Twelve Years Later, People Are Still Uncomfortable Seeing Naked Female Athletes

Author and blogger (and fellow Atlantan) Wendy Parker wrote a blog post chronicling her recent experience reading an Outside magazine article about women’s cycling. To sum it up, she writes: “[the article is] less about the sport and more a curation of wailing about why it doesn’t get the media attention its supporters believe it deserves,” as the article bemoans female cyclists posing suggestively in magazines.

As usual, Parker nails this faux controversy by speaking in a voice from this decade rather than the ol’ fashioned prim and proper period in which many writers who cry “SEXISM” seem to exist.

Her post also wiggled loose from my brain a memory of a letter I wrote to ESPN in October 2000. After an exchange on Twitter in which Wendy expressed an interest in reading that letter, I have selfishly decided to post it here, edited slightly for clarity, context, and to correct the embarrassing number of typos. I’ve also linked to the photos I reference. God bless the Internet.

——

You’ve seen the pictures: Jenny Thompson in Sports Illustrated, Dara Torres in Maxim, Brandi Chastain in Gear. You’ve heard the comments: Women’s Sports Foundation Executive Director Donna Lopiano calls it “pornography”; Thompson calls her photo “an expression and a celebration of strength and the beauty of muscles.” And the debate continues on: are female athletes who pose in a provocative manner doing a disservice to all female athletes, or are they promoting a new kind of woman, turning the tables on the heroin chic of the ’90s and presenting a stronger, healthier image?

Then you’ve got the people involved sparring: Torres saying on Dan Patrick’s ESPN program Outtakes, “Hey, at least I wasn’t, like, almost, like, completely naked holding my breasts.” (A little hypocritical coming from the woman who posed for the SI swimsuit issue climbing out of a pool in a white bathing suit. One can learn a lot more about Torres’ breasts than about Thompson’s based on their photos [note: I couldn't find a link to this pic, which makes me question this reference]). And SI for Women‘s Sandra Bailey on Geraldo Live (paraphrased): “… a difference, frankly, between [Thompson's photo] and posing in Maxim in a see-through blouse.”

Aren’t we getting a little nit-picky here? And aren’t we missing the point?

Let’s face it, any athlete, male or female, who poses in a sexy photo isn’t saying “Hey, come watch me compete.” Of course they are obviously proud of their bodies – and they have every right to be. But Jenny Thompson’s photo isn’t asking people to come on down to the Olympic trials. These athletes are telling the reader: “Look, I’ve got a kick-ass body and if that makes you watch me compete, great. If not, that’s O.K. too.” The medium (SI, Maxim, Women’s Sport & Fitness) is really irrelevant.

But does it and should it matter? No. The concern should be with the fact that society perceives such photographs as tasteless and even harmful. There are those who say that the aforementioned athletes present a better role model for young women than anorexic-looking models, and this is probably true. But damning one athlete for posing for one magazine instead of another is ridiculous. Provocative is provocative, and is appearing in SI really that different from appearing in the Speedo catalog? Honestly, have you seen the pictures in there? It’s all the same thing: sex sells – magazines, bathing suits, investment services. Why aren’t athletes allowed to do what models have been doing for years?

Put it this way: let’s say that a model – Cindy Crawford, for example – decides she wants to take up triathlon. She hires coaches and trains like crazy and gets really good at it. Perhaps she wins the Ironman. People will look at her and say “Wow, there’s a really beautiful woman and hey, she’s also a terrific athlete.” But put Torres, Thompson, Chastain, Amy Acuff, etc. in pretty (and/or sparse) clothing and on the cover of a magazine and no one says, “Wow, there’s a world-class athlete and hey, she’s also a beautiful woman.” No, instead, everyone freaks out. God forbid an athlete show off her body.

When female athletes sell sex, it can be a step backward for all women in sports. But this is not a new phenomenon, and it is not the root of the problem. That lies in society’s perception that being a beautiful athletic woman is an oxymoron. That is not the athletes’ fault, nor should they be bound by such arcane limitations.

A bigger concern should be the reactions of some of these athletes. For example: Chastain claiming that she didn’t know what kind of magazine Gear was; Torres on Outtakes saying she only did the shoot because her 28-year old [male] agent wanted her to so he could go to the shoot; and Thompson recounting on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno that she thought the photos were to be used for an SI swimsuit issue and that the photographer ‘”tricked” her by using the topless/fists shot to accompany the article. This use of ignorance as an excuse can be much more damaging than a picture of a beautiful woman in a swimsuit (or out of one). All brawn and no brains, ladies, is that it? Come on, if you’re going to be a role model, be an intellectual one as well as a physical one.

But the view that athletes shouldn’t be sexy is changing. The more women athletes who show off the bodies they are proud of, the fewer shock waves it will send. Desensitizing? Perhaps more like equality. No one seems to mind Michael Jordan or Evander Holyfield making ads in their undies.

We do place our elite athletes on a higher plane. We give them the responsibility of representing us on the world’s stage, and I am extremely proud and pleased to have the likes of Torres, Thompson and Chastain represent me as a woman, an athlete and an American. They are the people I hope to emulate when I spend five days a week in the gym. Can I not also aspire to be like them when I put on a blouse or a bikini? Why must we limit our athletes to being just athletes? Frankly the picture of 18-yr. old Kirsten Dunst on the cover of Maxim in men’s underwear and a denim jacket that is a little too small is much more disturbing. But if Dunst can do it without igniting a firestorm of criticism, then the athletes who choose to model and pose should be afforded the same opportunity without being burned at the stake.

——

Well, it’s nice to see I’ve always been excessively wordy.

As I recall, the impetus for this letter wasn’t the photographs themselves but rather the athletes’ reaction to those who denounced the photos. Quoting myself, “All brawn and no brains, ladies, is that it?” The athletes not taking ownership of their decisions really bothered me. Do it or don’t do it, but don’t blame other people if you’re unhappy with the reaction to your photos.

I also remember doing a lot of thinking before writing this, as my initial reaction was something like “STOP POSING NEKKID, Y’ALL!” But as I gave the issue more consideration, I came to understand that, hell, if I had a body like Dara Torres, I’d be showing it off (and capitalizing on it) as much as I could too, and there’s not one thing wrong with that.

I could say it’s distressing to see, based on the article Wendy originally wrote about, that opinions haven’t changed and faux fury over perceived sexism is still alive and well, but honestly it doesn’t surprise me at all. There’s not been much progress in that department (if not outright regression).

But as Parker so astutely noted, the attitudes of the female athletes involved have changed. I haven’t read any excuses about the most recent examples of athletes posing in the buff (although the pool of people I would hear about is limited, I admit). The younger generation appears unfettered by the concerns of their predecessors. Hope Solo seems perfectly happy in the ESPN the Mag Body Issue to water your lawn naked, while Alex Morgan’s all “Yep, those’re my nipples” in Sports Illustrated.

So what can we glean from all this? Perhaps while the mindsets of the female athletes who pose provocatively have changed, those who seek to protect these women from having to submit to these horrible prurient photo shoots instead place them squarely in the sexist box they so loudly decry.

You can buy a copy of Wendy Parker’s book, “Beyond Title IX” here.

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