As Christmas in July rolls around, so too does another yearly treat: ESPN magazine’s Body Issue, now in its fifth year. The 2014 edition featured the now-trademark wide variety of naked sportspeople, from surfers to footballers, but there was one portrait in particular that set the internet ablaze when the issue’s photos went live in the lead-up to its newsstand debut this past weekend. That’d be Texas Rangers first-baseman Prince Fielder, who was snapped mid-swing by photographer Alexei Hay.
A hashtag - #HuskyTwitter - sprang up as people with a preference for big thighs, rounded bellies and bear-hug-giving arms praised Fielder’s photos as an early Christmas gift. More than a handful of female friends of mine spent a good day’s worth of social media time praising Fielder’s body to high heaven.
The “ahh big sexy with baseball” (as my own Facebook post about Fielder’s photos ran) response was one thing. Social media was also flooded with posts by men who had cause to celebrate finally seeing a body that looked like theirs in the spotlight:
Prince Fielder got me feeling like I can accomplish it all today. #HuskyTwitter— Regular! (@KooolAidPapi) July 8, 2014
Finally.... a hashtag for me. I feel at home. #huskytwitter— Matthew Everett (@Matthew_Everett) July 9, 2014
All this #HuskyTwitter love got a big belly brother feeling kind of sexy!— mchester (@phank211) July 9, 2014
This is why representation is so important: if you can see it, you can be it. And in this case, “it” doesn’t necessarily mean “a pinup”, but when your body type is not only rarely seen in mainstream media, but on the occasion it is seen it’s played for laughs, it’s not hard to imagine that seeing a bigger dude a) reach the top of his game and b) have praise heaped on him as a newly minted sex symbol is a big deal. For the rest of us, it’s cause to stop for a moment and wonder how much of what we think (or “know”) is attractive is down to what the media tells us is so.
In a piece for Mic about the social media response to Fielder’s photo, Derrick Clifton wrote, “If there's one lesson to be learned from Prince Fielder's display of savoir faire, both in his revealing words and images, it's that we can all be accountable to each other in celebrating our bodies. And we can do so without shaming others for having bodies different than our own, or different than what mainstream ideals of beauty dictate to us.”
Too often, when feminist commentators - or any commentators, really - bring up the effect media representations of male bodies have on men, they’re shushed; “It’s worse for women,” the response typically runs, “men can suck it up”. A more compassionate reading would be that, in terms of media-generated pressure to look a certain way, it is now just as bad for men as it has been for women for years.
Logan Hill explored this - specifically, the expectation that today’s male stars will be utterly ripped - for Men’s Journal earlier in the year; he wrote, “Now objectification makes no gender distinctions [...] Muscle matters more than ever, as comic-book franchises swallow up the box office, in the increasingly critical global market. (Hot bodies and explosions don't need subtitles.) Thor-like biceps and Captain America pecs are simply a job requirement; even ‘serious’ actors who never aspired to mega-stardom are being told they need a global franchise to prove their bankability and land Oscar-caliber parts.”
With that in mind it’s not surprising that large swathes of social media users, so indoctrinated into the mindset that a powerful (or successful) male body looks a very specific way, reacted with amusement, even ridicule, to Fielder’s portrait. Some of the gentler jokes made inserted Fielder’s body into improbable scenarios; the crueller ones just surrounded him with junk food.
The “logic” here was simple: Fielder doesn’t look like the super-shredded action superstars of the Marvel galaxy, ergo he must just sit around eating cronuts and playing PS3.
And yet, as Fielder himself said in his ESPN interview, “A lot of people probably think I'm not athletic or don't even try to work out or whatever, but I do. Just because you're big doesn't mean you can't be an athlete. And just because you work out doesn't mean you're going to have a 12-pack. I work out to make sure I can do my job to the best of my ability.”
After all, ESPN say it pretty clearly themselves by titling the compilation of all the Body Issue portraits under the headline “The Bodies We Want” - and that includes wanting Fielder’s. And Paralympian Amy Purdy’s. And skateboarder Lyn-z Pastrana. (And so on.)
And herein lies the beauty of The Body Issue. Since its inception in 2009, the edition has cemented its reputation as a catalyst for frank discussion of body ideals; yes, the bodies on display are, by default, of elite athletes, but there is diversity of shape and size within that group.
After all, the sort of body that makes a great surfer is quite different to that of a boxer, and again, an NFL player or golfer.
The Washington Post’s Soraya Nadia McDonald explored this in her examination of the issue: “Not everyone need look like an Adonis to perform physical feats most of us would find impossible. It’s a celebration of the human body and its ability to continually bypass the limitations of our species; a PhD in wearing couture is not a prerequisite for inclusion [...] The Body Issue serves to disprove the notion that you must look a certain way to reach the apex of your sport.”
What remains striking about the bulk of the Body Issue portraits, too, is how (comparatively) devoid of sexualisation they are; as I said upon the release of last year’s edition, “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’.”
That particular discussion was primarily about the female bodies on display; this year, it’s safe to say the gaze (as it were) has been turned to the male athletes’. And while the images might not be expressly sexualised, it’s buoying that the fact that so much of the response to Fielder’s photos has been accompanied by the sort of breathlessness we would typically expect in response to, say, topless photos of Chris Hemsworth.
As for the mean-spirited types who see Prince Fielder and see anything less than an athlete at the top of his game - or, yes, a super-hot hunk - let them make their unfunny memes. Chances are Santa Claus will bring them a lump of coal next year; the rest of us have got the next Body Issue to look forward to.