Why ESPN’s Body Issue could have been great but doesn’t quite succeed

Danell LeyvaThere’s a lot I appreciate about ESPN’s Body Issue–the primary thing being Danell Leyva.

I’m all for admiring “the vast potential of the human form,” I love seeing naked bodies, and as someone who is endlessly irritated that female athletes are sexualized more than men are, I think it’s great to have a chance to “gawk” at beautiful athletes of both genders. Of course, the range of types of bodies celebrated in the issue is pretty narrow–someone like Sarah Robles is, unsurprisingly, not featured. (Although I’m super excited they included paralympic athlete Oskana Masters being totally badass.)

In a culture in which women’s bodies are typically valued for being passive objects that are nice to look at, admiring female athletes’ bodies for being active agents that are nice to look at has the potential to be a truly great thing. Not that bodies should only be valued for what they can do, of course, but I think most athletes do have that kind of utilitarian relationship to their bodies. And as a former athlete, one of the reasons I think women’s sports are so important is the sense of ownership you gain from seeing your body as a tool that is yours to perfect and push and challenge. Abby Wambach put it best in her interview: “If you’re an athlete and you’ve worked your whole life on your body, your body becomes your machine.”

And some of the women’s photos in this year’s Body Issue capture that wonderfully. Wambach’s photo, for example, is great:

Abby Wambach

But, some of them are more like this. Here’s the #2 ranked women’s golfer in the world hitting a tee shot chillin’ on the beach.

Suzann Pettersen

Culturally Disoriented also noticed that the female athletes seem to be doing a lot more standing or lounging around than their male counterparts. After crunching the numbers, they found that over half of the female athletes were shown only as passive eye-candy while virtually all of the men were shown in action shots.

  • 78 percent of the photos of men depict an active pose, while only 52 percent of women’s do.
  • 90 percent of the male athletes had at least least one active pose in the slideshow.
  • 46 percent of female athletes had at least one active pose in the slideshow.

As Cultural Disoriented notes, despite the way the Body Issue bills itself, “The shoot is one where men show off their athletic abilities; where men are depicted as talented and powerful. And it is a shoot where some women can show off their athletic abilities, and are portrayed as talented and powerful.” Please do better next year, ESPN. There is absolutely nothing difficult about showing female athletes looking sexy while also, ya know, being athletes. Just show Hope Solo blocking a goal, not watering a damn lawn.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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