The Double Standard in the Sexual Objectification of Athletes

Each year, the two most prominent sports magazines in the United States, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN, run special editions of their periodicals that are meant to celebrate the human form - in one way or another. For Sports Illustrated, it's the Swimsuit Issue. For ESPN, it’s the Body Issue. Both magazine editions are received each year with a mix of anticipation, trepidation, and mixed reviews. So far, 2017 is no exception to this. 

According to a 2013 article in Newsweek, when Sports Illustrated printed its first Swimsuit Edition in January of 1964, “Its humble beginnings were rooted in a simple quest: to pique readers’ interests during the winter sports doldrums.” The other part of the then managing editor’s idea was to give its readers, at the time an almost exclusively male audience, a softer type of imagery, “He thought it would be nice to look at a pretty woman down on the beach.” 

In 2009, ESPN magazine debuted its Bodies We Want Issue as an attempt to revive the magazine’s dwindling sales. Printing and releasing the special issue with multiple covers depicting both male and female athletes from various sports appears on the surface to be a step in the right direction of simply appreciating the many forms of being human and an athlete. Look just below the shiny gloss of the front cover though, and you’ll see the ever-present double standard of sexually objectifying women staring you back in the face.

And here's why: every year its male viewers receive the Swimsuit Issue with great accolade. And each year, the magazine pushes the envelope just a little further toward the edge of crossing over into soft porn. The 2015 cover begs the question, “Why?” as cover model Hannah Davis pulls a shy schoolgirl face while appearing to slide her bikini bottom down almost to the point of obscenity. 2017 brings an issue with now 24-year old Kate Upton making her third appearance on the cover. At only 19 years old, she graced her first Swimsuit Issue cover posed in a sexually suggestive manner, clad in what can hardly be called a barely-there bikini, to be ogled at by millions of men around the world who presumably carried out some imaginative solo fantasising. I'll say that again. She was only 19 years old.

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At the opposite end of the spectrum, when male athletes grace the cover of ESPN's Body issue, there is a decidedly unfavourable reaction on the part of the male viewership. Interestingly, this year the coverage of the Body Issue's release by other media outlets came with the disclaimers such as, "WARNING: Images in the gallery above display nudity and aren't suitable for all readers” and “WARNING: NSFW images ahead.”

One of the 2017 covers is a photo of Ezekial Elliot, a running back in the NFL, and drew harsh criticism via social media. The following comments demonstrate the fragility of masculine tolerance for having to be subjected to a nude male figure. “@espn ESPN is straight garbage now,” “@espn what the hell?” and “SPORTS. THE S STANDS FOR SPORTS. NOT STRIPPERS” Funnily enough, the last comment garnering the response, “Oh, unless it's a girl in a thong...,” from a woman, which in essence appears to be exactly the case.

 

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An alternate cover of this year's Body Issue showcases Danish tennis icon, Caroline Wozniacki, with the caption “Caroline Wozniacki is ready for Wimbledon” by ESPN via Twitter. That tweet, however, elicited a much different response from male viewers demonstrated by comments such as, "[S]he will no doubt leak a sex tape before ever winning a grand slam,” “I think she’s ready for a lot more than Wimbledon…,” and “Would smash.” If you’d like to have a scroll through the comments yourself, I’ll just leave this here.

Per the same Newsweek article cited earlier in this post, the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue “generates around seven percent of SI’s annual revenue, according to Forbes. It’s also one of Time Inc.’s most profitable ventures, raking in more than $1 billion over the years and reaching a global audience of more than 70 million.” 

So, why is it then, that women and the female form are perfectly acceptable when posed provocatively in the nude as the apparent object of a mass male fantasy? Yet, a naked male athlete depicted in an unquestionably athletic pose draws the ire and disgust of that same male audience? 

Share your thoughts on the subject in the comments.