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The Body Issue

October 4, 2009

When my boyfriend sent news my way of ESPN Magazine’s Body Issue, we were both of the same mind: these things can be body-positive and body-celebratory, or they can be exploitative softcore porn. Happily, it looks so far like this one’s going to be the former.

ESPN is setting up their Body Issue in opposition to Sports Illustrated’s ever popular swimsuit issue. The Body Issue will feature a number of athletes, male and female, of many different races, across a variety of sports, posing nude and semi-nude. Six different covers will be produced (three men, three women). Photos will show the athletes in action, posed, even one in the operating room during knee surgery.

I haven’t seen the issue, of course, and there are a lot of ways this could go wrong. Will we see mostly women in posed positions, mostly men in active positions? I don’t know all the athletes: will their photos reify or challenge body norms? Is it problematic in general that the photos are of nude and semi-nude athletes, rather than fully-clothed ones?

Furthermore, some responses to the issue suggest that, no matter how good the intentions of ESPN, readers are working within some sexist and body-negative tropes as they consume this issue. A quick Google Blog search is pretty well-populated by responses of the “HEY THIS HOT CHICK! SHE’S GONNA BE NAKED!” variety.

Though that’s the kind of statement we might expect (unfortunately), I was shocked by some of the comments made about the men involved. Jessica Isner, writing for the New England Sports Network, warns her readers that the Boston Bruins’ Zdeno Chara will appear, and clarifies that, no, this is not a joke. From the picture in the article, Chara seems reasonably attractive to me, and maybe my lack of knowledge about hockey (and professional sports in general) limits my ability to contextualize her statements, Isner’s commenters help me out a little bit: “mike” helpfully points out that this is “so queer. why would anyone buy it” and “Bruins98” asks, “why?”

I’m really interested in the expression of total bafflement that anyone would be interested in seeing sexualized male bodies (something David has talked about), and the obvious assumption that the photos of women’s bodies need no justification or deeper understanding.

In sports (though of course not only in sports), there are so many interesting ways in which the body can be judged on somewhat more substantive criteria than we typically allow ourselves: we can appreciate skill, dedication, determination. But I think this has a different value for women. In many great discussions with one of my male roommates last year, I began to understand the harmful body expectations that sports can place on men, in particular, the value placed on a particular kind of physical (and visible!) strength, which is often equated with manliness. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that Chara is very tall and skinny, not particularly brawny in appearance.

I think this issue can have value in a number of ways (again, without having seen it), not the least of which is its assertion that “bodies” in sports do not have to be limited to mostly White, almost always thin women (who are not swimmers, right?) in very revealing bathing suits. The Body Issue contains the tremendously beautiful and physically powerful Serena Williams, as well as more stereotypically modelesque surfer Claire Bevilacqua (in a swimsuit). We also see Olympic softball player Jessica Mendoza, at eight months pregnant. Here’s what she has to say about it:

I am excited about this issue because it is unique and shows the beauty of the athlete’s most powerful tool: their body. Rather than having the stereotypical bodies that we are used to seeing through the media every day, the bodies in this issue vary from super buff, to lean, to stocky … all exemplifying beauty in their own way. I was proud to be in this issue at a unique time of my life. I felt that by showing athletes in every shape and form, including those of us who have children and continue to play, ESPN the Magazine is trying to break those stereotypes. I hope those who see this issue see it as a refreshing and celebratory view of the athletic body in all its beauty and forms, influencing women and girls in a positive way to appreciate their own unique, athletic bodies.

Whatta badass.

I think, too, that her comments need not refer only to women. Another valuable space this issue can occupy is disrupting the immediate connection we make between “male athlete” and “brawn,” to show that there is a huge range of attractive, powerful, athletic male bodies out there as well, and that we can look at and appreciate them for what they can do, not only for the masculine/athletic stereotypes (and expectations?) they embody.

In my mind, it sure beats the swimsuit issue.

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