The following is an essay I wrote during October of 2011. It inspired me to start this blog (later than expected, but still). You can read a little more about this in my initial post.
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I have something to say about the 2011 ESPN Body Issue. And believe it or not, I’m not raising protest decrying the—gasp!—nudity. I get it—the nudity plays a part in the way this project achieves its goal. It’s actually done really tastefully. What I’m after is more complex and less obvious.
I was led to believe this project was meant to be a celebration of the athletic body. I thought that was great—athletes use their bodies fiercely, with a dedication and power that deserves to be celebrated (I could also say something about how these lean and pleasing-to-society bodies may not be the ones really in need of some celebration, but that’s another story…). I came to the photo collection with an open mind, but was disappointed to find that gender was playing a role I didn’t think had a place in the project. Not only that, but the women were getting the questionable end of things. So, of course, I was immediately compelled to open my mouth.
Let me make something clear right off the bat: I know very little about sports. The only sport I’ve ever played seriously is roller derby. The only sport I’ve ever watched seriously is hockey. And, in both of those realms, I’m still learning. So I came at this year’s Body Issue with a relatively clean slate. The only reason I was looking at it at all was because I knew Suzy Hotrod was being featured, and the derby world was abuzz with talk of how this is a sign that roller derby is getting closer to being recognized as a “real sport” by the general public. Suzy Hotrod’s photo started popping up on my Facebook feed after some of my derby friends posted it. The picture was so badass! Dyed hair flying, tattoos in a vivid rainbow of colors, sculpted muscles. My biggest complaint was that the pristine state of her skates gave away that they had clearly never seen any track time. That aside, it was awesome. I was actually excited to see the other pictures.
Some disclaimers: Since I first heard about ESPN’s annual Body Issue, I was entirely skeptical that this was merely a “celebration of the athletic body.” Please. Because it’s definitely not because people will rush out and buy pictures of naked good-looking people. Of course not. Sarcasm aside, I do believe that the bottom line is sales. But for the sake of this analysis, I’m (mostly) putting that aside to scrutinize the project in and of itself.
Before I dive in, I want to just note that I’m making this analysis off of the collection of images entitled “The Bodies We Want,” found on the ESPN website. While I first saw these photos online, I went to the library to get my hands on an actual copy of the magazine to see what the differences were. The gallery in the magazine is nearly identical to the one ESPN has on their website save for few photos not included in one or the other. Since they are practically the same, I will be making my analysis specifically of the gallery on the website. The spread includes twenty-four photos featuring twenty-two athletes. It should also be noted that I am basing this analysis on the images only, not the content surrounding them in the magazine (mostly little blurbs quoting the athletes). The project’s main component is the spread of images, and, let’s face it, that’s what people are buying—not the bits of text accompanying them.
Let’s start with the basics. Don’t think I didn’t notice the man/woman ratio. That’s right, ESPN—you’re not fooling me. You see, there is actually an equal number of men and women featured in the spread. “But that’s perfect!” I hear you say. “Equality and all that awesome stuff you feminists are always after!” Yes. Well. About that. I find it incredibly suspicious that the only time equal attention is given to the gals is when they happen to not be wearing any clothes. Hm. On any other day, women athletes are drowned out from ESPN and other sports networks/sites. Women’s sports generally just make tiny headlines in those hard-to-reach and little-seen places on sports-news websites. So, pardon me for being a little irritated when nudity is the only thing that can get the ladies equal face-time.
But, okay, let’s be real. Who’s surprised? We all know the sports world revolves around men. Of course the female athletes are going to be thrown unprecedented attention when they take their clothes off! After all, who is ESPN targeting with the Body Issue? Who makes up the majority of their audience? Men. Men who want to watch men play sports but see the ladies in their birthday suits. As a selling strategy, I get it. I hate it, but I get it.
There’s more to it than the ratio that’s making me raise an eyebrow. It’s the nature of the pictures that’s got me rather bothered. Don’t get me wrong—most of the photos are incredible. They showcase many of these athletes in very empowering and interesting ways. But a few of these photos slip far below those standards and put into question the purpose of this project. And just because the majority is on the right track doesn’t mean that we should surpass pointing out the flaws and what those flaws are saying to the viewer.
I’m going to break this down. Each of these photos is operating in two different categories for me—agency and information. When I look at these photos, I ask myself two things: 1.) What kind of agency is this person portrayed as having? Or, does this person appear active or passive in their environment? And 2.) Does this picture communicate any information to me about this person’s athletic life?
These questions are important because they help me to scrutinize the validity of this project’s supposed purpose. If we’re celebrating the power and capabilities of the athletic body, why would we do anything but portray them actively to fully showcase that? Also, if we’re not informing the viewer of the person’s actual athletic activity, then are we really paying proper homage to the sport that person dedicate his/her life to? Without that kind of context being included in the photograph, the pictures can be reduced to nothing more than a tasteful nude portrayal of some individual. Hopefully these key points will be made clearer as I go on.
Fortunately, most of the photos fall into the best of both worlds—they show the athlete in an active and powerful fashion while also including the context of what kind of athlete this person is. My favorite photo—and I’m obviously bias—is the one of Suzy Hotrod. Not only is she shown in an exciting action-pose, but we know what she does! Even if you’re not all that familiar with roller derby, you know she skates.
Apolo Ohno’s photos are also pretty incredible. They showcase his athleticism while staying relevant to his sport—you can tell he’s a skater and he’s not even wearing skates! These photos are amazing even out of context.
The reason it is important for us to associate the pictured athlete with his or her sport is because that sport is central to the celebration of that person’s athleticism. Without that kind of function, the purpose of the whole project gets fuzzy—are we here to showcase the athletes and the sports they love or are we just looking at naked people? It also could be construed that they are representing their sport in a way. Suzy Hotrod is not just some naked rollergirl doing a photo-shoot—she is seen as being part of a step forward for the whole derby world!
Many of the other featured athletes also fall into this category of being shown as active while simultaneously informing the viewer. The photos of mixed martial artist Jon “Bones” Jones, artistic gymnast Alicia Sacramone, and long distance runner Ryan Hall are a few more of my favorites. Other photos that fall into this category are those of basketball player Blake Griffin, track and field Paralympic athlete Jeremy Campbell, sprint athlete Natasha Hastings, bowler Kelly Kulick, and boxer Sergio Martínez. I consider all the above listed photos to be the most successful in carrying out what this project claims to be about. Congratulations, ESPN—about half of your photos pass the test one-hundred percent!
The next photos I’ll discuss try for the mark, but miss in a small way. These athletes are shown as active, but it is unclear what kind of athlete they are. Take Julie Chu’s photo as an example. She is clearly engaged in activity, and it’s relevant to her role as an athlete, but fails to inform the viewer in any way that Chu is an ice hockey player. Louie Vito’s photos are also incredibly active, but fall short in the same way. Also in this category is football player Steven Jackson—while appearing less active than the two previously mentioned athletes, he is still engaged in some sort of movement.
The photo of Sylvia Fowles is murky as well. I gave this one an “active” rating because, even though she doesn’t appear to be necessarily moving, she’s clearly engaging her body in the activity (you hold that plank, girl!). However, there is absolutely nothing about this photo that hints at basketball being the thing she spends her life playing. They didn’t even go for a neutral setting on this one. They just flat out chose to photograph her in a fashion completely irrelevant to her sport. I can’t pass up mentioning that there’s a vaguely questionable racial thing going on here, but I’ll leave that for someone else to analyze.
The photo of Hélio Castroneves falls into this category as well, but in an incredibly amusing sort of way. His position is active—not the most powerful, by any means, but at least he’s engaged in some kind of activity in which he has agency. At first glance, this photo seems completely irrelevant to sports, and you’re just stuck wondering what the hell a grown man is doing on a tire swing. And then the punch line hits you. He’s an auto-racing driver! And he’s in a tire-swing! Oh, ESPN—you and your sneaky sense of humor. What a knee-slapper!
There are some photos in the collection that are difficult to categorize. Take, for example, the photo of baseball player José Reyes. This photo doesn’t indicate what sport he might play and is not even particularly active. However, there is at least a kind of power to his stance. Even if he’s not engaged in any kind of movement, it appears a stance of readiness more than passivity.
The photo of Ryan Kesler receives a similar assessment—his position doesn’t really fall into either the active or passive category. However, the photo also does a good job of highlighting his muscles (arms, abs legs). That in combination with his active attention in the photo lend him a relatively powerful appearance. I also rated this photo as being completely irrelevant to his role as an athlete. Until I realized he was a hockey player. And he’s leaning on ice! Oh, man, you guys got me again!
Gretchen Bleiler falls into this category as well, but only at the bottom of it. I scored her position as neutral, but, unlike the photos of Reyes and Kesler, snowboarder Bleiler’s body doesn’t seem to be particular engaged at all. The showcasing of her abs is pretty incredible (wow), but that’s the only thing that ties this photo into the supposed mission of the Body Issue. The condition of her body (and not what she’s doing with it) informs us of her athleticism. I was pretty lenient with this photo.
Now we get to the fun part. These next four photos are the ones that I deem as failing miserably to even kind of pretend that the aim is to showcase the athletic form. And—surprise!—they’re all photos of women.
Take, for example, this photo of golfer Belen Mozo. When I first saw this picture, I thought I may have clicked past the Body Issue gallery and into something else—something more along the lines of generic pictures of naked women taken solely to please or entice the male gaze. But no. Apparently this picture’s aim is to celebrate the power and grace of the athletic form. Right. Her position is entirely passive and there is absolutely nothing about this photo that informs the viewer that she plays golf (or any sport at all). The photo seemed so out of place to me—instead of marveling over how being an athlete has turned her body into a powerful thing (as I did with many of the gallery’s other photos), I’m getting the feeling someone is about to try to sell me alcohol or an exotic vacation. But I guess it could be worse, right?
Absolutely. When I saw this picture of Stephanie Gilmore, my WTF alarm went off in an instant. She’s lying down which is about as passive as you can get while still staying tasteful. There’s a little bit of muscle definition going on in her left leg, but come on, that’s not enough to cover up that this is nothing more than excuse to ogle an attractive woman lounging about completely nude. Yeah. Definitely sensing the celebration here. Oh, but it’s okay, see? Because she’s on a beach chair, and I guess all those pebbles could be a beach! Get it?! Because she’s a surfer! ESPN’s cleverness has outdone me yet again.
The photo of tennis player Vera Zvonareva falls into a similar category of WTF. Her position in the photo is incredibly passive and nothing in this photo has anything to do with the sport she plays or athleticism at all. They didn’t even try to stretch for setting here by laying her down on a tennis court or anything. There’ also something about this photo that weirds me out more than the one of Gilmore. Maybe it’s because Gilmore at least looks happy. Zvonareva, on the other hand, looks like she’s been disturbed from her repose, and she looks much less than pleased. There is just something creepy about feeling as if a lounging naked woman has just been snuck up on. Other than the fact that the person in this photo happens to be an athlete, I don’t see how this picture holds any kind of connection to the supposed purpose of the Body Issue.
And then there’s Hope Solo with a WTF rating off the charts. I actually was lenient enough to give her an “active” rating, but seriously?! To say this photo puzzles me is an understatement. Does anyone else get the feeling that this is meant to be some kind of bizarre suburban fantasy being enacted for upper middle class men everywhere? She’s a soccer player, for goodness sake! What does this photo have to do with anything? I mean, there’s, um, grass in soccer, I guess. And there’s definitely some forearm strength evident in the photo. Overall, though, this photo is painfully irrelevant. And more than a little strange.
Alright, so why am I making such a big fuss? It’s just a few sexy pictures, right? What’s the big deal?
The big deal is that even if the majority of photos in this collection are respectful representations of athletes and their bodies, these outliers are making come pretty sketchy statements about gender.
One of the reasons I like the idea of women being involved in the Body Issue is that I think that female athletes have a lot of power to challenge our society’s very limited view of female beauty. As women, we are told both overtly and subconsciously that we are only beautiful if we fit a very specific (and rare) body type—thin, youthful, big-busted, and usually white. A woman with defined muscles is often squeezed out of this idea of beauty. While our society has started to come around to the idea of women having powerful bodies, it still shies away from the extremes. We are told that women are supposed to be lithe and skinny (but with curves in the right places), and men are the ones who are attractive when they’re chiseled. I’ve heard people be honest-to-goodness grossed out when they see a woman who is incredibly muscular. Or, if they aren’t shunned for being “gross,” women with defined muscles are often just written off as being “manly.” There is a serious disconnect between the potential power of the female body and our society’s beauty ideal. But does there have to be? Why can’t we celebrate what our bodies are capable of doing instead of focusing so much on how they look?
I found the Body Issue so disappointing because while most of the photos of female athletes did a great job showcasing the power of their bodies, some of them fell embarrassingly short. Instead of the Body Issue taking a step forward by showing how beauty, power, and athleticism can work hand-in-hand, it undermines itself by falling back on these very old and tired stereotypes of beauty and sexiness.
My biggest problem with this is that it is gender specific. They didn’t take the men to the photo-shoot and say, “Gee, how can we make them look the prettiest?” They were probably brainstorming shots that would be the coolest, most powerful, and most exciting. For the ladies, on the other hand, “sexiness” was clearly a main goal. Putting a naked woman in a reclining position is the easiest way for a photo to cross the line to becoming sexually suggestive. But why are these women lying down when we are supposed to be viewing them as athletes who spend their lives up and active?! Can you imagine them trying to pull this crap with male athletes? “Oh, hey, Mr. Jackson? Steve? Sweetheart, would you mind lying down on this AstroTurf and giving us your sexy-eyes?” Yeah. It would never happen.
The most irritating part is that photographing the women this way was a choice. Instead of the people behind this project choosing to showcase the athleticism and unique abilities of these women, they chose to photograph them in passive, irrelevant ways. There are other, better paths to take.
Mozo is a golfer, right? So, I’m going to assume that her physical strength is probably focused in her upper back, shoulders, and arms with some core thrown in there. Why not photograph her in a way that highlights these strengths instead of stripping her of that power and athleticism (you know, those things she’s being supposedly recognized for)?
So. ESPN. Step up your game. All the way. I want to see 100% of the images used for the next Body Issue showing active athleticism across the board and regardless of gender. For those of us really paying attention, your perpetuation of this understated sexism simply makes you and your Body Issue seem phony and underhanded. (Feel free to break out your #notbuyingit hashtags, feminist tweeters.) I call for ESPN to reject the stereotypical sexualized and disempowered images of women. If you say you want to celebrate and showcase the strength and perfection of an athlete’s body, actually do it. Treat and photograph your female athletes as athletes and not as mere eye candy without agency. It may seem small, but it does matter. You have the opportunity to do something great with this project by setting aside pre-conceived notions of gender and striving to focus on pure athleticism untainted by sexism. What are you waiting for?