Others are convinced that a moderate mid-range middle weight body is the ideal. More tend to like the sleeker, yet “toned” ( for lack of a better term) appearance. A significant portion favor all of these models of female muscular development. That is the an example among factions between fans of the sport. When examining the wider society the concept branches off further.

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An example of the wide range of muscular development.

The mainstream media tells people that being thin is the ideal for women.Some people reject this and decide for themselves the ideal. We have been told that curvy and being plus sized is a positive attribute. There is still resistance to women with muscle. They are still viewed as anomalies. Even though who preach the new fitness fad of “strong is the new skinny” have their doubts. While the fad promotes women to engage in strength training it assures them they will not become “too muscular.” The question here should be asked is why a muscular body is such an aberration? The reason is a woman with power ( in this case physical power ) is viewed as unfeminine or unattractive. Misogynists believe that only men should have power and authority. While their has been advancement in terms of women’s rights this notion is still prevalent. This explains why Romano’s theory that female bodybuilding would be more popular if the women more attractive lacks cogency. He asserts  “if the top ten of the Ms. Olympia sported a row of faces that looked like the bikini division, Ms. Olympia would probably be alive and well today.” This is false, because even in the golden age women faced severe vituperation for their physical appearance. The women who by Romano’s standards were beautiful still faced insults questioning their femininity and womanhood. He conveniently ignores the fact there are very muscular women who meet his standards, but are still ostracized. The fact is a woman of a certain physical size will not be accepted by the mainstream. They could have the most pretty and full faces, but will be repudiated. Common statements are ” she’s pretty, but she is too big” or “her biceps are too large for a woman.” These comments and reactions come from men and women not familiar with the sport. At times they are contradictory and conflicting when spoken. They see a woman who can be considered attractive, but are conflicted when seeing a woman exit the boundaries of traditional gender roles.

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These women do not have “busted faces” as Romano puts it, yet are still marginalized in and outside of the sport.   

The idea that a woman could challenge a man on a physical level is unsettling to some. Men who feel threatened by women’s advancement in society, feel that the physical domain is the only area they have left. Women who enter this activity or other sports in general challenge this notion. This is an explanation to the negative reaction to the muscular female body. Women athletes who do not even have the same level of muscularity as bodybuilders still face scrutiny. The New York Times  published an article stating famous tennis champion Serena Williams was “built like a man.” This rude and ignorant statement seems to be a common belief in the sports world. It is the notion that muscles are male only and sports are designed solely for men. The disturbing aspect of this is the subtle message it sends. Women are here to only be useful or serve men and the most important thing for a female is to look good, based on a distorted body image paradigm.

Serena Williams poses with cake celebrating her 400th career win after she defeated Sabine Lisicki during their quarterfinal match at the Miami Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, April 1, 2015, in Key Biscayne, Fla. Williams won the match 7-6 (4), 1-6, 6-3. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The public has a warped view of beauty. There is nothing positive about starving one’s self to a size zero.  John Romano then states ” “It’s not a beauty contest,” we hear them say” and expounds further to say that is not true. Then claims ” bodybuilding is all about beauty.” Then another error is expressed in the text:  “It’s when we get away from beauty that we get compromised aesthetics, bad symmetry, and big guts.” Bodybuilding is a sport and a form of athletic competition. A beauty pageant does not involve athletic contest. While both do judge physical attributes, a pageant  has a section with talent performance, with judgement points for personality and dress. This is mainly rating women on how attractive they are based on conventional  beauty standards. There is no form of physical activity. Bodybuilding involves competitors to develop posing routines and poses multiple times on stage with others. While muscle size, shape, and symmetry are pivotal to points, the posing routine is essential. This is physically demanding considering many competitors do this on very little water. It should be lucid to Romano that bodybuilding is a sport, not a beauty contest. Many have articulated that bodybuilding was the male version of a beauty contest. This is inaccurate, because bodybuilding was the product of weightlifting. Bodybuilding aesthetics have been rapidly changing, so saying it has been “compromised” is not a descriptive assessment. It is an evolving process.

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Examples of women who are involved in beauty contests. If you compared these two with the bodybuilders the beauty pageant contestants would not be considered athletes. 

Female competitors become frustrated with the lack of clarification among judges. Either they want the women lean, less lean, or to reduce size. This confusion and indecision harmed female bodybuilding in a way. The twenty percent rule, which required all competitors to cut back muscle size is a representation of this. A less muscular woman in their view would make a more acceptable female bodybuilder. No such rule was applied to men, who were becoming more massive and almost caricature like. Romano claims that women were acquiring “large guts” and “bad symmetry,”  but when examining some contest this does not seem to be corroborated. The top three competitors of the last two Olympias did not have enlarge stomachs or minimal symmetry. This is more common among the male contestants who prefer size over symmetry.

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Iris Kyle has won numerous contest, because of her symmetry and the balance in her physique. She broke Lenda Murrya’s record for a reason. Iris has faced an unjust amount of criticism for her appearance. Lenda Murray once said that “she sacrificed her look as a woman.” This was a ludicrous comment, due to the fact their physiques were vary similar. There was a slight difference in upper body development. Iris had a bigger upper body compared to Lenda’s.  It seems that even women who are involved in the sport have issues with large muscles on women.

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This was the period when Iris Kyle rose to prominence (2003-2004). Developing her upper body more specifically the trapezius allowed he to beat Lenda Murray.

To say that female bodybuilding should be transformed into a beauty pageant only displays the level of intense sexism present on the sport. Beauty being described as one definite model is a falsehood that has infected every aspect of society. People have been brainwashed into one perspective, repudiating possible alternatives.

         The use of anabolic steroids was discussed in the article. Not so much their dangers, but the side effects, such as virilization. While performance enhancing drug use is prevalent in sports, when done by women it adds extra complications. When men do use them, it is seen as acceptable. When women do it they are viewed as an abomination. The  double standard is obvious. Even though men who use exhibit negative side effects that the general public would find repugnant, it is accepted because “it is a male hormone.” The fact is women produce small amounts of testosterone and other women could possibly produce more naturally. The only concern people have is that women who are using will “destroy” their appearance. Romano makes it clear that is his only concern. If steroid use is to blame for the decline of women’s bodybuilding, why has the IFBB instituted stricter drug testing? The answer is lucid. They condone use as long as it is not publicly admitted to. This could be damaging to their publishing empire. While Romano states that female bodybuilders are abusing drugs, he fails to mention that it also occurs in figure, fitness, bikini, and physique divisions. This was why natural competitions emerged as an alternative for competitors who did not want to take substances to be competitive. Romano does not mention the women who compete in drug free contests and how they are still marginalized. As much as this exaggerated as a serious problem, men account for the largest number of users. Depending on the type of steroid and the dosage used women may not experience virilization.

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Marion Jones used performance enhancing drugs, but never showed signs of virilization.

Romano forgets to mention that some women use estrogen blockers. This can add to the appearance of secondary male characteristics. Some believe that steroid use induced a decline in the sport. This cannot be true, due to the fact that use was probably happening even in the 1980s. Fans who are devoted seem to care little about an athlete’s use or non-use.  Drugs being the problem masks other  issues.

       Romano makes it no secret that he really does not care for the fans of the sport. The real devoted and fanatic ones referred to as schmoes, he had contempt for. John said that the current situation made him reverse previous positions. The Rising Phoenix Contest  showed what fan support could accomplish. Margie Martin’s performance also made a great impression. The IFBB could have made Ms.Olympia like this, but they chose not to. Schmoes as Romano realizes are keep the sport going financially. They are the ones going to shows, becoming members on sites, and doing sessions ( controversial to many). Women have few financial avenues and session wrestling provides extra money. Schmoes should not be viewed with disdain. They are a part of the subculture  and seem to be initiating fan supported contest. Not all schmoes are extreme fetishists, but men who love muscular women very much. Romano lumps them all together in his article.

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Numerous men meet muscular women in private, because it would not be socially acceptable to praise them in public. Judgmental peers pressure the fan of female muscle to hide their support and  admiration. A private setting allows the fan to express that respect without repercussions. The peculiar part of this is that Romano never disparages the IFBB, but use to view schmoes as “having a perverse nature.”  The truth is schmoes come from a variety of backgrounds and occupations. It could be males between the ages 24 to 80. There are even schmoes who are regular gym goers. This is no surprise seeing as this is a place where they are likely to see women such as this. The reality is schmoes are a part of the fan base, so they should not be excluded.

        Romano’s last remarks are rather disingenuous.  The last paragraph includes these thoughts: “we all deserve the opportunity to pursue our dreams and aspirations”  and ” it’s always nice to have a venue in which to showcase and be rewarded and recognized for your effort.” It is unfortunate that bodybuilding and the sports world do not think this way in regards to women. Romano concludes the article by articulating that if the sport remains fan supported, then it proves it is not a beauty contest. It was never a beauty contest in the first place. The general public never supported female bodybuilding and the fitness industry never supported women. This has been for a longtime a fan driven sport. The IFBB was an obstruction in may respects. They did not target hardcore fans. This opened the door for others to capitalize. Female bodybuilding is not dying, but has gone on a decline and sudden evolution. The other divisions are seeing more muscular women. Rachel Mclish probably would not be able to compete with a fitness figure, bikini, or physique competitor even in her top physical condition. Most of the physique competitors could easily be confused for lightweight or middle weight bodybuilders. Where ever this evolution of the sport goes, it is certain that the muscular woman will never disappear.

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Rebuttal to John Romano’s “The Death of Women’s Bodybuilding Did “Ugly” Kill Female Pro Bodybuilding?”

7 thoughts on “Rebuttal to John Romano’s “The Death of Women’s Bodybuilding Did “Ugly” Kill Female Pro Bodybuilding?”

  1. turner says:

    “It is rare that a major cable channel covers bodybuilding events. Women were usually regulated to a secondary status next to their male counterparts.”
    There are two ways of looking at things in this regard:
    1).We have to watch what we are shown on television.
    2).What we are shown on television is what we want to watch.
    It is not quite clear which one of the statements is a truth.
    The thing is that the vast majority of people do not want to see mascular women,which is why the IFBB made the decision.I mean this clamp down on female muscularity.

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    1. You are not forced to watch television. That is why you have to make entertainment that attracts an audience. There is a portion of people that do enjoy muscular women, yet the IFBB ignores them. Much of the media consumed by the population is focus group driven, so it is not entirely choice. Shows and other forms of entertainment are presented to particular demographics ( example males 18 to 45). Here we already have a demographic of fans. This explains why female bodybuilders’ websites get a lot of traffic, even though their sports organization treats them poorly. I’d rather see them profit than the corporate gatekeepers.

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  2. david beek says:

    sorry, I have to agree with Romano on this one
    unless you have a fondness for bodybuilding then it is very difficult to appreciate the appearance of female bodybuilders
    I don’t have that fondness and I can only see a decline in their appearance and femininity

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    1. What appears attractive to another may not be to other people. The fact of the matter is this is not a beauty contest; it is a sport. Now bodybuilding has a set of aesthetics, which generally the public would not appreciate. Many judges emphasized size over symmetry and conditioning that is changing. The size race of the 1990s seems to be over and now it is a more balanced look. There are bodybuilding, fitness, figure, bikini, and physique competitions in which women can participate. To say there is a decline in the caliber of athlete is erroneous. More are coming to the sport everyday. As for the comment on femininity, that’s a non-issue. Femininity and the gender roles associated with it vary from culture to culture. It used to be considered “masculine” for a woman to have a career or get an education. Calling these women masculine is just sexism. They have devoted fans and they will continue to compete doubtless of detractors opinions. Romano was off in his assessments.

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  3. I get that women are trying to turn this into a feminist issue, but I think it’s more of a financial issue. Fans love to see big freaky, male bodybuilders so there’s money to be made from that division. Most fans, on the other hand, dislike the female bodybuilder look. Hell, most women are more disgusted by the look than men! Those women are probably sexist too, huh. Bottomline, the fans rule and they don’t like the look. You can be big all you want, but you can’t force anyone to put you on stage, just because you think you have the right.

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    1. This was not “turned into a feminist issue.” There are a segment of fans that love this look, but the IFBB does not capitalize on this. Just as well because, it give athletes an opportunity to go to a market source directly rather than a corporate gatekeeper. The fact is that even in the golden age women still faced discrimination in unequal pay, even though ticket sales were high. There are many people who still believe that women should not be a part of sport at any level. Fans do not dictate the preferred physique it is the judges. You should know it is not about solely size, but symmetry and conditioning as well. These women have the right to have a place to compete and show their talents. Luckily, there are many divisions now to accommodate this. There would not be an issue if women were treated fairly and respected, but society does not value women. There still are female bodybuilding contests in smaller numbers and their are loyal fans. We should also realize that this sport is underground and not mainstream, so its financial potential is confined. If it were not for the fans, female bodybuilding would be dead. There may be a decline, but the muscular woman is here to stay.

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