Friday, November 20, 2009

Naked women as sport (by Suzie)

ESPN's "Body Issue" arrived free in the mail last month. (In other words, I got it whether I wanted it or not.) The inaugural issue had six covers of naked athletes, four female and two male. It's amazing how women have come to dominate sports coverage.

I happened to get the magazine with Sarah Reinertsen on the cover, wearing only her prosthetic leg. Women with disabilities often have been considered uninterested or incapable of sex. Reinertsen looks capable of anything. She gazes directly at the camera. Her pose – sitting with arms and legs crossed – is relaxed but still coy because she’s covering her breasts and pubic area. The great majority of the magazine’s readers are men, and for many, she will be an object of desire. Women with disabilities have won the right to be objectified.

Inside the magazine are other unclothed athletes, both men and women. In some photos, the nudity makes men appear more fierce and the women more vulnerable. The women are less likely to be flexing their muscles and more likely to be smiling. Several of the captions stress femininity, such as the one that notes Olympic shot putter Michelle Carter gets her nails and hair done before competition.

I want more coverage of women's sports, but not if the athletes have to get naked, look sexy or prove their femininity.

There's value in portraying women of different sizes, shapes, colors, abilities, etc. For me, however, the real freedom will come when women don't have to be attractive to feel valued.

Strong, athletic women do present an alternative image to extra-skinny fashion models. But none of the women photographed compete in burkas; readers who follow them as athletes already knew they had strong bodies.

ESPN's Body Issue is being compared to Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue. The Body Issue is much better. At least, it's about sports.