The body issue

If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out. Because it’s very different and interesting. But I can’t decide if I like it.

ESPN Magazine’s The Body Issue features naked and mostly naked picture of various professional athletes. Some have perfect, chiseled physiques; some don’t. Some are famous; some are not. Some are shot in action in their sport; some are just sitting or standing. Some have visible scars from surgeries or injuries; one has a prosthetic leg. Some are alone; some are in groups. Some are men; some are women.

The article is pitched by ESPN as a celebration of the human body, particularly a celebration of the incredibly strong and talented bodies of the world’s top athletes. And it certainly is. A reader is awed by the muscles and build, the strength and endurance, of the subjects. The photographs make it clear that these are finely tuned, fully developed machines of power and athleticism.

However, many of them are also shot in a sexual way. Serena Williams is on the cover with strategically arranged arms and legs. Surfer Claire Bevilacqua stands in only a bikini bottom, with her hair just barely covering her breasts. Group shots of both males and females place helmets, balls, gloves, trophies and other sports objects just so. The coincidental covering makes the images just barely tasteful, slightly amusing and still quite sexual.

Which is why I can’t decide how I feel about this issue. Clearly, it is a step away from the female objectification we see so often in and on magazines. No one in this publication is shot simply for erotic value, no one is featured purely as an object of sexual desire. However, the strategic covering and posing still puts subjects in a sexual context, like ESPN wants to showcase the athletic prowess, but – oops! – not quite that much. The one thing not exposed draws all the attention.

And is it okay to obsess over nakedness if the bodies aren’t all perfect? If there are men as well as women? I don’t know. ESPN’s celebration of athletes’ bodies this way is progressive because it hasn’t been done like this before. Plus, as much as one might argue clothed bodies can celebrate athletic ability, too, it wouldn’t be nearly as startling or eye-catching. But to me it still smells faintly of objectification.

Men can be objectified just as much as women, so we can’t argue that gender neutrality eliminates the problem. And even though the imperfections on so many of the pages step away from the impossible beauty standards promoted by the covers of many women’s magazines, the pictures still capture ideals most of us could never hope to reach. The majority of ESPN readers look nothing like the world’s best in basketball, tennis, soccer, track and field, surfing, biking, wrestling, etc. So it could be said that this magazine still contributes to negative self-image in its readers.

It seems like a lose-lose situation. Although the pictures are fascinating and impressive and beautiful, they still set off a red flag in my head – the same one that goes up when I see bodies in GQ and Esquire and even Self. Presenting as models people who represent only a fraction of the world is always going to be a problem for body image, and highlighting them because of how much skin they’re showing is always going to be sexually objectifying, so it seems there’s no good way to do it.

The trouble is, it sells.

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