Prince Fielder: why everyone is talking about this naked male athlete

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: 

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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.

26 comments

  • Fielder may be carrying a little body fat but you can certainly tell, the man lifts weights - I blame "Mens Health" magazine as the magazine that pushes the low body fat, high muscular image of men and it is, without a doubt, responsible for the huge rise is in steroid use in Australia - the idiots who publish that magazine are a bunch of morons

    Commenter
    Nicholas
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    July 14, 2014, 8:16AM
    • And what of the idiots and morons who look at the covers of Mens' Health as a measure of their worth? There is a distinct difference between an image like those on that magazine that are used for aspiration or inspiration and used as a benchmark for definition.

      It doesn't take a lot of intellect to essentially only consider those images for what they should be.

      Commenter
      Public Joe
      Date and time
      July 14, 2014, 10:03AM
    • Dude's a beast. He can probably bench press five male models.

      The problem with the "ideal" male body image we see now (Crhis Hemsworth as an example), is that it's actually not as athletic as some seem to think.
      Hemsworth lifts a lot of weights and doesn't eat much, so he's cut and ripped, but he's not an athlete. He's an actor, so it's understandable, but he's all form over function.
      Take an MMA fighter, those guys are pretty close to the absolute peak of physical fitness, functional strength, core stability and explosive movement. They aren't stacked with muscle like the guys on Men's Health magazines (who are ALL on steroids, every one of them).
      They have less muscle mass (because too much muscle requires too much blood pumping through it - it makes you tired much quicker than is useful for sustained physical endeavor), most of them aren't shredded like male models are (having 1% body fat is not necessarily helpful in any way other than looking good - having a little bit of fat is fine if you have great cardio and strength) and all of them are much fitter and more physically capable than some guy on a magazine cover.

      It comes down to what you want. Do you want the healthiest and fittest body, which will help you in athletic endeavor and stand you in good stead health wise? Or do you want to take steroids and spend all your time lifting weights so you look like Chris Hemsworth, despite the fact you'd get smoked in most sporting competitions by someone who spends less time doing bicep curls, and more time with functional exercises, and have all the physiological problems associated with steroid abuse?

      Commenter
      Jon
      Date and time
      July 14, 2014, 10:15AM
    • Agree - having been involved in the bodybuilding/fitness competitive world for the past 20+ years, those photos on Mens/Womens Health covers are not all they appear.
      There's clever tanning, oiling, lighting (before we even talk about post-photo shoot photoshopping), and water and carb manipulation in the days leading up to the shoot. Similar to preparing for a bodybuilding show.
      I've done shoots where I look at the un-touched photo in the photographer's camera and then look at myself in the mirror at the same time and it looks very different! You finish the shoot and replenish your fluids, have a good meal, scrub off the tan and oil, and already you're completely different looking.

      Commenter
      Joanne
      Date and time
      July 14, 2014, 3:54PM
  • I agree, that many people get judged based on body weight. I'm not skinny, according to the BMI obese and yet I do far more exercise than many of my so called skinny mates, who spend the weekend on the lounge watching footy with a beer. While carrying extra body eight does have some health risks, it also incredibly difficult for some people to actually lose that weight, regardless of how much they exercise. Meanwhile lazy skinny people who eat KFC and drink every night, but are fortunate to have a body that processes all those extra calories are lauded as being healthy and ideal, but will probably die sooner, because the emphasis is put on your bodyand what you look like and not on lifestyle choices.

    Commenter
    Justin
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    July 14, 2014, 9:36AM
    • Hi Justin, have you considered going to a dietician or even a doctor? It could be possible you are either eating foods that seem to be healthy, but not great for weight loss, or food that doesn't agree with your body.

      Commenter
      Budz
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      July 14, 2014, 3:59PM
  • If this was a story about a less than gamine female athlete (or even a slightly pudgy everyday woman) on the front cover of a magazine, people would be complaining that it was an attempt to "normalise obesity".

    But put a male baseball player (how athletic do you really have to be to play baseball, anyway? anyone can lift some weights, no matter how obese - so it doesn't count) with a beer belly on the cover, and it's OK? Nay, celebrated?!

    Whatever.

    Commenter
    JB
    Date and time
    July 14, 2014, 9:42AM
    • I've seen plenty of 'fat is OK' articles in the media on sites like this recently.

      Commenter
      rudy
      Date and time
      July 14, 2014, 12:17PM
    • This is the reason I can't really agree with Clem Bastow's assertion that it's really just as bad for men now.

      To be clear, yes, it's bad for everyone, but the constraints on women's bodies are still tighter, and they don't just apply to celebrities. Women are encouraged to view their bodies through the prism of models and celebrities as both idealised and normalised, in a way that men still sort of aren't. The pressure and social expectation for a woman to look like Gisele Bundchen is still more than for a man to look like Chris Hemsworth. And any woman who has the temerity to be over a size 6 AND happy with her body is maligned as "normalising obesity".

      By the way, I do think Fielder looks rockin.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      July 14, 2014, 1:10PM
    • A lot of guys these days DO feel like they should look like Chris Hemsworth (without realising it's almost impossible if you're not either a genetic freak or juiced up on 'roids).

      I'm not going to sit here and pretend that I know what it's like to be a women dealing with the many unfair expectations and pressures society places on women in regards to their body issues. Suffice to say that it disgusts me the way society and the media teaches girls to hate themselves because of how they look.

      But I don't think it's ethical for you to make this into a comparison. It's not a competition, but you are defining it as one. I don't know if men have it as bad as women. Maybe you could take the moral high ground though, and realise that it doesn't matter, and that measuring it in the way that you are doing is unfair and spiteful.

      I can tell you that many young men are deeply insecure about their body image, have an obsession with looking stacked with muscle and shredded, and all kinds of psychological problems are the result. You've got guys killing themselves over it, guys struggling with depression because of it, guys with eating disorders, and guys who are destroying their bodies by taking steroids and growth hormone.

      I understand where you are coming from. I'm inclined to agree that it's worse for women. But I don't see how it helps for you to say that it's not worth worrying bout the same problem when it affects men, because it's culturally newer.

      Commenter
      Jon
      Date and time
      July 14, 2014, 1:49PM

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