The Pornographication of Fitness Needs to Stop by Tosca Reno

The Pornographication of Fitness Needs to Stop

This article written by Tosca Reno points out that the fitness industry has almost turned the media publications into pornography. Reading this, there are many problems with her thesis. She claims that the fitness industry has gone through “pornographication,” but never defines what pornography is. There are times in which the definition is ambiguous or could be relative to a person’s perspective. Reno then attempts to cover the weak points of her argument in pseudo-feminist language. She then relates it to own experience, which if read closely sounds semi-narcissistic. There are other elements that she ignores completely. Women do take advantage of the sexual element. Session wrestling, magazines  published by athletes , and websites  are just a few examples. The capitalism exploits consumers and workers. Seeing as fitness is an industry, this explains why the sexualization  controversy emerged. Tosco Reno confuses sexualization with sexual objectification. These two concepts may seem similar, but the later is rooted in vicious misogyny. There are particle solutions to the problem, but Reno proposes any.

         If Reno wanted to present a solid argument, she could have defined what is pornography. The definition has been articulated as “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.” The last part of the definition leaves questions. The appearance of a person or other materials  can stimulate an erotic feelings in a person and not be pornography. This extends to the issue of what could be considered art or erotica. There is a fine line that becomes blurred. There is that unclear boundary when looking at fitness photography. For it to be pornographic, there has to be a suggestion of sexual innuendo. There are people who are so distorted in their view of the human body, that a woman showing any part of her body is pornographic. This conviction is common among extreme conservatives and religious fanatics.

This photograph is not pornographic. it does have the ability to induce erotic feelings.

    The human body is the product of nature and primate evolution. People made it to be an object of lasciviousness. Society at least in the West, sends mixed messages. On one hand it is so obsessed with sex to an unhealthy degree and on the other it tries to be repressive. Photography is an art and subject to this debate. The core of the controversy relates to presentation. When a subject is presented in a certain manner, the meaning of the photograph changes. Great photographers realizes this, and direct their subjects as needed. Positioning, light, and atmosphere are critical parts of producing high quality pictures. This is where Reno comes to a misunderstanding. She says “when every image displayed in fitness magazines has become one suggesting women are dressed and posed for the bedroom and not the gym, one might wonder exactly where the future of fitness is going.” These images are designed that way to sell magazines to a particular demographic. These salacious displays are targeting males 18 to 45, because they would be the largest consumers of this content. It induces an subconscious belief ( however unrealistic) that the male readers could be with or possibly get an attractive woman. Fitness magazines are doing what most sections of popular culture are doing : becoming sexualized. Popular entertainment such as television and film make fitness magazines tame in comparison. It has come to the point that the phrase “this is pornographic” is overused. There are some images that appear which could be considered borderline, but to compare them to Playboy or Hustler is an exaggeration.

This does not depict a sexual act , but the suggestion is there. The photo however is tame by real pornographic standards.

If one is going to object to a position, it should be understood from every aspect. There is an ambiguous area in regards to what is specifically pornographic. It would not be surprising if one were to find people who wanted to censor Michelangelo’s David   or the Venus de Milo , because they depict nudity. As ludicrous as this idea is, it has its followers. Reno’s arguments just enable people such as that.

       Tosca Reno’s argument has weak foundations. At first, she sounds credible enough due to her background in fitness. She was an athlete and competitor. Reno was a fitness model, continues to write books, wrote for magazines, and appeared in a television miniseries showing the process of competing. However, she began her competition years relatively late in her life. She was 40 years old when she began and as she put it ” I was the outlier compared to the 20-somethings.” Tosca Reno explains further to the point in which it becomes ironic : ” clad in what was essentially panties and bra, standing on a fitness booth at the biggest fitness Expo in North America, The Arnold in Columbus Ohio, hawking fitness gear and the lifestyle, I felt scandalous exposing my well-toned thighs and abdomen to the general public, to say nothing of what I couldn’t see behind me.” Her descriptions of her physique take erotic overtones. Her opening statements are against pornographication are almost reversed, when she writes the description of her own body.She then brags “my glutes were well-trained, tanned and lightly oiled for sheen and properly lifted through wearing stripper shoes.”Her ego seems inflated in these proclamations, but she comes back to reality. Reno realized as she put it ” a body at 40 isn’t quite the same as a body at 20 even though I gave it a good run.” then she came to this conclusion : “but I knew that when my body ran out thanks to the aging process, at least my brain would still be there and that I would have talents that went beyond displaying my gym body in public.”

Tosca Reno when she competed.

She claims she never depended on her physique, but her brains to be successful. Tosca seems more deceptive than anything else. It should be noted that for many women in the sport, this is an expensive hobby. Many have other occupations to finance their athletic endeavors. Athletes do have a high level of education in numerous fields. Kristy Hawkins a bodybuilder is a skilled chemist and Susan Smith who has competed in bodybuilding and figure is an  anesthesiologist. They do not fit the description of bimbo or stupid jock that Reno seems to allude to in her examples. She is merely recycling known stereotypes about the fitness world. There are women who despite challenges are able to compete due to their resourcefulness and wits. Reno states another claim that almost borders on a falsehood : ”  I can say this because I never depended on my physique to make a living in the fitness industry.” She attributes this to her intelligence, but that is not the whole story .Reno owes much of her success to her husband Robert Kennedy. Her owned a very successful publishing company started in 1974. Tosca Reno took over Robert Kennedy Publishing following his death in 2012. This would be attributed to being in the right place rather than an indication of intelligence or talent. Most of her books were published under the Robert Kennedy company. The subtle egoism is being projected in these statements and makes the argument lack cogency.

The tone of the writing becomes more disingenuous as the text proceeds. This is then cleverly disguised in the language of a social justice movement.

      Reno then continues to use the language and conviction system of feminism to reinforce a fragile position.  Reno states ”  the worry is that what women see in fitness magazines teaches them that what they are seeing is possible for them too.” It is true that all forms of media have distorted women’s perception of themselves. Body image has become something thrust upon them. However, this new image is one of strength. The opposite is one that promotes thinness as ideal. Women should not be forced to pick between the two. Women come in different shapes and sizes. People should learn to embrace this. Reno presents women as low self-esteem people seeking validation through appearance. She refers to women as “desperate” and “willing to do anything to get there.” This is an immense exaggeration. Many women enter fitness, due to the competitive nature. Most have athletic backgrounds and enjoy the challenge. They do not do this for fame or recognition, but for themselves. These are athletes who love their sport. Rewards are limited, but the women participate anyway knowing they accomplished their goals. Reno then makes more generalizations and  claims that are not entirely accurate :  “they will starve themselves to get lean enough to be able to see all muscular definition, they will experiment with recreational and pharmaceutical drugs, they will prostitute themselves to judges and more, just to make it.” Drugs have been a part of sports since the ancient world and it appears it will not disappear anytime soon. Contestants do not starve themselves, but reduce fat levels. Maintaining muscle requires a high intake of food for fueling workouts. Women only do this for competition and photo shoots, not the entire year ( the offseason allows them to replenish healthy fat levels). As for the judges, they could care less about the women. Inconsistent judging criteria and general lack of interest prove that even if women “prostituted themselves” that still would not get them anywhere. There are plenty of competitors who do none of those activities listed above, but still are ignored by the judges. The Tosca Reno clearly ascribes to victim feminism.

BodyRock 2006
Tanji Johnson is a great fitness competitor , but the judges place her low in the rankings.

This version of the ideology believes women are so victimized that they need extra protection ( either legally, politically, or socially). The reality seems to be more of a revival of the sexist concept that women are like over grown children and cannot take care of themselves. This is lucidly demonstrated in the following comment : “what are we teaching our young women who want desperately to believe that they too can be as ripped and shredded?” Reno thinks that a majority of young women do not have the critical thinking skills need to decipher facts about the fitness industry. Ultimately, she believes very few women could reach the level of Tanji Johnson or Margie Martin. Doing so she claims is so dangerous, that these naive women must be protected. This is ludicrous, because you can never predict a person’s full range of potential. Some will be successful; many may not achieve. This should not discourage a person from trying. Being adventurous, taking risks, and having new experiences are things that women can benefit from. A state of victimhood and caution is not empowering. Reno may have a point that the new “strong is the new skinny” could be just exchanging one unrealistic body ideal for another. Yet, her thesis is again questionable when she says “when will it be acceptable to lift heavy, building confidence and brainpower while strengthening your body, not concerning yourself with how cute your bottom looks in booty shorts?”Serious athletes, which these women are do not care what others think.If they did they would not continue in a sport that many feel they do not belong. If people find them sexy that’s of little relevance.  They are pushing themselves physically and mentally to the limit to be the best at their sport, not satisfy observers. Some women disregard judging criteria all together and present a physique they think best represents bodybuilding and physique sports. Bev Francis did this when she attempted to follow the judging criteria perfectly. Instead she did the opposite and presented a powerful physique which is the model for many female bodybuilders of today. For all her fake feminist rhetoric the mention of the longest version of women’s physique sports female bodybuilding is absent.

Female bodybuilding is struggling , but you do not hear Reno defend them. She is one who believes “women have gone too far.” This is ludicrous, because one should seek to advance their skills and talent in an area to the highest level .

If you are going to talk about fitness you have to refer to all divisions. The most muscular women are either ostracized or some what excluded from the wider fitness community. Reno said that fitness needed a new direction, but the fact has been it has branches. There are regular women who workout, professional athletes, and older women improving their health. Once more she uses a generalization as a fact : “perhaps from my vantage point of 55 years of age, one willingly accepts that there is more to fitness than pornography.” Well, there has always been more to fitness than what she considers “pornography.” The microcosm of fitness involves competitions, training, commerce, and a subculture of fandom. It is evolving by the the decade raising questions about gender politics, women in sport, and how they navigate male dominated arenas. Women are doing more than as she says “barring their butts.” The facts is women have reached a level of what she refers to as functional fitness. Many athletes can run, jump, and preform tasks that require strength.Retired athletes still train even though they do not compete. Tosca Reno seems to be oblivious to the nature of the subculture. She did enter it relatively late in her life, which may explain certain perspectives. The use of feminist overtones, without actually being one is both condescending and disingenuous.

  If there is such “pornographication” occurring, then it cannot be solely blamed on men. Women have used it to their advantage in the fitness industry. Session wrestling is one of them. This is not exactly pornography or prostitution but the sexual element is there. Specifically muscle worship carters to men who have a fetish for strong or muscular women. Women make more money from this, than from competition. This was was thought to be done only by female bodybuilders, but fitness and physique models. Women who have a high level of physical power or muscle do this for money that covers competition costs, supplements, and other expenses. Opinion is divided, but women thought of a way to circumvent certain barriers in a sport that is hostile to them. Female bodybuilding has few financial avenues available to it and this practice seems to be sustaining a number of athletes. Women are paid lower than their male counterparts, so they had to get creative to remain in fitness sports. Although it is rare that sex is involved, it it clear clients come to fulfill a sexual fetish. Armwrestling, muscle worship, lift and carry could be part of the session experience. Tosca Reno may not be aware of this practice , but it is certain she would not classify it as “pornographication.” To her, its only that when men do it.




Women would be excluded from Reno’s judgement. While session wrestling cannot be considered completely pornographic, certain websites and athlete magazines  could fall under that classification. Denise Masino publishes a magazine called Muscle Elegance. It cannot be denied that is pornographic. The magazine features muscular women in almost a Playboy like photography format. This is clearly an adult magazine and is far beyond what Reno considers pornography.She would not have a problem with this, but only because its a woman in control of it. The magazine also has an online counterpart known as Muscle Feminists are divided in their perspectives to pornography. A faction believe that it encourages women to viewed solely as sex objects, others believe the opposite. Sex positive feminists are more open about the expression of human sexuality. Radical feminists even went as far as to ally themselves with the right-wing in the US in the 1980’s to ban pornography. This contradictory and ludicrous attempt eventually backfired due to the fact it restricted free speech and freedom of expression. Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mackinnon launched this campaign. What it accomplished was the attack on feminist and LGBT publications. If this had succeed it would have given social conservatives more power to use censorship against groups that oppose them. Reno would have probably agreed with  Dworkin and Mackinnon. This would have lead to a shut down of her publications if she did. While there is a cogent argument that pornography can create a distorted perspective of women, certain attitudes would exist without it.

Hottie 2


The fact that there are still many who women as inferior and not worthy of equal rights, proves this point. Tosca Reno confuses sexualization with sexual objectification. They may seem similar, but the two concepts have radically different meanings. Sexual objectification is designed to be dehumanizing. The woman is reduce to a tool to be used and not an actual person. Many advertisements, magazines, and other forms of media do this. This does not mean by nature these consumed materials are sexist, but the producers of the content have misogynist convictions. Sexualization has a less negative connotation. There is s spectrum of human sexuality, which ranges from asexual, heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual. It was not until the sexual revolution that people began viewing human sexuality and copulation as a natural part of life. Although preached, but not fully practiced it was expected that copulation was solely for the reproduction of children. Pleasure should not be associated with it. This restriction was lifted in terms of cultural behavior and attitudes. Women gained more sexual freedom due to the rise of reliable birth control and paradigm shifts in sex politics. There are women who do embrace sexualization as a way to express freedom. Women for many centuries were not allowed to express such feelings or enjoy pleasure like males.


Sexualization is the result of the relations between men and women. It almost seems inevitable in the fitness sports, because fans a seeing some of the best developed bodies on the planet. The real problem is not that fans see the women are attractive, but when that is the only aspect considered important. These women are great athletes and they should be valued for their accomplishments.

          Reno fails to realize that a capitalist system allows for the “pornographication” she speaks of. Workers and consumers are exploited in the market place, by a business class. Relevant to the fitness industry it is the publishing companies that exploit athletes and readers of the magazines. Women athletes involved in fitness do photo shoots which provide some financial reward. This is still limited, because they should be getting higher amounts of prize money for their participation in contests. Even the more popular divisions like physique, fitness, and figure still offer women less money compared to their male counterparts. Women are then dependent on photo shoots or other endorsements from corporations. They have little say in the creative production, process, and distribution of the photographs they are in. Tosca Reno seems to blame women for creating a distorted body image, when it is really various corporations. Their advertisements are designed to tap into insecurities of consumers to buy their products. Body dissatisfaction is the most profitable, because it disguised under a banner of health. Health and beauty are two different concepts. Beauty is relative to the observer, while health is determined by biomedical  status, not appearance. Various fitness magazines erroneously combine the two to increase consumption. Athletes do not benefit nor do consumers, only the business class. This is Reno’s biggest contradiction; she refuses to criticize the people who actually are responsible for the cycle. The reason becomes elucidated when we have seen her body of work.

She uses the same techniques, that she claims she condemns. What is worse is that she also is involved in the aspects of fad diets. These diets most likely do not work due to the fact everyone’s metabolism functions differently. They are usually designed for failure, so that women will keep buying these books. This only contributes to women becoming abnormally obsessed with their weight and appearance. Women are either starving themselves or develop a psychological issues concentrating on weight. At this stage, in the text the reader should no longer take her seriously : “so what then is the new direction of fitness? If you ask me, the key to fitness is being able to move your body in the way it was meant to move.” Her writings never focus on developing physical competence, but an image. Reno’s The Butt Book and The Eat Clean Diet  further illustrate Reno’s hypocritical actions. If one examines all her written works and her management of Robert Kennedy Publishing she would be part of the problem. Her analysis either is disingenuous or factually inaccurate. May be its not so much of the “pornographication” of sport, but rather the exploitation of athletes. This system of dependency that women are under can be changed. Leadership from Reno would not be a solution.

         Tosca Reno concludes with the a philosophy of functional strength and how it is beneficial to women. She exclaims ” it means you can run, jump, swim, play, bend, walk and lift with all parts of your body from joints, muscles and bones to hands and feet, all body parts working in unison.” Then delineates further :”it means that if you had to run 5K to get away from danger, if you had to swim for 20 minutes to save yourself in a flood, if you had to lift a heavy weight out of the way to free yourself, something or someone else, you could do it.” A majority of women who participate in fitness have already done and surpassed this. Crossfit is about pushing functional strength to its highest maximum. It has become popular among women and is even broadcast on ESPN. It is not about their appearance, but their athletic skill. Women who have gone into fitness sports were already participants in other sports in their youth. Lenda Murray ran track and field. Tanji Johnson also had a background in track and field. Brigita Brezovac  was competitive in martial arts. Those are but a few of the multitude of fitness involved women who do more than just pose for photos. Reno’s article then descends into a partial motivational speech, with no actual solutions. There are alternatives. It involves women starting their own publications and companies. From that stage content can be controlled to present a more positive image. Women who are involved in physique sports must all collaborate together across all divisions ( bodybuilding, fitness, figure, physique, and bikini) to ensure fair treatment in the sport. Disunity only weakens women as a whole in male dominated areas. Original content produced by athletes on the internet must continue. This allows for an increase of fans and a wider audience. The internet seems to be the wave of the future seeing as newspapers and magazines are gradually moving to being accessible online.  If these tasks are to be done, the presentation of women in fitness will improve.

The Pornographication of Fitness Needs to Stop by Tosca Reno

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