Naked female athletes (a topic about which I manage to be ambivalent)

24 July 2012

When I was in college I briefly shared a house with a bunch of swimmers who walked around naked, or mostly naked, most of the time. Far from being exhibitionists, they were simply used to being un-self-consciously naked around both men and women. At first I found the sight of their hard bodies disconcerting, but within a few days I joined in.

Even for me, a 19-yr-old used to walking around naked in high school sports-teams locker rooms, that transition in thinking about naked bodies in mixed-sex settings blew my mind, and changed me. So why do I feel so ambivalent about US soccer star Abby Wambach appearing in ESPN The Magazine‘s Body Issue, which features artistic naked shots of male and female Olympians?

My sister sent me this great video in which Wambach talks about her decision to do so in the same matter-of-fact terms that my college swimmer roommates would have. “I’m very comfortable with my body anyway,” she explains. “Most importantly, I want the shot to represent what we all are trying to capture here, and that’s just powerful, strong, athletic …. You don’t have to have the most cut up body to be a pro athlete. Bodies come in all different shapes. Bodies come in all different sizes. And my body is very different than most females’.” She continues to speak in feminist terms about beauty and empowerment — all of which I’m in 100% agreement.

Except. Aside from Paralympian rower Oksana Masters, whose lower legs were amputated when she was a child, the bodies represented in the magazine don’t represent different shapes and sizes. I mean, Abby, didn’t it occur to you that no matter how you feel about the feminist and empowering aspects of such a photo spread, the magazine is constructed by media moguls who only care about a very slightly expanded spectrum of one kind of body — which is lithe, gorgeous, and glossy-haired?

Where is Olympic weightlifter Holley Mangold? (who’s gorgeous and glossy-haired, BTW?)

Where’s Olympic marathoner Desiree Davila, who’s too busy running the pants off the rest of us to get all prettified and fake-suntanned for an ESPN photo shoot?

Where is Olympic shot put star Tia Brooks? Or the female boxers in the upper weight classes, whose upper-body strength might not be as impressive as Tia’s or Holley’s but still places them outside most magazine readers’ comfort zones when it comes to female beauty?

Lord knows I’m not ambivalent about Abby, or anything about the idea of looking at her naked. When she speaks so eloquently about her own physical difference and about the fact that she weighs 175 pounds, I believe she really does have the potential to change hearts and minds when it comes to what is “beautiful.”

But Abby, as much as my offer of marriage still stands, I’m so disappointed that you’re not more savvy about how your own views of your body don’t mitigate the ways that ESPN The Magazine uses your nakedness as a cheap gambit to sell issues (and ad time for the Olympics, which are largely being shown on the cable channel). The only differences between this issue and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is a) there are no swimsuits, and b) the magazine shows pictures of naked men, too.

In short, this is really just a more gender-equitable, yet still narrow view of what our society deems attractive.

The gorgeously non-naked Queen Underwood, Olympic boxer

To repeat Abby’s words: “You don’t have to have the most cut up body to be a pro athlete. Bodies come in all different shapes. Bodies come in all different sizes.” Amen to that. But let’s not pretend that ESPN The Magazine has any interest in that mantra, nor that flanking Abby’s long, masculine muscularity with the bodies of long-haired surfer girls or blonde golfers will alter their readers’ willingness to express disgust with women who step outside the norms.

Tell me, readers, am I being too cynical about this issue? Is there a radical potential to The Body Issue that I’m missing? Or (gasp: is it possible?) am I not being cynical enough?

11 Responses to “Naked female athletes (a topic about which I manage to be ambivalent)”

  1. I don’t know when and how we first become aware or ashamed of the naked body. I fear, I am still very shy about it.

  2. Becky Says:

    I don’t think you are being too cynical, maybe not quite cynical enough. She allowed herself to be exploited to sell magazines, but she has the right to do that. As you said, it was not a celebration of different types of strength or bodies, it was just another shoot about the beautiful and the young. Nothing new here.

    • Didion Says:

      Yeah, you know, I’m willing to hold out faith that she knew better than to let herself be exploited, but I’m secretly worried that her strong feminist statement is just a cloak for the magazine to do something deeply anti-feminist. That’s my darkest cynical concern. Sigh.

  3. JustMeMike Says:

    Must Abby’s views and ESPN’s Magazine be joined at the hip, or go hand in hand?

    If Abby says bodies come in all shapes and sizes, must ESPN illustrate that fact – especially since we all already know it?

    Finally, somehow, some readers of SI, ESPN, or even Feminema will be displeased by either the showing of skin, or the act of showing of skin to sell magazines, or that a website chose to make it a topic for discussion.

    My answers to the above: No, No, and thanks for making me think about it.

    • Didion Says:

      I love it when my friends call me on sloppy reasoning!

      It’s not that I think Abby’s views need to be the same as ESPN’s…I’m not that naive. It’s just that she expresses so many of the views I hold, as if ESPN is on the same page. If you go to the extent of listening to her discuss these issues — and the ESPN site has various extended interviews — you might genuinely look at these men’s and women’s bodies differently. In fact, if I were Abby (and who’s to say I’m not? at least in my imagination?) I might still feel satisfied with the layout and with my own words on the issue, because she’s right: her tall body isn’t like most women’s.

      But there’s a part of me that thinks she’s actually just a shill for ESPN The Magazine — that the real message of the magazine is to confirm the same old ideas about beauty. Thus, it’s not that I think her views don’t need to be the same as ESPN’s; I just don’t think they should be antithetical.

      • JustMeMike Says:

        Hi – I wasn’t implying that you thought that Abby and ESPN had to be on the same page. It was a rhetorical question meant for anyone.

        As for the part about ESPN having any interest in Abby’s mantra – the answer to that for them comes down to – How can we profit from Abby’s images AND her philosophies. Me thinks pretending to do so didn’t go into their thinking.

        Finally, if Abby simply cashed in – I pose/you pay – that’s not a new thing. Nor is it a bad thing. Nor is it necessarily the act of shill.

  4. servetus Says:

    I don’t know. I’ve thought about it a lot since you’ve written this.

  5. […] Should female athletes be photographed naked? […]

  6. Tom Cornell Says:

    Wow. Another media conglomerate does something totally expected. I’m shocked, SHOCKED!!

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