Media influences culture — this is especially true in the U.S., where we are constantly saturated with TV, radio, news, the internet and magazines. Media tells us what to do, how to live, who to be; and it has an especially large impact on our standards of beauty and collective body image. Powerful individuals and organizations in the media industry also have the ability to influence our culture, for better or worse.
Every year, ESPN’s magazine puts out their “Body Issue,” in which athletes pose for a series of naked photos. Needless to say, it is ESPN The Magazine’s best-selling issue. Athletes from tennis star Serena Williams to Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon have been featured in previous years, and for the 2019 issue, the magazine has put forth a fairly diverse selection of athletes — Paralympian Scout Bassett, Myles Garrett of the Cleveland Browns and former collegiate gymnast Katelyn Ohashi are featured among others.
This year’s edition, which was released on Sept. 4, is also the magazine’s final “Body Issue” (and the final print edition of the magazine). ESPN’s final “Body Issue” has been met with mixed reception; critics are satisfied to see it go, while others send it off with a tearful salute. I find myself on the latter end of the spectrum.
Although I am not an avid consumer of sports entertainment, I appreciate the commitment, teamwork, and physical and mental strength that sports require, and I see the magazine as a way to honor these aspects of the athletic world. However, the “Body Issue” is controversial in many circles, and it’s not so cut and dry.
The “Body Issue” has been criticized for promoting unhealthy body image among impressionable readers. I will not be idealistic here about the reasons behind the ESPN corporation’s choice to photograph naked athletes in this issue — it is to sell magazines, nothing more and nothing less. But even though corporations exist to profit from human bodies (in this case, literally), promoting a diverse and realistic portrayal of athletic bodies can be a step forward in combating the issue of harmful body image.
We can criticize intent behind a piece of media while also appreciating the positive benefits it brings. Take, for example, baseball player Prince Fielder’s 2014 photoshoot, which spawned the hashtag #huskytwitter, encouraging plus-size men to be more confident in their bodies. Showing a man with a body type not traditionally associated with sports as fit, confident and attractive was a bold move for ESPN, and ultimately a positive one.
Even if ESPN’s motive to add diversity in body type is solely to sell magazines, we should not ignore the benefit of such a decision, and feel encouraged that our culture is moving in a more inclusive and accepting direction. In its “Body Issues,” ESPN truly does attempt to showcase diversity among bodies they photograph, including disabled athletes, older athletes, athletes of color and athletes with nonconforming bodies. But some criticisms of the issue go beyond diversity and into the content itself.
In our society, nude bodies are often seen immediately as sexual, often without any further nuance or explanation. Of course ESPN would face backlash when publishing (albeit relatively tasteful) nude photos in their widely-distributed magazine. But the controversy has not always stemmed from traditional or religious groups who object to the photos themselves; the issue has also drawn criticism from Progressives who see the photos as objectifying, or promoting unrealistic standards of beauty.
But I would like to counter that argument. The naked body is not in itself inherently sexual. Although nudity is associated with sex in most contexts, these photos do not portray the body sexually.
The athletes are photographed in poses of power, not sexual objectification. Their bodies are their own, and they are in complete control over the situation. Both men and women are shown in similar poses; this is not a case where only the women are completely nude. This is not a photoshoot for “Playboy,” where the only motive for the pictures is for sexual gratification among readers. Instead, the “Body Issue” is a celebration of the human body and what it can accomplish.
We as human beings are powerful. We are strong, beautiful and diverse, and our bodies should not be a topic too taboo to explore. The “Body Issue” has broken race, gender and body type barriers, and should be commended as a special print issue that added nuance and diversity to the world of athletics. Media changes cultural norms and conversations, and the “Body Issue” is a positive example of that. It’s important to showcase the amazing feats of which the human body is capable — isn’t that one of the reasons why we watch sports in the first place?