A few weeks ago, when Real Madrid superstar-slash-walking Greek God Cristiano Ronaldo ripped home a penalty kick in the Champions League final then subsequently ripped off his shirt to reveal his superhuman abdomen, there were audible groans throughout the bar where I was watching. The bustle wasn’t just a reaction to Ronaldo’s putting underdog Atletico Madrid to bed, but a reaction also to the fact that then he had to show us exactly how much better looking he is than all of us beer-swilling nobodies.
I laughed then, because the reality is that if my body looked like Ronaldo’s I probably wouldn’t ever wear a shirt. And I surely wouldn’t feel bad about showing off the fortress I had worked so hard to build.
Prince Fielder does not have Cristiano Ronaldo’s body. For the most part, the 275-pound Texas Rangers first baseman looks more like an argument for why baseball players aren’t real athletes than he does an athletic specimen, which is why he regularly lines lists of the “best out of shape athletes” on our list-craving internet. So we laugh whenever we see him leg out a double and finish with an earth-quaking slide into second or complete one of the most awkward baserunning displays with a belly-flopping dive into third.
But now here he is, standing on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s 2014 Body Issue, holding a baseball bat and baring (almost) every bit of what Prince Fielder’s body has to offer.
Already, the pictures have drawn laughs and typical fat jokes, and some sites have asked whether Fielder’s naked pose was “a little much” for our eyes to see. But that is nonsense, because it is pictures like these that make the Body Issue so beautiful — and so much more important than most ideas that began as marketing ploys ever could become.
The issue isn’t all Fielder, of course: it features athletes like Serge Ibaka (my god, Serge) and Larry Fitzgerald and others who look more like what we envision athletes to be, more like the godly sculptures we think all athletes have or at least should. As Will Leitch wrote last year, these are their temples, these are their works of art, these are the products of hours in the gym and rigorous diets and training regimens. They deserve to show those bodies off.
But it’s athletes like Fielder that make the Body Issue truly beautiful, because they are the ones who send the message that the human body can be an impressive, lovely thing even if it doesn’t look like Ronaldo’s or Ibaka’s. Athletes’ bodies, just like those of us mere mortals, come in all shapes and sizes, and they can all be magnificent in their own ways. That isn’t all about Fielder. There is Venus Williams, whose body has gotten relatively little attention or appreciation juxtaposed as it is next to the oft-critiqued physique of her younger sister. There is Paralympian Amy Purdy in her prosthetic legs (returning to a motif The Mag has used before); there is soccer star Megan Rapinoe, the first athlete to appear in The Body Issue after coming out as gay (her U.S. teammate Abby Wambach appeared in the issue before coming out). There are the women sending the message that its OK for girls to have muscles and shape instead of looking like rail-thin supermodels; men like Fielder saying that it is possible to be comfortable and impressive in a body that doesn’t look like the strapping figure Ronaldo and others display.
This is a theme ESPN has played up since the first Body Issue in 2008 and has improved upon since. There are ways the issue could be better, especially on the women’s side: a wider variety of shapes and sizes, for instance, and it might have been even more powerful to see a woman of similar build as Fielder’s standing there naked and proud, given the problems athletes like Sarah Robles have had finding sponsors or getting funding. But with Fielder, the Body Issue has again broken new ground, much as it did last year by putting 77-year-old golfer Gary Player on the cover, and already it has sparked conversation and good feelings, like the #HuskyTwitter trend that broke out this week. These magazines aren’t going to solve the body image issues facing men and women in sports and throughout broader society, but they can help by reminding us of how beautiful and impressive all types of bodies can be, whether they are male or female, large or small, crafted to perfection or something less than godly.