Thursday, October 06, 2011

ESPN Body Issue: Progress or backlash?

Yesterday, ESPN released selected images online from the 2011 edition of The Body Issue, expected to appear in a magazine form this Friday.

I awaited the day with curiosity to see what ESPN will tell us this year about “bodies we want.” I’m not sure if these are supposed to be bodies we “want” to consume (i.e.: look at) or bodies we “want” to have - we’ll put that dilemma aside for now.

For the third year in a row, ESPN is offering its consumers nude pictures of athletes with a goal to “celebrate athletes in the condition that they are in,” as editor-in-chief, Chad Millman, said for USA Today.

The arguments regarding what The Body Issue actually does for sports, especially women’s sports, have been split between those who, indeed, find the magazine to empower female athletes by giving them visibility and showcasing the diversity of their bodies and those who view the magazine as yet another outlet for sexualization and objectification of female athletes.

Dr. Nicole LaVoi from the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport eloquently outlined the two opposing points of view on this matter in her most recent blog post, which I shall not echo here, but certainly would encourage you to read.

After taking a first look at the pictures on ESPN’s website, I decided to be, at least temporarily, optimistic. At first glance, the pictures do just what they are supposed to: showcase the different shapes and forms of athletic bodies. These images could be interpreted as empowering and celebratory of the hard work put into developing these bodies.

If you read the statements by the athletes who posed for the Body Issue, you will find that they would agree with the above mentioned stance. In fact, it seems to be exactly why they chose to strip down: to show their success, to convey that they feel proud and comfortable in their bodies.

That, right there, might be liberation.

But a second glance begins to raise some concerns.

Among the selected photos on the website, women, more often than men, were in a passive position out of the context of sport, laying on the beach or a bench. Those pictures can hardly, even with an optimistic attitude, be interpreted as empowering.

Ah, I was going to be optimistic. Should have just closed the tab and called it a day after the first look.

Since the online edition is only a preview, a more detailed assessment of the new issue can only occur once the magazine is out and we see the context of these pictures. The problem sometimes isn’t that athletes appear naked in the photos; the problem is that the sexualized advertisements defeat any empowering potential of the photos.

We shall see very soon if ESPN made progress toward the noble intention of truly celebrating athletes’ bodies.

- Dunja Antunovic

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