The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: ESPN Body Issue

The Good: First, the good news. The good news is that the 2012 ESPN Body Issue has officially hit newsstands. Just kidding, that’s not the real good news. The real good news is that we can officially call the ESPN’s 4th Annual Body Issue “a step in the right direction”.

One of the six covers of the latest ESPN Body Issue.

While the outright nudity in the 4th Annual Body Issue is often a point of contention (a topic for another day), ESPN has successfully managed to create a (mostly) tasteful and respectful magazine, making it ESPN’s best body issue yet. Why? First off, let’s just call it the classier alternative to Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition. It’s full of athletes, doing mostly athletic things, which is more than can be said for the Swimsuit Edition. In addition, the body issue highlights a new type of beauty, an athletic beauty, that is often disregarded by the mainstream media. It’s not just stick thin models. The issue highlights a whole collection of athletes, both male and female, who excel at their respective sports. Some athletes are short, some are tall, yet all are strong and built, chock full of muscle.

The athletes are of all different races, and all different nationalities, some from as far away as Norway and Slovakia. One of the foreign athletes photographed is Ukrainian rower, Oksana Masters, who lost both her legs at a young age due to nuclear exposure from a power plant near her village in Ukraine. She is a paralympic athlete, and will compete in London at the Paralympic Games this year. It’s refreshing to see ESPN highlight a different type of beauty, not one that is normally depicted, but that’s beautiful in its same right.

The Bad: They’re not models. They’re professional athletes. So shouldn’t they photographed as professional athletes? To my dismay, less than half (46%) of the female athletes photographed had any action shots, while almost all (90%) of the male athletes were shot in action. The majority of the photographs of the female athletes portrayed women in passive poses, in moves and poses completely unrelated to their sport.

Daniela Hantuchova

Some examples of such passivity? Take Candace Parker, famous for being the first woman to ever dunk in an NCAA tournament game, who is smiling sweetly over her shoulder, basketball in hand. There are the members of the US Women’s National Volleyball Team, like Destinee Hooker and Megan Hodge, who are simply staring off into the distance, no volleyball even in sight. Then, there is tennis player Daniela Hantuchova, who has managed to contort her body into something unlike any tennis move I’ve ever seen. There’s no racket, no tennis court, nothing to identify her as an athlete at all.

The Ugly: There’s passive, and then there’s slightly ridiculous. Presenting women’s golfer, Suzann Pettersen. As a golfer being photographed for a sports magazine, you would expect her to be shot mid-swing, or at least holding a golf club, wouldn’t you? Nope, not this time. She’s simply lying on a beach, basking in the sunlight. Last time I checked, I don’t think that’s how she became the #2 women’s golfer in the world. Some might call it a step up from the infamous photograph of Hope Solo “watering the lawn” (instead of playing soccer) taken during the last Body Issue, but they both send the same message- at the end of the day, these women are simply to be taken as objects of desire, instead of competitive athletes.

Anna Tunnicliffe

The bright side is that we’re getting closer. So much closer. While it’s only the 4th Annual Body Issue, it’s already managed to turn things around. While there still is a fair share of photographs, which objectify and sexualize several female athletes, there are signs that change is on the way. There are signs of promise, like the photograph of soccer player Abby Wambach caught mid-kick, sailing through the air. And the amazing shots of sailor Anna Tunnicliffe, hanging over the edge of the sailboat, muscles bulging, with complete focus in her eyes. The key is to include more “caught in the moment” action shots like Wambach’s and Tunnicliffe’s. Why not make them all action shots? Allow the women to be shown doing what they do best – competing. Show off their strength. Show off their athletic abilities. Their drive, their determination – that’s what makes athletes truly beautiful.


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