The Problem With ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue

Where are the husky female athletes?

I really want to love The Body Issue, ESPN The Magazine’s annual ode to lats, delts, quads, and strategically placed, crotch-covering shadows. It is, on paper, the kind of thing I would love, using beautiful photography to highlight the incredible feats of which the human body is capable. I’ve written before about how it’s more productive to think about what bodies can do—from the basic mechanics of breath to the running of marathons—than about how they should or shouldn’t look.

There is much to appreciate in The Body Issue, from efforts toward body variety to gender parity. Newly minted member of the club, baseball player Prince Fielder, has already spawned the hashtag #HuskyTwitter, celebrating the thicker-set gentlemen. In his accompanying interview, Fielder said,

“You don’t have to look like an Under Armour mannequin to be an athlete. A lot of people probably think I’m not athletic or don’t even try to work out or whatever, but I do. Just because you’re big doesn’t mean you can’t be an athlete. And just because you work out doesn’t mean you’re going to have a 12-pack. I work out to make sure I can do my job to the best of my ability. Other than that, I’m not going up there trying to be a fitness model.”

What’s not to love? I’m all about undermining expectations about what fitness can look like because it’s hard not to get caught in the trap of assumption. I recently made the mistake of assuming an acquaintance was new to exercise because she didn’t look like how I’ve been trained to think gym-goers look. “Actually,” she said, “I can’t go to yoga with you because I already train seven days per week; I’m a competitive weightlifter.” Just another reminder that you never can tell.

With Prince Fielder, the Body Issue is visually reminding us of the disconnect between who looks “like an athlete” and who is one, but only for men. There are no husky women in The Body Issue, and it’s not hard to see why. “I’m not up there trying to be a fitness model,” Fielder said, but for female athletes, the ones who want to considered successful, the two go hand in hand. Performance is not enough. Just ask Taylor Townsend.

I applaud ESPN for the steps toward gender parity they’ve already made. The numbers are there; about half of the featured athletes are women, including Paralympic bronze medal-winning snowboarder Amy Purdy. But numbers aren’t enough; we have to ask how, not just how many.

For comic book afficionados, the Hawkeye Test helps illustrate the hypersexualization of female characters by recasting the illustrations with men. Apply the same lens to The Body Issue and the style discrepancy is immediately apparent. Imagine this photo of Venus Williams with Federer instead. Or this one of Coco Ho replaced by a male surfer kicking up his heels and gazing off into the distance. Or this photo of snowboarder Jamie Anderson swapped out for Shaun White.

We don’t require that male athletes also appear beautiful, elegant, and flirtatious. For them, ability is everything. And although there are also incredible action shots of most of the women featured, there’s always the cover-girl, check-me-out, Athleta model bonus image.

We can’t consider our work done until it’s just as plausible for a husky female athlete to revel in her huskiness and say, it’s not my responsibility to be pretty for you, I’m just here to get the job done. We’re getting there.

Role Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for JezebelThe FriskyThe Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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