ESPN - "The Body Issue" Controversy.

Monday, July 6, 2015

There has been a lot of commentary regarding pro skater Leticia Bufoni appearing in ESPN's "The Body Issue" that launched online today. So I thought now might be a great time to post an editorial on the subject.

I'm going to preface this piece by letting you know that I have been a fashion stylist working with athletes for the past 18 years for brands like Nike, Gatorade, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Honda, etc etc. I have dressed (and seen) the bodies of everyone from top swimwear models, to golfer Tiger Woods & NBA star Kobe Bryant, to pro surfer Bethany Hamilton and soccer superstar Mia Hamm.

Most likely due to my background in this industry, I am very open on what I feel is gratuitous sexual content, vs what I feel is artistic imagery that celebrates the athletic body.

I also realize that not everyone feels the same on either end of the spectrum - so I am politely asking you to have an open mind, and if you choose to leave a comment, be respectful of other peoples opinions that might be different than your own.

In 1999 USA soccer player Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey in celebration and elation after her game winning penalty kick against China at the Women's World Cup. Many people in sports understood the gesture, as they had seen it many times before with pro male soccer players. But this was the first time the world had witnessed a female athlete doing something like this in front of a huge audience and on national television. The response was fast & furious. Good and bad. The famous image by sports photographer, Robert Beck, is embedded in our minds. For me it is an iconic image of a strong female athlete in pure elation. To others it is still deemed risque because she is in her sports bra and shorts. And the world is still talking about it. ..

Back in 2005 Dove Soap created a campaign called "Real Beauty"  the ads and video's featured women of all different sizes and shapes in basic white cotton bra's and underwear. The goal was to get women to feel good about themselves and their bodies, no matter what their size or shape. The campaign still runs and is much discussed even today due to the women's sizes, more than the lack of clothing - which I find interesting.

Had the models all been size 0-2 would have the response from both men and women been different? Something to think about.

In 2009 ESPN launched a special edition of the magazine called "The Body Issue". The issue was created in direct response to Sports Illustrated "Swimsuit" edition, which at the time featured only women in miniscule bikinis (or less) on beautiful beaches. ESPN decided to focus on both male and female, Olympic & pro athletes, and to shoot with well known and respected fashion photographers, to create images that celebrated the unique sizes and shapes that various athletes have.

At that time there were six alternative covers released, featuring both male and female pro athletes - Serena William for tennis, Adrian Peterson for the NFL, Dwight Howard from the NBA, Gina Carano for MMA, Sarah Reinertsen for Triathlon & Carl Edwards for NASCAR. It was less about "sex" and more about an amazing athletic body, the public seemed to say with their comments to ESPN.

Interesting enough,  Serena Williams, who is not a size 2 nor tiny in stature like Gina Carano, but is majorly powerful and strong, was the highest selling cover that year.

In 2013 I worked on a big campaign featuring (one of ESPN's 2015 Body Issue athletes) pro baseball player Bryce Harper. It was a beautiful shoot for Under Armour that was done in Las Vegas, high up in a penthouse suite, &  resulted in this stunning image of Bryce.  I posted this ad on my various social media outlets when it ran, and had nothing but positive response to the shots from both males and females.

What if this had been a female athlete? How would the response have differed?

In 2014 skateboarder Natalie Krishna Das thought up and executed a  conceptual photo shoot where girls were shredding pools and a gorgeous man was scantily clad poolside holding grapes as they rode by.  People loved it. Women "oohed and awed" over the guy, and both men and women in the skateboard industry thought it was very "tongue in cheek" and loved the photos. Pure role reversal but without the discord.

For many years, and I mean many years, there have  been ads in action sports magazines glorifying sex, and portraying women as objects rather than athletes. Which I am not going to publish pics of here, as I don't see any reason to give those companies any free press.

The funny thing is  I don't see many people writing letters to the editors or companies, or taking away skate or surf magazines from their kids and saying publicly it's wrong. Which I find very interesting.

Today's photo of Leticia brought up a lot of discussion on this subject. I have heard everything from "I don't want my kids seeing this on the internet" and "what kind of role model is she?" to outright support, understanding, and congratulations to this amazing woman who is at the top of her sport.

I think it would have been very interesting (and I wish I would have) had I run this photo of USA track & field hammer thrower, Amanda Bingson, who talks about her weight and why she's built for her sport and proud of her body.

Would the comments have been the same?  Is it perhaps more about Leticia being the "ideal" size/weight so her photo is more "sexual" to some people?

Here are two statements made by athletes featured in the Body Issue. Can you tell which one was a quote from a male athlete and which was from a female athlete?

"I'm proud of my body, I'm proud of my sport, I'm proud of being a professional athlete. Being naked is just another aspect of that."

"I worked hard this off season to get my body where I needed to get it because finally, I wasn't hurt" 

Does it matter? Not really, both are athletes at the peak of their sport and working like hell to be in the best shape possible. Both also have a great self body image and are proud of how their bodies look - which is what I hope every girl out there feels as well.

Yet when these statements were placed under each athletes photos can you guess who got more flack? Yep, USA World Cup Soccer player Ali Krieger whose quote is the first one.

Why is it OK for our male counterparts to be seen as Adonis's and yet when our female athletes train hard, eat right, win championships & do photo shoots with the same photographers, they risk being labeled sexual beings, and not good role models? Isn't that a double standard?

In fact, I  wonder how many parents are at home tonight forbidding their sons from looking at Bryce Harper, and all the other guys in the 2015 ESPN Body Issue? Probably not many (if any),  vs how many parents are agonizing about their daughters seeing the image from The Body Issue of Leticia that we posted today on our instagram feed this morning....

Something to think about - this crazy double standard we are creating for our girls.

Isn't it also up to us (or you as a parent if your child is under a certain age) to decide who is a female role model you'd like to have?  You can simply choose not to have that person be your role model, but I don't think vilifying these women is the answer.

In my opinion, if you are going to put Leticia or any of these other female athletes on a cross, you had better race to turn off the TV, stop going to movies, and take away your kids internet and cell phones because there are a lot more images out there that are really offensive and degrading to women that we need to be worrying about.


  1. I don't have any problem with it all. The ESPN Body issue gets it (athletes) right 99% of the time. Where as the traditional 'fitness' magazines always photoshop.

    But what about the SI 2015 swimsuit cover that all the feminists were in an uproar over?...Did you have a problem with that? Where do you draw the line? It's okay for a real athlete to flaunt it all but not a model who is being paid purely for her looks? Therein lies the problem. You either good with it all with no censorship and no judgement or you get into to trouble with somebody. Great post. I think it is an honor for L.B. to get the ESPN Body issue and join the ranks of her fellow amazing athletes. Too many have done this issue for her to be judged negatively. I say good job to Leticia, but I also say, don't hate the professional bikini model who is gaining national exposure and paying her bills on the cover of Sports Illust. Swimsuit.

    1. Hey Max - I think you know me and the industry I work in (styling) to know I have zero problem swimsuit issues & models. I got my start styling 28 years ago by working for a year as the fashion director of Swimwear Illustrated Magazine - thanks for the nice comment on what I wrote - greatly appreciated. Hope to see you guys soon!

  2. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this topic as it relates to women and young girls. When this pictured popped-up, multiple times, today on my 9 year old daughters Instagram account I will admit I was a bit sad.

    Let me explain.

    I am a mother and like any mother, we set certain standards and expectations for our children. So yes, as a mom, I am always on “red alert”. In that I try hard to monitor all the avenues you mentioned because my children are at different stages in their lives and some content is appropriate while others are not. At this stage my boys are young and this topic is currently irrelevant. But for my daughter it is a very hot topic, but probably not in the way most assume. My beef is with the concept of the magazine, not the individual athletes. Today it caught my attention because it was specific to a skater that my child thinks is the gold standard of female skating.

    I agree with all your points on the double standards that are placed between female and male athletes. You broke it down and gave great insight to the disparity of female athletes and sexual finesse. But this is not what made my sirens go off. I have been in the health and fitness industry for the last 10 years, I am a dietitian. When I see ads like this I look at them from my jaded health perspective. Over the years I have watched and worked with countless individuals who struggle with body image. Whether it be identified as body dysmorphic disorder, disordered eating or a specific eating disorder- they all encompass unhealthy body expectations and desires. Leticia (as well as any other athlete that has been featured) have fantastic physiques based on their respective sport. Some of these bodies may be achievable for the average athlete but mostly they are not. Now, I am not saying in any way that this is comparable to the faulty image of the ideal body flashed by the fashion industry- that would be comparing apples and oranges.
    What I am saying is that I do not want my daughter to ever feel that success is measured based on body, whether that be the body of Leticia Bufoni or Amanda Bingson. For me this picture posted over and over today opened a door of great conversation between my daughter and I. I asked her to not look on Instagram for a day or two. Unsurprisingly, she asked why. We then were able to have a very open conversation where I talked to her about her body and what she thought about it. The conversation was very detailed and I will admit it was more than likely way over the top based on my occupation. I shared stories of female athletes I’ve worked with and what happened to their bodies when they started comparing themselves to others and so on. In the end she asked me if Leticia was still “awesome”. Of course my answer was HECK YES. She is my daughter’s idol. We go to Academy just to see if they have a new Nike campaign ad up of Leticia. #diehards

    The last thought was that I was able to explain to her that some people celebrate their bodies in different ways and that that choice does not make anyone good or bad. And then we went on to discuss choices she will have to make.

    I guess my long, boring thoughts are to say that I don’t fault anyone who chooses to celebrate their body (clothed or not, I can choose to look or look away). But I also do not want my daughter to lose sight of the fact that she is an athlete, regardless of what her body turns out to be or not be. So today, her idol is “busy” making her dreams come true and my daughter is “busy” working on hers (with pants ;).

    1. Thanks for the insight Natalie and taking the time to read the article. I am glad today started conversation in general and great that you and your daughter had a good one too. :-)

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