ESPN’s Body Issue turns 10 today….it’s getting controversial

It’s getting controversial today in the “Sports, sports, sports, is your whole life just sports,” column. The title of this column, along with the opening phrase of this article, by the way, pay homage to Dan “the Common Man” Cole, a sports talk radio personality on KFAN, a Minnesota sports talk radio station. His esoteric approach to sports is as entertaining (and actually often more accurate and insightful), then the regular sports journalists who surf Twitter 24 hours a day and monitor their 12 cell phones to make sure they are the first person to break the latest story (think Adrian Wojnarowski…..check out his Twitter account to see what I mean. You will probably see 12 tweets that start with “sources say.”….what an insider). To them, sports truly is “their whole life,” and so I ironically (check with Patrick Ruesse to make sure that is the correct usage of the word please…IALTO) used the famous Mark Rosen quote as the title for my column. The reason: because we here are taking the esoteric approach to sports in order to put it in its proper place.

And today, I was about to make a one glance, esoteric, Common-Man-like, uneducated opinion on the 10th anniversary issue of ESPN’s Body Issue. But, I had to adjust, if only a little.

Each year, ESPN The Magazine does a photo shoot with 6-10 athletes from different sports with different body types – completely nude. They artistically and uniquely devise ways to cover the important parts by incorporating sport/training relevant poses and sport/training relevant equipment. For example, picture the famous Oscar Robertson pose of him grabbing a rebound with his legs stretched into the splits and the basketball placed strategically at his groin. This shot, and Oscar, have not been included in an actual photo shoot – but that would be something to see recreated 45 years later wouldn’t it.

Image result for rebound doing splits in mid air NBA

These pictures are able to be posted on the internet because they are not displaying any inappropriate body parts, thanks to the aforementioned creativity. Still, the line between pictures of beautiful athletes posing in the nude and something much worse (think Sports Illustrated swimsuit addition or Playboy), seems a little gray, at least for me.

Here’s my two cents:

Pros of the Body Issue:

  • artistic – hey, art has always included nudity…this is just a modernized version of it….nothing wrong with that, right?
  • creative – it is truly fun to see how the athletes are positioned in such a way to show off their sport, a particular aspect of their body (usually tied to their sport – i.e. muscular legs in a running back, flexibility in a gymnast or long arms in a pitcher), all while obscuring private regions.
  • Uses real people that we know – we are looking at the starting center for our hometown basketball team (Karl Anthony Towns), not some random swimsuit model that we will never hear or see from again. This contributes to the last point:
  • Celebrates different body types – this is the proclaimed goal of pretty much every athlete who poses for the magazine. They want young women to know it’s ok to have hips, it’s ok to have muscle, it’s ok to be a little bigger, etc. They want people to celebrate their body for its function, not obsess over its appearance. It accurately depicts the many different body types, fat percentages, weights, heights, and lengths that can succeed at various sports.

Cons:

  • There is nudity – I guess it is ok in today’s world to just put a butt right out there….none of the pictures are showing breasts or genitals, but they show everything, and I mean everything else. In some ways, they leave less to the imagination than Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition..that’s not good, in my opinion.
  • Uses real people that we know: while this is a pro, it has also become a con. Knowing that many of these athletes, in completing the photo shoots in front of males and females tells me a little something about how they value their body. Apparently, for some, it isn’t something that they are saving for only the eyes of their significant other. While that is a pretty conservative viewpoint, and I get that (and I am someone who spends a large majority of their time walking around in my underwear when I’m at my house….yes, guilty), it still is revealing a bit of their character. More on this later….
  • Is it really celebrating different body types? Or is it a chance for athletes to show-off their body type. I feel like for most of the athletes, it is really the latter. If not for showing off their muscles and physique, it is another chance for them to garner attention in the modern day twitterspheric culture that has everyone looking for the next best chance to go, “Hey, look at me!” Unfortunately, pro athletes, along with movie stars, are probably the most guilty of living in a world where they think they are a much bigger deal than they really are (and it isn’t their fault — who wouldn’t think you are a pretty big deal when you have 300 million dollars, are televised non stop, have 1 billion followers on social media following and interested in your every move, and are praised and worshiped every step of the way). The internet, and particularly social media, has really screwed this up – I think things like the body issue are just an extension of that: a look into someone’s personal life at a level that was never available 30 years ago (and was maybe never naturally supposed to be available to humans, ever). Also, as a fellow athlete, I find myself going, “Hmmm, I wish I had those abs, legs, pecs, etc.” I think this jealousy is sort of what the typical self absorbed athlete desires. Sad, really (Common Man reference).

Now, you can think what you want about the Body Issue, and that is fine – my opinion isn’t really that strong either way right now to be honest – but what I’ll leave you with today is the story of how I almost made a firm, uneducated stance on it, and then changed my mind.

Going back my opening to this column – my reference to “The Common Man” show. On his show, listeners like myself will call in to request monikers, or names by which they are known in the community of listeners – the “Commonwealth.” Every moniker ends with “guy.” For example, there is “Crouching Ovation Guy,” (genius….), Larry Mondello Guy, Morie Amsterdam Guy, Mustard on Pancakes Guy, etc. I’ve tried to think of what I would be, and after my celebrity crush (we are all allowed those aren’t we?) Jessie Diggins became famous across the country for winning the first ever gold medal in USA history in the never heralded sport of nordic skiing, I settled on “Jessie Diggins was my gal before she was your gal….guy.” I’ve been a fan of her since about 2014 – ok, she was a pretty big deal then, too, and there are definitely fans who have been with her longer, but her popularity has surged exponentially since this February.

Anyway, Diggins, a fellow class of 2010 Minnesota high school graduate, is a cool, down to earth Midwesterner who works hard, had a dream, and has relentlessly pursued it the right way. She is someone that you can’t help but want to do well. Now that she is famous, endorsement deals and commercials have made her busier than ever, but if you are a true fan, you know that the reason she has a Slumberland Furniture logo emblazoned on her headband to this day is because when she was a teenager, she dressed up and walked into the company, which her dad worked at, and asked for a small sponsorship. Let’s just say Slumberland made one of the luckiest and greatest investments ever in that deal! Her good looks, charm, and spunk have made her an endorsement magnet now – the only person that I know with higher levels of those three attributes is my wife (do you see what I did there honey:)).

When I heard that Diggins was going to be one of the athletes featured in the Body Issue, my heart sank a little. In addition to the immediate destruction of an ESPN magazine issue delivered to my door by my wife (I understand), I now had to face the fact that one of my favorite athletes was just like the rest of them: looking for attention, not really caring about physical purity, shallow, etc.

And, up until a few minutes ago, I was just going to believe that. Thankfully, Diggins proactively got in front of the curve of what I could see as being a potential atomic bomb to her current image as a textbook role model for aspiring young female athletes, by writing a explanation of her intentions in her blog.

She started by talking about how “empowering” the photo shoot was (yawn….oh great, I thought).

Then, she mentioned how it was an all female set.

Good job Jessie. That is awesome! In looking at other athletes on ESPN in the feature which takes you behind the scenes, it is apparent that most everyone else did not choose this, as males and females are seen walking around the different sets. To request that is awesome, and maybe even took some serious standing up for values in the face of peer pressure (“Well, none of the other athletes care if we have males and females shooting pictures of you….so I assume that won’t be a big deal for you either, right?”)

Then, she talked about how she never thought she’d be asked to do something like this because her sport simply isn’t popular enough. True – and she has maybe been the biggest single force in changing that – from her work in climate change awareness to bringing a world cup ski race to Minneapolis.

Finally, the bulk of the post, was about her own reservations about body image and eating disorders. First of all, I was unaware of her working through an eating disorder. Props to her on battling and winning. Secondly, I think the honesty with which she states that basically every athlete (not just person….but high level athlete) thinks about and  has insecurities about different parts of their body and how it looks is very meaningful and true. Her words were very encouraging to me in that regard. I’ll let her words do the rest of the talking – definitely worth the read. Read the blog here if you want more.

So, for Jessie, it appears that this posing for the body issue is a reflection of her being proud not only of the increasing attention that cross country skiing is receiving, but the pride she feels in finally being able to appreciate her body for what it is and what it can do, not just what it looks like. This message is indeed powerful – for young women, little girls, distance runners, skiers, older athletes…pretty much everyone. That’s cool. Do I think the blog post itself was more powerful than the pictures? Yeah. But did knowing that the pictures would be there bring me to the blog post in the first place? Yes, and it will for hopefully hundreds of other people. And, does the fact that the way she went about actually engaging in the photo shoot process and then writing about the purpose of doing it in the first place impact everything? Absolutely.

In closing, I’m sure there will be more thoughts on body image and healthy views of eating which I will write about. This is an issue that I care about and can relate to, at least on some levels. There will probably also be more thoughts and posts on nordic skiing and maybe even Jessie Diggins, just so long as my wife approves of them first. Hopefully this gets the ball rolling – I would love to hear what you think about any of these issues as well. Feel free to comment. If you do, you will be the first person to do so in the history of Seder-skier.com.

Ryan

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