What ESPN’s ‘Body Issue’ Gets Right, And What It Could Do Better

ESPN The Magazine’s first Body Issue, released in October 2009, was somewhat of an advertising ploy. Advertising at the magazine and others like it was down substantially thanks to the recession, and releasing a special issue — with naked athletes to boot! — was a way to attract advertisers and needed revenue back into the fold. It became the biggest October issue The Mag had ever released.

From the start, the Body Issue took a more professional and artistic approach to its subject than the Swimsuit Issue produced by ESPN’s top competitor, Sports Illustrated. For one, it centers around athletes, not supermodels, so the bodies, even if otherworldly, seem healthier and less prone to damaging stereotypes. And it has always displayed different types of bodies. The first issue featured Sarah Reinertsen, the first female amputee to complete the Ironman triathlon, with her prosthesis prominent in the photo. The 2013 version, which hits newsstands Friday and was partially released online today, features a pregnant Kerri Walsh and 77-year-old golfer Gary Player.

Done poorly, that type of issue could be fraught with problems. Athletes’ bodies aren’t what everyday bodies look like, and there’s an awfully thin line between acknowledging and appreciating that and shaming people into thinking that these are what all human bodies should look like. And it would be quite easy to overly-sexualize the athletes, particularly the women, in ways that would only further those problems. ESPN has tip-toed those lines in the past.

Admittedly, I’ve always felt a bit uneasy about the issue. There’s a part of me that appreciates the hell out of Kenneth Faried’s body in this year’s issue, and a part of me that feels like I could also appreciate his body and those of the female athletes just the same if they weren’t naked. And there’s a part of me that appreciates the art, both from the mostly brilliant photography and the unique art on athletes’ bodies, and a part of me that wishes The Mag would give up on using corny props to cover up genitals and breasts.

Mostly, though, I’ve decided I enjoy the issue, because ESPN has chosen to approach a mature topic in a (mostly) mature way. When I look at the Body Issue, I don’t get the impression that ESPN is selling sex as much as it is selling bodies and the stories behind them, and those bodies and those stories are an integral part of sports that deserve to be appreciated. And when readers open the issue, they get something more than naked bodies. The 2013 issue tells of Player’s desire to exist as an example that people his age can still be active, athletic, and healthy. Walsh did her photoshoot while pregnant and then again two months after giving birth. Soccer player Sydney Leroux talks about growing up with a different body than all the “skinny blondes” and her affinity for the scars that now adorn her legs. “I don’t ever try to hide them; they remind me of how hard I play,” Leroux says. “I like that I look tough. It’s something to celebrate, and it’s my job.” Pitcher Matt Harvey, whose body isn’t exactly unimpressive, admits that he “can’t quite look like Rob Gronkowski.”

That’s not to say the issue is perfect or ever has been. It’s interesting that ESPN didn’t feature an older woman to pose alongside Player. I wish they’d feature more bodies of athletes who weren’t perfect sculptures to prove that athletes come in multiple shapes and sizes, or more athletes who aren’t remarkably attractive. The bodies that are naturally appealing aren’t suitable for all sports. So why not feature those bodies too, whether they’re from bigger athletes like bodybuilders and offensive linemen or smaller ones like marathoners? And I’d rather they give up the goofy poses and the hints of sexualization that sometimes show up.

But we should be able to appreciate the bodies of our athletes and the hard work that goes into sculpting them. And we should be able to discuss, maturely, what healthy bodies do and should look like. The Body Issue, for the most part, is a useful, effective, and thoughtful starting point for those discussions. It’s up to everyone else to take it from there.