ESPN The Magazine: Are the women playing or just posing?

A short paragraph about the physiological wonder of the human body opens ESPN The Magazine’s 2013 body issue. In this paragraph, the magazine calls all bodies spectacular specimens, especially the athletic bodies profiled in the following 36 pages. However, the images of male (10 portrayed) and female (11 pictured) athletes tell a different story.

Per usual for a sports magazine with a high male readership, most images of women in ESPN The Magazine are sexualized and often used to sell products rather than illustrate women’s sporting achievements.

As such, some of the representations of profiled female athletes in the body issue are overtly sexualized.

For example, the World Tennis Association’s 4th ranked female tennis player, Agnieszka Radwanska, lounges nude by a swimming pool filled with floating tennis balls.

“Give that girl a racket!” I verbally admonished the magazine upon first seeing the picture. Other highly capable female athletes are also photographed sitting pretty, including golfer Carly Booth and WNBA player Swin Cash.

While some male athletes in the issue are also “posing,” not playing, they are all standing in a powerful, open-bodied posture and/or holding equipment of their particular sport. Of course, I understand the difficulty of photographing women nude in an open stance for a magazine distributed to the general public. Still, I think ESPN could have been a bit more creative.

Some pictures and written profiles of female athletes in the issue are pretty inspiring. Rock climber, Daila Ojeda, displays incredible core and upper-body strength as she grips the underside of a rockface several hundred feet off the ground. She also speaks of challenging one’s own limits, physically and mentally, as a rock climber.

Elena Height, pro snowboarder, “shreds some gnar” in the nude (pictured above), and talks about her yoga practice off the slopes.

Despite these noteworthy attempts by ESPN The Magazine to portray athletic women actually “playing” (and there are others like boxer, Marlen Esparza, posing in the ring or volleyball player, Kerri Walsh Jennings, discussing how delivering a baby made her feel like “Wonder Woman”), the article is still fraught with tension.

Especially in a sports arena, I think it is hard for our society to reconcile the sexualized, attractive female body posing for men’s pleasure with the powerful, strong female body poised for competition or dominance in a particular sport.

Can women be both sexy and strong?

Perhaps this photo from ESPN’s 2012 body issue fits the bill, but isn’t the “sexy and strong” qualification just another box for women to fit into that causes self-image problems down the line?

For another great review of ESPN The Magazine’s body issue, check out SPARK Movement’s blog. Author Kimberly Belmont delves into the real harm sexual objectification in the media causes girls and women.

Still, the question remains, how can we celebrate women’s athletic bodies and their achievements in sports? ESPN The Magazine offers a couple of inspiring images and stories as I’ve mentioned above, yet the issue falls into the female-body-as-#1-sex-object trap.

For true representations of powerful, athletic women, I say, look to the Olympics! There’s no posing or Photoshopping allowed at the Olympics. Play on, women!

If you’d like to read interviews and watch videos about the athletes and their experiences stripping down for ESPN The Magazine’s body issue, check out the extending content here.

Meg Kruithoff is a recent graduate of Colby College with a degree in American Studies and a passion for women’s health and girl-empowerment worldwide. A curious, go-getter kind of gal, she plans on pursuing a dual degree in medicine and public health.

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