We Heart: ESPN’s Body Issue for its Diverse Portrayal of Athletes

The sixth annual ESPN The Magazine Body Issue is on newsstands this week, with six different covers and stunning nude photographs of 22 professional athletes. The special issue describes itself as a “tribute to the extraordinary power of the athletic form” and includes players from a range of sports–football, basketball, baseball, boxing, tennis, sailing and surfing, among them. Best of all, the gender split of those photographed is exactly 50/50: 11 men, 11 women.

It’s a far cry from the despicable Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, which overwhelmingly features women models (not athletes) in barely-there outfits with the sole purpose of sexualizing and objectifying (did you think it was just trying to sell swimsuits?). We have to commend ESPN on their continuing A effort to not stray down the SI path.

All right, so I won’t let them off the gender-balance hook entirely: A few more male athletes than female ones are shown in actual athletic poses. The shots of Venus Williams and Jamie Anderson might as well be out of any non-sports-related magazine. But they’re in the minority. For the most part, it’s refreshing to see women like Danyelle Wolf (a boxer) and Angel McCoughtry (WNBA star) actually performing their sport instead of just selling their sexiness.

This year, as always, men and women of all shapes and sizes are shown. There’s Aja Evans, the 26-year-old bobsledder and 2014 Olympic bronze medalist, showing off her thick, powerful thighs, while sprightly 6-5 tennis player Tomas Berdych is 200 pounds of long and lean. This year’s issue also features its first ever openly LGBT athlete, U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe. She’s quoted as saying about her coming-out two years ago, “It’s awkward when everyone knows you’re gay but you don’t say it. Everyone in my life already knew. If you want to stand up for equal rights but won’t even stand up for yourself …  it just started to feel weird.”

And snowboarder Amy Purdy is included, too–the 2014 Paralympic bronze medalist and Dancing With the Stars finalist who had both legs amputated at the knee when she was 19. Photographed with her prosthetic legs, she’s a refreshing change of pace from the cookie-cutter models that usually fill magazines, and recognizes that athletes come in all different forms and abilities.

Unfortunately, not everyone commended the magazine for the diversity it seeks to promote and display. One man became a central focus upon the issue’s release: Texas Rangers first baseman and powerhouse Prince Fielder. Obvious a bigger guy than most baseball players (he checks in at 5 foot 11 inches and 275 pounds), the reaction to his powerful, naked, heavily tattooed body was swift and critical.

“brb putting bleach in my eyes,” was one reaction cited by Huffington Post. “My eyes! My eyes!” another Tweeted. “yeeeeeah i could’ve gone my entire life without seeing a 90-percent naked Prince Fielder and been completely happy. thanks a lot ESPN,” wrote another. The main object of their scorn? His round, protruding belly, which isn’t hidden in either his portrait or his cover shot.

Apparently some of these Twitter users didn’t read Fielder’s words that accompanied his photographs:

You don’t have to look like an Under Armour mannequin to be an athlete. People probably think I don’t even try to work out, 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.”

His baseball stats speak for themselves, as does his casual mention of leg-pressing 1,000 pounds. Not an athlete, really? Leigh Cowart at The Concourse came to his defense brilliantly, writing,

There’s an audacity to Fielder’s athleticism. That he could be so unusually large for the game and yet still play it well, combined with the fact that he appears to give not a single fuck about the former, make him an easy favorite. He’s a 162-day-a-year reminder that cultural body norms are almost always short-sighted and lacking, at the very least. With his exceptional mass, his sloppy but enthusiastic running, his swing that spans wide and arching, and his frantic mid-run dives, Prince Fielder embodies so much of what’s great about the game. He’s our ultimate fat baseball player.

And we haven’t even gotten to the most incredible part: Prince Fielder looks amazing naked.

This Fielder fan is compelled to agree. Now ESPN, how about extending the ranks of your female models next year to include some large-sized women athletes? A shotputter or discus thrower, perhaps? A weightlifter? A heavyweight judoist? That would really push the envelope of acceptance and beauty–and it’s about time!

Photo of bronze sculpture of female athlete by Robert Graham at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum from Wikimedia Commons


Robin Jones Kerr is a journalism major and women’s studies minor at George Washington University, and an intern at Ms. Follow her on Twitter.