I have been a fan of The Body Issue ever since I saw Sarah Reinertsen wearing nothing but her left leg in 2009’s Bodies We Want. I have admired athletic bodies for as long as I can remember and to see elite athletes appear in such a way showed a rawness of beauty that simply captivated me. Reading her story on body image caught me off-guard. Sex appeal? At that time in my life, I hadn’t aligned athleticism with sexiness. I just thought athletes looked how I wanted to look and that was to look strong. How can a woman look strong AND sexy? Sexy was big breasts, slender thighs, and long legs. Sexy wasn’t muscle. Or was it? I couldn’t make sense of that. But here it was in right there in front of me, challenging me to change my perception.
In the 5 years that ESPN has published The Body Issue, the photos that are the most amazing to me are contextual ones that replicated true-to-sport athletic movements. Followed closely as my favorites are simple poses with a flat, solid color backdrops. The posed photos in random settings, like lounging poolside with tennis balls, swinging in a tire or watering the lawn, distracts from what I feel is the most prominent feature of the series—muscles in motion. To see the way sets of muscles contract as a move is being perfectly executed is what makes The Body Issue characteristically unique.
This year they added a pregnant bump and an infant in their line-up. This was justifiably not overlooked by readers.
Within a day of the issue coming out and the online articles going live, an overwhelming amount of comments were directed towards Kerri’s photos. The comments were a mix of support, disapproval, and confusion.
Why is Kerri’s photo such a big deal? As one commentator questioned, “Why the need for public display?”
There have only been 14 reported cases of women competing in the Olympics while pregnant and of those women three were from the USA. One of these women is Kerri Walsh (although she did not know of her pregnancy at the time she competed). Kerri wasn’t the only pregnant Olympian at the 2012 London Olympics. Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi of Malaysia was eight months pregnant when she competed in the 10m air rifle.
The history of pregnant Olympic competitors appears to be only a recent phenomenon. The earliest known pregnant Olympian was Swedish figure skater Magda Julin who was three months pregnant and won a gold medal in the 1920 Olympics.
While it is becoming more commonplace for women to continue their athletic goals throughout pregnancy, to compete in the Olympics is an entirely more intense level of competition that few get the honor of competing at and to do so while pregnant is highly remarkable. ESPN has put together “The Bodies We Want” for it’s fifth year and to include the transformation of a top-performing mom-athlete in the line-up of elites is a first (or as Yahoo.com put it, a maternal goddess-meets-super heroine). In ESPN’s own words: It’s okay to stare. That’s what The Body Issue is here for. Each year, we stop to admire the vast potential of the human form. To unapologetically stand in awe of the athletes who’ve pushed their physiques to profound frontiers. To imagine how it would feel to inhabit those bodies, to leap and punch and throw like a god. To … well, gawk. So go ahead; join us.
Artistic athletic pride
Many naysayers felt that showing athletes in this way, particularly of a mom so soon after childbirth, was a disservice to women everywhere. It is simply fact that women who are able to remain active and maintain fitness throughout pregnancy have a quicker time returning to their pre-baby physiques. Mom-athletes everywhere are proving this to be increasingly true.
As you read The Body Issue’s stories a theme emerges. What do you like about your body? If you could change something about your body, what would it be? What is your biggest challenge with your body? Have you ever struggled with body image? It turns out even elite athletes deal with body image issues. It takes a lot of guts to discuss flaws and appear nude no matter how tasteful it might be presented. These issues could be addressed with clothed athletes, but it wouldn’t be as dramatic of a presentation. Let me break it down for you: This. Is. Art. Nudity has been a part of art history for centuries. Although whether or not swollen bellies were depictions of pregnancy is debated.
Until we stop hating on bodies of all shapes and sizes, photos like this are needed. However, this is where ESPN could have done better. These images aren’t like the overly photoshopped magazine covers we are all tired but used to seeing where photoshopping has been used so heavily that body parts go missing and proportions become inhuman. But ESPN did appear to have airbrushed moles, creases and cellulite to impossible perfection. What could not be faked is body shape and muscle definition. These attributes are partly due to genes but you can see years of hardwork and dedication in every muscle contraction. Where I see a step in the right direction, there are people who see the opposite and insist that zero nudity is the only acceptable amount of nudity in media and that it irresponsible to expose our children to these bodies.
There are projects out there that are exhibiting body positive imaging without the airbrushing. My favorite of these projects is A Beautiful Body Project: A Movement & New Media Platform. Real bodies with real battle scars, both as seen by the eye and felt by the reader. Self-hatred. Self-suffering. Shame. Can these words be replaced with freedom? With beauty? With self-worth? A Beautiful Body Project and others, such as The Shape of a Mother, aim to do just that.
Many people are already on the path to self-acceptance and accepting the luscious raw beauty of motherhood is key to a change in our mindsets. It begins with moms showing their children how to accept true beauty and display confidence in a media world that has essentially ruined the image of normal. Body image has been damaged so severely by social media and social stigma that many mothers don’t even feel comfortable performing the most basic task of providing their child nourishment from their own breasts in front of others. This is a shame. Until we take control away from the media and as a community create our own definition of beauty as we raise our children, not only will images like these become evermore necessary, but they will become more prevalent as we take control away from media powerhouses. There is no shame in our natural bodies and the scars they carry nor is there shame in displaying the muscular bodies we have worked so hard to develop.
About Lacy Lynn, BS, RRCA
Lacy has been a runner for 7 years. She is an aspiring breastfeeding counselor and self-proclaimed public health advocate. She runs because the beat of her own pace is what makes her feel alive. Her writing reflects her passion about encouraging others to find out what “inspire yourself” means. Throughout her own pregnancy and the subsequent postpartum months, she noted a lack of information for mother runners like herself and created Über Mother Runner to provide an experience-based resource for those looking.