Naked rock-climbing and other awesomeness in ESPN’s Body Issue

ESPN The Magazine’s annual Body Issue is about to hit newsstands, and earlier this week, the magazine released the naked photos of professional athletes that make up the centerpiece of the issue to drum up some buzz.  I am an unabashed fan of the Body Issue, and so when I got home that night, I looked up the photo gallery and checked out all of the photos.  (Don’t worry, ESPN – I’ll put my money where my mouth is and pony up for the print issue as well.)  I was not only pleased by what I saw – I was flat-out thrilled by it.  Brian and I were each checking out the photos on our laptops, and the entire time we were like, “Did you see that photo? Wow, that’s so cool. Whoa, Colin Kaepernick has a lot of tattoos. Holy shit, check out the dirt-bike rider’s quads!”

This year, it almost seems as though the editorial staff behind the issue heard the criticism some people lodged about certain gender disparities with the photos – that the female athletes seemed more likely to be posed passively while the male athletes were in powerful positions – and took it to heart.  Like, I can almost hear the photo editors saying, “Okay, so you don’t want cheesecake photos?  Well, here’s a photo of a buff naked Motocross rider! BAM!”


Tarah Gieger, 6-time X-Games medalist

Or “Oh, photos of bent-over naked women are too porn-y for you?  Well check out this lady climbing a huge rock while naked! How do you like them apples?”

Dalia Ojeda, rock climber

Dalia Ojeda, rock climber

The Body Issue isn’t perfect – I would have liked more variety in ages and in body types and I wish they would have shown athletes with physical disabilities – but it still represents a radical departure from the way in which many female athletes are marketed.  (Helloooo, Roxy!)  Yes, the athletes are all beautiful and the photos are pretty sexy in an arty sort of way, but for the most part, that beauty and sexiness is conveyed through action and talent.  For every photo like the one of Courtney Force reclining on a huge tire, there’s a photo of Marlen Esparza looking totally fierce as she prepares to hit her punching bag.  (I also adored the photo of Kerri Walsh Jennings posing first, with baby bump, and later, with baby, but I think that is primarily because I adore Kerri Walsh Jennings.  Tall girls unite!)

ESPN was initially trying to compete against Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue when they launched the Body Issue in 2009, but I don’t even think you can really compare the two anymore.  Each issue has some naked women in it, but that’s where the similarities end. ESPN shows plenty of naked men alongside the naked women, whereas I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a guy in the Swimsuit Issue.  (Although, to be fair, it has been years since I’ve bothered to look.)  But more than that, it’s the intent behind the photos.  Most of ESPN’s photos show the athletes in action, with lighting and posing meant to show the lines and musculature of well-honed bodies in motion.  As Sharan Shetty at Slate put it, “The nudity serves a purpose: It unveils the mechanisms by which she achieves her physical accomplishments.”

This leads me to my next point, which is that I don’t mind that many of the photos are quite sexy – and in fact I rather like it – for the simple reason that it shows sexiness and sexuality as dynamic and humanistic. The athletes are not just vacant receptacles upon which we can project whatever sexual fantasy we’d like. Instead, you can see their personalities: their intensity, their joy, their pleasure, their laughter.  Yes, you can argue that the athletes are being sexualized in these photos, but what’s important to me is that they are not being objectified.  You never forget for a second that you are looking at real people.  They all are capable of performing feats we might think of as superhuman, but the photos show them to be just as human as the rest of us.

22 responses to “Naked rock-climbing and other awesomeness in ESPN’s Body Issue

  1. Yep, I have to say this is the kind of sexy I can get behind — because it’s all that power and muscle that makes me drool.

  2. Okay, that was hot. Excuse me for a moment there. *fans self*

    But like you say – sexy in a joyous, personality-full way, not a blank body-only way (if that makes sense).

    Though I do think the photo with the guy’s crotch seemingly attracting water is very hilarious.

  3. As a (recreational) motorcycle rider, I was quite conflicted about the photos of Tarah Geiger, because even though it’s novel, presenting nudity on motorsports goes against a message I’m always trying to get out to other riders: wear protective gear. I mean, she’s ripped and clearly very athletic (in fact, I’m pretty sure she has a more muscular body composition than is strictly required of her sport) and beautiful, but I couldn’t shut off the reaction in my mind that one wipe out on gravel would quite literally grind all those gorgeous muscles away in a bloody mess.

    It’s possible that there was some photoshop trickery to make some of the photographs look more dangerous than they actually were, and the purpose is more fantasy than reality, but I worry that there’s an anti-safety undercurrent to these photographs. I don’t want to see more squiddy riders out there, or any other athletes thinking that they can forgo protective gear (and sometimes clothing is protective gear, like when you wear knee socks to deadlift, or long legging for rope aerials) because of editorials like this.

    • My face while reading your comment was pretty much like this: o_O You make a really good point. EVERYONE, WEAR PROTECTIVE GEAR.

      • OMG you all are killjoys!

        No, in all seriousness, you are right about the lack of safety equipment in both instances, and while I want to be all “people will be able to figure out the line between fantasy and reality,” working in news means I get to see the varied and myriad ways in which people (actually, mostly young men) severely hurt or kill themselves. I’m sure that someone, somewhere, is looking at those photos and going, “Hey, that sounds cool! Hold my beer, I’m gonna try it!”

  4. Yep, I’m pretty in favor of the project–I know the bodies are often posed in “charged” ways, but their also usually in action. And the bodies are often in shapes we’re not used to seeing in glossy print, which needs to happen more than it is right now. I loved this when I ran across it a few days ago.

    • Yes, I love that you can see all the muscles actually doing their muscle-y things in a lot of the shots. Like, hey, muscles aren’t just for looking cool but also for making bodies do things! It’s like a really stylized anatomy-appreciation class.

      Also, my brain is usually fried long before 5 p.m. so you’re doing pretty good, I’d say! 🙂

  5. Given how dudebro the culture is at ESPN (at least based on Deadspin and books written on the subject), I have to give the editors at the magazine a lot of credit for at least trying something different and actually showing the bodies doing what they are trained to do. That said, the Motocross image makes me want to spring another hand so I can cover all of my genitals–not out of modesty, but out of fear that an errant pebble thrown their way would fucking hurt!

    • I can’t even fathom riding a regular bicycle naked, let alone a dirt bike. But maybe they fashioned some sort of protective vadge shield for her? It would be interesting to know the logistics behind some of these shots.

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  7. Way cool! Your last paragraph made me think of your post on pole dancing – “being sexualized without being objectified.” Bingo. I feel the same but wish I’d written it so succinctly!

  8. I love these pics! When I do my photo shoot, I want to have some half-naked pics – but I don’t want it to be a sex thing, more like a ‘look at my flexing muscles’ thing. It’s hard to find a balance!

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  10. I would have preferred to see the athletes without makeup, with their hair tied up as it would be during competition, less gloss. I think the gloss removes any true grit these photos could have and definitely make it a sexualized photo shoot to me. Had they chosen more diversity (age, race, body type) and had the female athletes especially been more diverse, I would give the photo shoot more credit for being groundbreaking.

    — Lauren

    • I think that’s a fair enough criticism. I haven’t seen the full issue yet – none of the stores I’ve gone to carry it! – but just from what they showed on the website I didn’t see a lot of variety in terms of bodies, ages and abilities. Hopefully future issues would address that. I do think it’s clear that they are hearing the criticism and taking it seriously, because there were far fewer pin-up type shots than in past years, so maybe they’ll keep working at it.

  11. I guess I don’t find these photos inspiring.The rock climber looks photoshopped.

    I would react the same way, to see a naked woman cyclist…and since I’m a long time cyclist and know that naked group bike rides exist world-wide. No matter, how fit she is naked on the bike…to me, it’s just kinda dumb. Not inspiring at all.

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