Friday, August 2, 2013

ESPN’s Pictorial Distorts What it Means to Have an Athletic Body

Which one is NOT an athlete? (Hint: it's a trick question)

Has anybody else seen last month’s issue of ESPN Magazine? It was the Body issue; photographic (not pornographic) portraits of sports professionals posing artistically in the buff. I love the theme, which celebrates athletic bodies. But there’s a major problem: the people featured within its pages are not very diverse.
               I’m not referring to race, creed or color. Nor is my beef centered on gender exclusion. In fact, the editors did a fair to middling job including young/old, male/female and people of color. The trouble with this tasteful yet ultimately disturbing pictorial is it only depicts one version of human beings.
               Now I get that this photo spread features athletes. That’s the theme. What I don't appreciate is that they only include bodies that are long and lean. Last time I checked, athletes (professional and amateur) come in all shapes and sizes.
               It’s disingenuous for the photo essay to depict athletes of only one physical type. At the very least, it’s myopic. It’s also insulting. You need only look on the football field or baseball diamond to find truer depictions of the many shapes and sizes of which athletes consist.
Slugger Fielder: seems athletic to me.
               Plenty of high-performing athletes (Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder, for one), don't look like the ones portrayed in the pictorial. Look at any football team; a lot of those guys carry significant size and girth. You want to be the one to tell them they don’t measure up? Be my guest.
               Those aren’t the only sports in which its athletes didn’t make the cut. Weightlifting and wrestling come to mind. Also glaringly missing are athletes with disabilities. Don’t tell me no Paralympic Games gold medalists were ready and willing. Why were they excluded?
               Just what were the criteria for being or not being included in this pictorial? Was it aesthetics? Star appeal? Something deeper? My guess is some athletes were not selected due to unconscious bias against certain physical types. Was it the editors’ fault? Or was it more a function of our own cultural attitudes about our bodies? A combination of both, perhaps?
               Not depicting professional athletes of all shapes, sizes and abilities sends a mentally and emotionally damaging message that there really is such a thing as the perfect body. Hogwash.
               If your body is naturally long and lean, then it might make sense to aspire to the kind of physical bodies depicted in the magazine. Then again, if your physique is naturally rounder, stockier, minus a limb or whatever, it's unreasonable – check that – it’s ridiculous to aspire to something you just cannot physically attain.
Kiprotich: Olympic champ too skinny to make the cut?
This ‘aspiring to the unachievable’ extends to the fashion model world where the men and women are supposedly the ‘ideal’ size. That’s just as dishonest and destructive. Long, lean women and tall, buff men represent a very narrow segment of the natural human condition. Yet we are saturated with these unrealistic depictions of so-called perfection, and can disrupt our sense of what is and isn’t acceptable.
               After railing vehemently about ESPN The Magazine and its one-dimensional portrayal of the human form, here’s a disclaimer. This is the first Bodies issue I've seen and from what I understand, eight other issues with this theme that have been published. That means there are eight other magazines that might feature physical types other than ‘long and lean.’ I hope that’s the case.
               In any event more needs to be done, in media and in society, to celebrate all the various physical forms that humans come in. Not to do so forces us into mental boxes that not even the strongest of us can break out of.

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