The Body Issue is art. Why aren’t we treating it that way?Tomorrow, ESPN the Magazine will release its annual “Body Issue.” If you’re not familiar, the issue features photos of elite level athletes in the nude. At first look, it might appear to just be an answer to the swimsuit issue released every year by Sports Illustrated. It’s a natural comparison to make, but the Body Issue is only like the swimsuit issue in the most superficial ways. Yes – they are both exhibitions of the human body found in sports magazines. But while one uses sexy decadence to create attention and sell issues, the other is a true meditation on the nature of the body. Let’s put it this way – if the two annual issues were made into science fiction movies, one would be directed by Michael Bay and the other by Ridley Scott.
Perhaps the first edition of the Body Issue in 2009 was a response to SI‘s iconic swimwear showcase, but its true inspiration is rooted in some of the great works of art ever produced. While bodies have been the subject of many mediums, in no other form does it quite come to life as in sculpture, and most of the great sculptures are studies of the idealized human body. For thousands of years we have been fascinated by presentations of human physicality.
And while the Body Issue springs from this ancient facet of our consciousness, it also exists at a time in which reevaluating physical ideals is a constantly trending topic. Discussions of body shaming, standards of beauty, health, and objectification are consistently lighting up social media and appearing *ahem* on blogs. At times it seems like no one really knows what to make of everything – it’s a complex conversation with its own lexicon.
So, knowing that humans have a history of considering physical excellence and considering the fluid and nuanced modern perceptions of the body, it might seem safe to assume that the contributions of SI and ESPN are just two more planes in Dechamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. But I do not believe this is the case. Rather, the Body Issue makes a definitive statement on the matter through a beautiful expression that is both a work of art and a triumph of human physicality.
This year’s edition will, like past issues, feature an eclectic group of elite athletes, including behemoth Vince Wilfork, tall and graceful Elena Delle Donne, petite and powerful Christen Press, and transgender athlete Chris Mosier, all of whom will be featured alongside more conventional Greek Gods like Greg Louganis and Nzingha Prescod. And they are all beautiful. They are all ideal. They were given different body types, but through their natural talents and hard work they perfected their bodies into their version of the ideal athlete. Color, shape, and size doesn’t matter in the Body Issue.
By featuring the bodies of elite level athletes, ESPN promotes goals but denies standards. It displays the ideal, but subverts understanding of what is better or more beautiful. Just because there is something else we should strive for does not mean we need be ashamed of what we have. If the photos were just of attractive people with impressive physiques, it would lose some of its potency, because these bodies are shaped into serving a specific purpose. These impressive figures are used to compete in the great arena of sports, and knowing that there is a specific intent that goes into making these bodies makes them that much more inspiring and beautiful.
So our culture asks: What is the ideal body type? What is our standard of beauty? ESPN can answer by holding up any photo from their Body Issue archives.
Again, this does not mean that we are not beautiful just because we don’t look like Greek and Roman sculptures. What it means is that our beauty and our physical excellence is not defined by our skin tone, height, facial features, bra size, jock size, or bone size. It’s based in being our best self. Is that cliche? Maybe, but it’s the message of the Body Issue. It’s the message of I don’t know how many pop songs and that remarkable AXE commercial from earlier this year.
Sure, athletes are endowed with some things the rest of us don’t have, but they are not all equally endowed, and 99% of them only made it to the big time by improving on their natural gifts. They are the most excellent version of themselves – and that is a goal for any of us.
It’s the missing component of sport that makes me say that SI putting plus-size model Ashley Graham on the cover of their most recent swimsuit issue is a minimal effort at changing the body image discussion. They are still saying that beauty is based in a lascivious presentation of breasts and hips and a pretty face. And they are still making sex the purpose of her figure. They are not presenting her, or any of their models, as figures of speed, strength, and agility – just figures of sex.
But some might say the Body Issue is no better. They may claim that it is really just lewd objectification. What? Nude photos? What could be redeeming about that? My guess is that people who say this have not actually looked through the Body Issue galleries. Yes – some photos are a little more risque than others, but the vast majority have a clear artistic intent, and that is to demonstrate the excellence of thw athlete’s body. Something that makes these photos remarkable is that so many of them are of the athlete in a natural athletic position. In the photos, they are doing something that we would see them do in competition, and now, with clothes removed, we see their body in all its glory doing that athletic thing. Might that thing draw attention to their legs and buttocks? Yes – because the athlete needs their legs and buttocks to looks fabulous in order to do the things that they are doing. Christen Press, who will appear in this year’s issue, talked about how her body looks like soccer. The Body Issue captures the specific beauty of each sport as represented in the physiques of its athletes. It’s possible to see physical beauty without sexual edification, and that is what the Body Issue does. It’s beautifully designed, directed, photographed, and presented.
And maybe some will avoid the Body Issue on the simple basis of nudity. And maybe that’s best for some people, but, as a culture, this is the kind of nudity that we should embrace (uh, phrasing?) in the same way that we embrace the great works of nude sculpture. If nudity is a problem, it’s because we’ve made it a problem. We’ve lost the gift of admiring the strength, grace, and beauty of magnificent bodies because of our collective lechery. I hope that, through proper understanding of things like The Body Issue, we can recover a useful appreciation of the human body. And, to do that, we kinda have to look at the body when it’s naked.
The body and how it is valued and presented will continue to be a contentious subject. And, as confusing as some of it may be, these are good discussions to have. Meanwhile, the great sculptures will remain in museums to be admired by millions of visitors every year.
And, tomorrow, ESPN will once again step into these two facets of culture and expose us to the best kind of art – the kind that is beautiful and creative, and the kind that teaches us something about each other and about ourselves.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
10 of the Best from the Body Issue
- Indianpolis Colts offensive line
- Aly Raisman
- Nigel Sylvester
- Angel McCoughtry
- Kenneth Faried
- Sydney Leroux
- Danell Leyva
- Ashton Eaton
- Destinee Hooker
- Jon “Bones” Jones
1 But not just in the splendor of David or Venus – in the pain of Laocoon, the sleeping faun, the weary boxer, the winged woman, the defeated warrior. There wasn’t just one way to portray an ideal body in sculpture.
2 There have also been physically “disabled” athletes. I will add that there has been a dearth of Asian athletes. It’s possible that’s a cultural thing about modesty and Asian athletes turn down the offer…because obviously there are Asian athletes with impressive bodies. Then again, it could be a sorta racist thing (white imagination has a way of distorting views of non-white bodies).
3 Isn’t Mary J. Blige great?
4 I’m serious when I say this commercial is a work of genius.