Why is our perceived level of sexuality heavily influenced by our gender?
This is the question we at Skye are asking this week, following the controversial release of ESPN's last "The Body Issue." ESPN has been receiving flack for their Body issue since its first issue back in 2014, when famous U.S. women's tennis player Serena Williams graced the cover.
ESPN began publishing the annual Body issue to celebrate variation in athletic bodies - across gender and all across the sporting world - in carefully composed nude photographs. The issue is meant to portray that "many body types are capable of athletic feats." (ESPN, 2019) However, each year the magazine receives major backlash because of the perceived sexuality of the photographs. Many readers have taken to social media over the last five years to accuse ESPN of "distasteful" and even "garbage" content because of these photos. So, what's the deal here? Are these photos really that sexual? And what does our gender have to do with anything?
Let's take a closer look.
Major controversy arose in 2017 after nude photos of NFL running back Zeke Elliott and Danish tennis champion Caroline Wozniacki were printed in the Body issue. Sadly, most readers expressed disgust with the male nude cover (Elliott), and derogatory or objectifying remarks about the female cover (Wozniacki). Many stooped to degrade Wozniacki's personal integrity and criticize her body features, while others called Elliott a "faggot" simply for posing nude. Here are some of the comments, all from male Twitter users:
"I think she's ready for a lot more than Wimbledon."
"Definitely Photoshop, she has trunks for thighs, they look too lean in this photo."
"Where's her butt?"
Men were quick to body shame and slut shame Wozniacki for a simple, tasteful photo. Her muscular outstretched arms gracefully cover her breasts to reveal a woman that is both strong and feminine. However, the hurtful comments continued to pour in, some even making the assertion that Wozniacki must be a prostitute on the side of being an international tennis star. Contrast those comments with these homophobic slurs against Elliott:
"Now you can add homosexual to his résumé."
"Didn't need to see this before breakfast."
"Get this off my timeline. Disgusting."
"Sports. The S stands for SPORTS.
So, the verdict is in. According to Twitter and social media, posing for a nude photo as a woman makes you a slut. Posing nude as a man makes you gay.
Are we getting any better?
Jump forward two years. This year's photo line-up includes 21 talented athletes from all over the world, including 8 women and 13 men. These athletes include UFC women's champion Amanda Nunez, climber Alex Honnold, and crossfit champion Katrin Davidsdottir. Unfortunately,it seems like the criticism and sexualization of these athletes is not decreasing over time - in fact, it appears to be getting worse. Much less attention is being paid to the differing anatomical physiques (like the magazine intended) than to the perceived level of sexuality of the athletes. Perhaps this is why ESPN decided to cancel the magazine, and this September issue will be the last.
The strongest reactions this year were to the male nude photos. Again, people on Twitter were outraged at the idea of a naked male on the cover of ESPN. I begin to wonder...is this yet another example of the male/female sexuality double standard? You know: that it's socially acceptable for half naked females to be featured on the covers of ESPN and Sports Illustrated for years, but a half-naked male cover model causes the scales to finally tip?
However, then I look again. These male athletes are being ostracized and shamed much like the female athletes. The positive to negative comment ratio is disheartening - it seems like people want to hate regardless of the athlete's gender. Based on a simple nude photo, countless assertions are being made that these athletes are somehow sexually scandalous, devious, or shameful. If the athletes' morals aren't being attacked, it's their body types or some small specific body feature being honed in on. Take a look at the most controversial photos:
Left: The Philadelphia Eagles offensive line, Super Bowl LII Champions, and five big-boned lads au-naturel. Lane Johnson of the Eagles (inside left in the photo) said after this shoot, he found himself having to defend his heterosexuality in the team locker room as teammates mocked their "unique male bonding experience."
Middle: NHL player Evander Kane has become the "poster child" for the 2019 Body Issue, and has subsequently received many slams to his Instagram account. Female fans are objectifying Kane and comparing him to candy. Male fans are urging him to "work on his calves." Some angry fans are even lashing out on Kane's wife for letting the nude photos be published in the first place.
Right: NBA player Chris Paul was similarly attacked on his own Instagram account for re-posting his Body photos. He was called "conceited" and "gay," and defended himself by saying that pride in one's hard-earned physique is healthy.
So, what's the takeaway?
People will always hate on others' bodies, no matter how perfect, fit, or athletic they are. There will always be criticism. And contrary to popular belief, men are shamed for their bodies, too.
According to one study, over 90% of men struggle in some way with body dissatisfaction and negative affect (negative opinions of self), or negative emotions and thoughts towards one’s body (Castonguay et al. 2014). Additionally, a massive 95% of college-aged men are dissatisfied with their bodies on some level (Daniel & Bridges 2013).
Men tend to be quieter about their body negativity, seeking treatment less frequently or holding off on treatment longer than women, due to shame (Brennan, Lalonde, & Bain 2010; Burlew & Shurts 2013). Body image sensitivity is generally considered to be a "feminine" characteristic, while stereotypical "masculinity" is defined by strength, leadership, and control of emotions. But, is this healthy? Not necessarily.
It's 2019 now, folks. It's time to start blurring the lines between male and female gender roles. It's time to break down these societal "norms" of what makes the "perfect" male or female body. And it's especially time to get rid of this lame idea that nude photos somehow reveal something about one's sexuality or value. The photos above are tasteful, enlightening, and beautiful, as they each showcase a different-looking, different-functioning, and hard-working body. Let's erase this idea that any body is better than another, that any gender is more sexual than another, or that any gender experiences more body image insecurities than another. Let's celebrate our similarities, as well as our differences. We're all in this together.
Here at Skye, we'd like to extend our thanks to ESPN and The Body Issue for starting the conversation and working to break down some of the stigma surrounding body image. Thank you for representing all body types, even showcasing incredible paralympic athletes such as Scout Bassett, and highlighting gymnast Katelyn Ohashi's lifelong struggle with eating disorders.
These are real issues that thousands of Americans face each day.
The more we talk about body image, the less power we give to our insecurities. Sometimes, it turns out, a little controversy is necessary to spark the conversation. And when it comes to gender, sexuality, and body image, it is up to all of us to continue that conversation.
And so we say..."Bravo" ESPN.
Thank you for reminding us that all bodies are beautiful & all bodies are deserving of love.
To see the entire 2019 ESPN Body gallery, visit:
For more resources on body image, self love, and eating disorders, visit:
https://bit.ly/NEDA_ref National Eating Disorder Association
https://bit.ly/BSEB_ref Building Self-Esteem Booklet
https://bit.ly/HOU_ref Half of Us
Struggling with body image? We're here for you.
Written by Erin Donohue, 09/10/2019