Victoria Noble: Putting performance before beauty
If you’ve turned on the computer in the past couple days, chances are that you’ve come across talk — or maybe even some pictures — of Prince Fielder’s shoot for the ESPN Magazine’s Body Issue. Well, if you haven’t, the former Tiger and Home Run Derby Champion posed nude for some photos to appear alongside other (slimmer) athletes like Venus Williams, Jamie Anderson and Michael Phelps. And while others have slammed ESPN’s decision as a gross publicity stunt, and complained of their indecency, I would like to applaud the message ESPN has sent. While I definitely liked Prince a little more when I could call him “my Tiger,” I really appreciate his and ESPN’s willingness to ignore American beauty standards. And that’s exactly why he belongs on the pages of a major magazine — not in spite of his weight, but because of it.
The outrage over Prince’s photographs shows the degree to which big media has institutionalized thinner beauty standards, and gradually prompted American readers to accept them. While the naked photos of traditionally attractive celebrathletes were celebrated for depicting strength and discipline, Prince’s was written off as inappropriate. Why?
As a culture we’ve moved from appreciating function, to appreciating aesthetics. The body of an incredible athlete is worth less than if it were more attractive, regardless of the power capability of either. For some, it can be extended to other objects as well. Food is better if it looks better in an Instagram post, not if it delivers the best nutrients. Clothes are judged on their style and brand name, not their quality. Which is fine — we’re entitled to our own preferences. But this superficiality shouldn’t be applied to everything. Especially people.
The best thing about the placement of Prince in the magazine is that it can help us move away from those hurtful judgments. Exposure breeds acceptance, and printing and posting these images is an excellent first step in correcting media bias. But, more importantly, it’s just more normal. More American bodies resemble Prince’s than any of the other athletes pictured. And while theirs should be celebrated too, it’s important to recognize that perfection isn’t the standard. Another great addition to the ESPN’s series is paraolymipan Amy Purdy, and the general diversity in sport, race, gender and ability is also awesome to see.
But while the pictures of Prince are wonderful, I can’t help but wonder if it points to another double standard in sports. Would the pictures have been used if the heavier athlete were female? I kind of doubt it. While American culture is exceptionally aesthetically focused for both genders, it’s less so for males. In business, sports, music and other arenas, the focus seems more on performance than on beauty.
Take the sport of alpine ski racing for example. Run a quick web search of Ted Ligety, the preeminent American athlete in that sport. Very few articles will focus on his physique, or cast him into the “sex symbol” role. Now do the same for Lindsay Vonn, a female of similar status in the sport. So many more are about her dateability, past relationships and body. Both are attractive, yet Ligety is mostly photographed in action or by the podium, while several, if not most, of Vonn show her in a bikini and on the red carpet. Fair? Not really. Women lose out on the opportunity to be appreciated for their talent and dedication for their sport. They don’t train year-round just to be sex icons, but rather to be the best in their sport — just the same as the men do.
So I didn’t mean to make this positive addition of naked Prince into a negative, but its implications are clear and important. We can’t give acceptance a gender. For a while, the trends were for both genders to face body scrutiny. That trend is dangerous and unacceptable, and it goes without saying that everyone deserves to love their bodies. It’s time that we throw that trend in reverse, and it’s refreshing to see ESPN doing so — but improvement isn’t just for the guys.
Victoria Noble can be reached at email@example.com.