For all those disenchanted with the sexist, often demeaning landscape of sports journalism—fear not, for we have arrived at the release date of ESPN the Magazine’s annual Body Issue. Introduced in 2009, the edition was initially conceived as a competitor to Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue, though with a different take on female nudity. Here’s the mission statement:
Each year, we stop to admire the vast potential of the human form. To unapologetically stand in awe of the athletes who've pushed their physiques to profound frontiers. To imagine how it would feel to inhabit those bodies, to leap and punch and throw like a god.
Much better than bikinis on the beach, I’d say. This year's edition features a comprehensive gallery of athletes—11 female, 10 male—trading in their uniforms for their birthday suits. These are tactful but bracing portraits of some of the world’s most renowned athletes, participating in sports as diverse as rock climbing and beach volleyball. The key here is that the Body Issue presents athletes in their element, not models in Antarctica. Marveling at boxer Marlen Esparza’s uppercut—the determination on her face, the squared set of her shoulders, the bend of her right knee to anchor the punch—isn’t as much objectification as it is admiration. The nudity serves a purpose: It unveils the mechanisms by which she achieves her physical accomplishments. Same goes for Colin Kaepernick coiled in sprint position or Sydney Leroux bicycle kicking in mid-air.
It is hard to overstate what a vastly different approach this is to almost every other media treatment of women in sports. Just last week, surfing company Roxy released a promotional trailer for its annual surfing competition. The video doesn’t feature any actual surfing but could be understandably mistaken for soft-core porn, a phone commercial, or a kitschy sequel to Blue Crush. We never see the surfer’s face but are given generous views of her rear. The mystery girl? World champion Stephanie Gilmore.
This isn’t to say that the images in ESPN are stripped of sexual appeal, but they are refreshingly honest. Scars, tattoos, and tan lines are all visible. Some subjects are less muscular than others, and a 77 year-old Gary Player swings a club in all his patrician glory.
There are a few missteps this time around: It’s unclear why Agnieszka Radwańska, the Polish tennis player who is currently ranked No. 4 in the world, is shown lounging by a pool filled with bobbing tennis balls instead of smashing forehands on a court. And Courtney Force splayed across a Goodyear tire in the middle of a desert is also a bit too Kate-Upton-with-polar-ice-caps for me. Still, the Body Issue gets its point across. Here are beautiful people stark naked, and you should appreciate how finely honed these bodies are for the specific tasks to which they’re assigned—throwing, running, climbing, kicking. It’s OK to stare.