Is ESPN magazine’s Body Issue the right way to do nudity?

Marlen Esparza shot by Peter Hapak for ESPN.

Marlen Esparza shot by Peter Hapak for ESPN.

It’s safe to say it’s fairly rare for a bunch of feminists to be singing hosannahs about a magazine full of naked bodies, but upon the launch of ESPN magazine’s Body Issue last week, that’s precisely what happened.

Writing for Slate’s XX column, Sharan Shetty exclaimed, “This year's edition features a comprehensive gallery of athletes—11 female, 10 male—trading in their uniforms for their birthday suits. These are tactful but bracing portraits of some of the world’s most renowned athletes, participating in sports as diverse as rock climbing and beach volleyball. The key here is that the Body Issue presents athletes in their element, not models in Antarctica.”

The shoot Shetty is referring to is, of course, the 2013 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, the cover and main spread of which featured Kate Upton in the middle of Antarctica. You know, the shoot that saw the model nearly succumb to hypothermia and frostbite, all in the name of a good old fashioned tits ‘n arse blast. How ‘bout that local sports team!

Miesha Tate shot by Ben Watts for ESPN.

Miesha Tate shot by Ben Watts for ESPN.

The Body Issue, on the other hand, features all sorts of bodies in all sorts of scenarios, from towering Washington Wizards guard John Wall flying through the air, to Motocross rider Tarah Giege cutting sick on her motorcycle, to 77-year-old golfer Gary Player mid-swing.

So, what separates ESPN’s Body Issue from that other high profile sports “journalism” special issue it was created (in 2009) to offset? Well, it should be obvious: there aren’t a lot of men in the Swimsuit Edition (usually a grand total of none) and not many more sportswomen (four made it into 2013’s ed). The Swimsuit Edition is primarily the domain of gazelle-like models; though once upon a time it featured the relatively robust bodies of Elle MacPherson and her contemporaries, with the exception of the comparatively zaftig Upton, it’s gone the way of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue in recent years.

I’m inclined to agree with Shetty: the Body Issue is great. Often modern feminist commentary ignores the notion of desire when discussing or dismantling objectification, yet as ESPN themselves say, “It’s okay to stare”. Perhaps the addendum to that sentence should be “...if the context isn’t charged by the sexist gaze”.

Kenneth Faried, shot by Carlos Serrao for ESPN.

Kenneth Faried, shot by Carlos Serrao for ESPN.

See, the Body Issue is more or less free of sexualisation, yet I find the Body Issue far more alluring than the Swimsuit Edition’s Benny Hill On Holiday mood.

Of all the Body Issue’s shoots, it’s tennis player Agnieszka Radwanska who seems to have drawn the short straw: perched by a pool full of tennis balls, hers is the most traditionally cheesecake-y portrait. And, curiously enough, it was Radwanska who bore the brunt of the backlash for posing nude: she was dropped as a spokesperson for Polish Catholic group Krucjata Mlodych (Youth Crusade).

Senior Catholic Polish priest Father Marek Dziewiecki got seriously Disappointed Dad about Radwanska’s state of undress: ‘‘It’s a shame that someone who has declared their love for Jesus is now promoting the mentality of men looking at a woman as a thing rather than a child of God worthy of respect and love.”

Gramps is missing the point (and for the record before you accuse me of pooh-poohing someone’s religious beliefs, I’m Catholic, too), because the very mission statement of the Body Issue is that it’s not specifically geared towards men who want to have an ogle.

Perhaps Radwanska could send a volley back at Father Marek courtesy of this quote from God-fearing pinup model Bettie Page, who saw her naked body as just another of God’s creations: "[A]fter all, when God created Adam and Eve, they were stark naked. And in the Garden of Eden, God was probably naked as a jaybird too!”

For all of the images go to espn.go.com

29 comments

  • I'm a big fan of seeing athletes rather than models in photo shoots. I would much rather see someone in peak physical condition than some waif who looks like she hasn't eaten for the last week. The athletes look healthy and actually excel at something other than just being thin and having a good face. I think it would be far healthier for all of us (and women in particular) to aspire to look like these athletes rather than the current obsession with "skinny is good".

    Commenter
    Hurrow
    Date and time
    July 17, 2013, 9:28AM
    • lets see them do it in there sport and not on some glossy rag-mag if they want to go nude other wise they are only doing it for the money

      Commenter
      nikraf
      Date and time
      July 17, 2013, 12:02PM
  • Naked sports players good, naked models bad? What other professions are approved by feminists for being naked, and which are not? I think it's a bit harsh to object to models being naked, seeing as how their job role is to sell their body for its appearance, but anyway...

    Are naked accountants ok? What about network administrators or garbage men? I'm puzzled by the methodology used to determine who can pose naked and who cannot. It seems the objection is that the more attractive the person is, the less approval there is for them being naked. Odd.

    Oh, no, wait, it's the new socially approved sexual repression, by the look of it. People can be naked as long as no one's looking at it in a sexual manner. Carry on. Same thing that's been happening since time immemorial. It won't be long until this one devolves into nakedness being frowned upon in all forms, just like all the others before it.

    Commenter
    Tim the Toolman
    Date and time
    July 17, 2013, 9:43AM
    • I think naked models are bad when they are subjected to frostbite - every other profession has some kind of OHS rules.

      And lets refrain from taking one statement from one feminist to reflect how all feminists feel - feminism is just the belief in equality for women, which would include the large majority of women as well as a ton of men. If you believe in equality for women then you are a feminist regardless of gender - all the other BS about a strict set of beliefs that defines feminism is just that, BS.

      Commenter
      Mynx
      Date and time
      July 17, 2013, 10:28AM
    • @Tim the Toolman - Way to miss the point completely. What she is saying is nudity = awesome, objectification = bad. If you don't know what objectification is and how prevalent it is in our culture then google it and do your own research.

      Commenter
      Ruby
      Date and time
      July 17, 2013, 11:03AM
    • Tim - don't you see the difference between a naked body doing something not involving sex (ie sports) and one that is focused on the viewer, looking like it is inviting someone to shag her/him (ie sexually ready)? One is active (but naked), the other is passive, waiting/inviting sexual activity. Bit different from a naked accountant...depending where you work, of course.

      There is a very big difference. Most artistic/ancient statues and other classical artworks do not look like they are inviting the viewer to have a grope. It's not what you have/reveal, it's how you use it.

      Commenter
      Cara
      Date and time
      July 17, 2013, 12:06PM
    • I don't think Tim missed the point at all. Given that nudity can either be empowering or exploitative, the big question is who is the arbiter of what is objectification and what is just nudity?

      Given that the company ESPN, with a board one can assume will be comprised of more men than women, will be making a profit off these images, one could just as easily use the same argument used against any nude/semi-nude pictures found in Playboy, FHM, Women's Weekly etc. and say the athletes are being objectified and exploited, regardless of whether they willingly agreed to participate or were paid to take part.

      Commenter
      Markus
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      July 17, 2013, 12:25PM
    • @Ruby that said, these are still objectifying. their purpose is still to get us to look at the bodies, no more or less than an swimsuit calendar. Just in one we are looking at ideal of perfection. These are looking real perfection, in so far as the models have worked and train their bodies and sculpted them to this end. Both are displaying and/or submitting their bodies to the viewer.

      It is a complete double standard. For one group of people to say one is good the other is bad. Presuming the model is being paid, they want to do the shoot. They still have same out come, selling a 'look' most people wont aspire to. Im not saying all the world of professionally modelling is a paragon of virtue but it does a serve a purpose and always ask myself what is missing in someones lives that have to make a deal about how others live their life.

      Commenter
      blakeavon
      Date and time
      July 17, 2013, 12:49PM
    • I think that Tim and Markus nailed it.

      Commenter
      sooty kettle
      Date and time
      July 17, 2013, 2:08PM
    • It's about prurient interest and being the gatekeeper for what others consume. It's not much different from Potter Stewart's "I know it when I see it" definition of pornography. People injecting themselves as the moral arbiters of what is right and good. There is no "right way to be nude". The way you want to be nude, doing what ever you are doing, with what ever props you have, eliciting whatever gaze you are eliciting, is the "right way" so long as everything is consensual and nothing illegal is taking place.
      What Clem is describing here is the difference between art and pornography. It's actually a little clumsy as an article as it doesn't address it. Essentially, these images are harder to masturbate to and are therefore ok for consumption as judged by self proclaimed moral superiors even though the same money, media exposure etc has changed hands. It all becomes a horrible issue when it appeals to the male gaze and might give someone a boner. (as opposed to non-femme lesbian porn, girls jilling off to whatever they want, gay porn etc.)

      What I find worst about the shoots here are that the men get the better shots, no doubt because they don't have to cover up their chest (oh noz bewbs!) and of course more muscle definition probably helps. They basketballer and the hockey player are easily in the top there (and why the basketballer was used on the cover.)

      Commenter
      andrew
      Date and time
      July 17, 2013, 4:24PM

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