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