What ESPN Magazine’s Body Issue (“Bodies We Want 2012”) Can Teach Us About Body Image

Unabashedly, I am a huge fan of U.S. Women’s soccer, specifically of forward, Abby Wambach. At dinner with friends the Saturday evening before they captured the world by winning Olympic gold, someone asked, “Have you seen the photo of Abby in the ESPN Magazine ‘Body Issue’?” No, this was news to me. In their own words, ESPN Magazine publishes this issue each year “to 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,… [and to] imagine how it would feel to inhabit those bodies, to leap and punch and throw like a god.” If you check out the website, you will see dozens of photos of world-class athletes posing “in the raw” and commenting honestly about their experiences with their bodies and their body image. Here are a few excerpts that stood out for me:

Ronda Rousey, a 25-year old martial artist, is the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion. She recalls her high school years as a time of increasing self-consciousness about her masculinity.  “I was a 16-year-old girl with ringworm and cauliflower ears. People made fun of my arms and called me ‘Miss Man’.” Now, Ronda says, “These people are idiots. I’m fabulous.”

Maurice Jones-Drew, a professional football player, at 5’7” is one of the smallest running backs ever to play in the National Football League. When asked, “What do you like about your body?” he replied, “That I’m short.”  He goes on to say that this trait makes him relatable to fans, but, perhaps more importantly, it actually gives him an advantage on the field. “You can be any size and produce. I’m the smallest guy on the field, but people are terrified of me…I’ve heard a lot of short jokes. But I’ve always been of the mindset that I can’t do anything about my height; this is what God gave me, so there is no reason to be upset.”

On the other end of the height spectrum, WNBA star, Candace Parker is 6’4” tall and says that when she was a teenager, she was self-conscious about her height (she was 6’2” at age 12). She credits her parents for teaching her to hold her shoulders back and be proud to be tall because everybody didn’t have that advantage. She also credits her brothers for giving her the message that, “Being tall is being beautiful.” When asked how pregnancy changed how she viewed her body (Parker posed for the ‘Body Issue’ in 2009 when pregnant with her daughter), she talks openly about her struggles to regain her leg strength and get back to a healthy playing weight. However, she says, “Post-pregnancy, I didn’t feel fully back to myself for four or five months.” She acknowledges struggling through disappointment and being challenged to stay positive. “It’s definitely been a process, but I think I’m stronger now. I think my body is better than it was before.”

Finally, talking about tall, world-class female athletes brings me back to Abby Wambach.  At 5’11”, she is quite a force to be reckoned with on the soccer field. In her interview for the ‘Body Issue,’ Abby says, “I’m a confident human being, but my body does not bring my confidence — it’s my heart and my head. Confidence is the most important factor about your body . . . If you have the confidence inside, that will exude on the outside, regardless of what your body looks like . . . There are so many different sizes and so many different shapes that you can’t compare yourself to another human being. That would be unfair. You can’t look at a model or even a professional athlete and think, ‘Oh, my body isn’t as fit,’ because all you are doing is putting yourself down and not feeling good about yourself.” Later, when asked, “What do you like about your body?” Wambach replied, “Female athletes are getting very, very thin, but I’m a bigger woman. I have bigger muscles, and that’s okay. For me, more muscle gives me more power and speed, and I need that.”

This past year, members of our research group have been thinking and writing quite extensively about body image. In her book, The Woman in the Mirror, Dr. Cynthia Bulik writes about reprogramming how we feel about ourselves and our bodies by practicing healthy eating and sensible exercise and focusing on the many things we have to offer our family, community, and job. I think these athletes have spun their own versions of this perspective to their advantage both in sports and in life. They’ve learned to value function over form and to leverage that value system to achieve great success in their “jobs” as professional athletes, philanthropists, and community leaders. May they continue to excel in the ring, in the arena, on the court, and on the field where we can enjoy and marvel at their skill, be inspired by their competitive fire, and learn from the examples of positive body image that they provide.

Go Abby!

By: Dr. Kim Brownley