Sufficiently hyped, ESPN The Magazine’s “Body Issue” hit newsstands Friday. The issue features several male and female athletes in various “nude” poses (PG-13 stuff, perhaps). Predictably, this has sparked some little controversy, much of it unwarranted, but not all of it.
First I of course refer to the prudes. They are animated, whether they admit to it or not, by a worldview quite uncomfortable with sexuality and the human body. (One is tempted to ask if they understand how they came to be.) Thus, to them, an athlete’s appearing nude is a dirty, low thing that depreciates the athlete’s athleticism. Never mind that sport is in fact all about bodies, and that the nude athletic form has been admired since antiquity.
Second is a slightly more nuanced scrutiny. Here the critical eye looks to see if female athletes are therein portrayed fairly, especially compared with how their male counterparts are portrayed. In other words, are they presented as strong, dynamic, potent-all the things we most associate with elite athletes? Such scrutiny can be overdone, but isn’t entirely without justification. For example, we know that female athletes often feel pressured to present a softer look. (Serena Williams, one of the athletes featured on a “Body Issue” cover, recently admitted as much.) And I don’t know how many times I’ve seen photos of a female athlete that had obviously been airbrushed (or the digital equivalent) to soften her look, whereas had the subject been a male athlete, the photos would have been, if anything, sharpened for the opposite effect.
Often, however, this scrutiny betrays a provincial worldview. It is generally white, middle- or upper-class, heterosexual, and of that authoritarian mindset which ironically passes for liberalism these days. Nor is it without its own streak of Puritanism (common in the US, not so much in Europe). Here one often finds subtleties overlooked in a rush to judgment. As one example, a strictly male-female sexual dynamic is taken for granted, overlooking the appeal erotic images of female athletes might hold for lesbians. Another, the classism on which most prudery is actually based.
So where does the “Body Issue” fall in my view? Well, I can’t say. I don’t have a copy yet. What I’ve seen (sample gallery) is, I think, tastefully enough done. (The Sarah Reinertsen cover, in particular, I find affecting and gorgeous.) Judge, then, for yourself; only do so with an open mind.