Historian Oliver Lee Bateman discusses the implications of baseball star Prince Fielder’s appearance on the cover of ESPN: The Magazine’s Body Issue.
So ESPN: The Magazine decided to headline its annual “Body Issue” with a provocative cover photo of Texas Rangers slugger Prince Fielder. Upon seeing this, I had several gut reactions, ranging from “Huh, ESPN: The Magazine, it’s nice to see that’s still around” to “Huh, Prince Fielder, it’s nice to see that he’s still around”–the latter because it’s pretty clear that Fielder fils has vanished from the sporting scene. Cecil’s son entered the major leagues with classic “old player” skills, recently underwent surgery to fuse two herniated neck discs, and may soon go the way of Rocco Baldelli and David Clyde.
But none of that touches on the deeper significance of this photo, which warrants further discussion for the following reasons:
1) That, first and foremost, a commercialized image such as this one has any deeper significance at all. “Athletes like Fielder…make the Body Issue truly beautiful, because they are the ones who send the message that the human body can be an impressive, lovely thing even if it doesn’t look like Ronaldo’s or [Serge] Ibaka’s,” wrote Travis Waldron in a rapid-response piece for ThinkProgress.org. Is it? Is that the message that ESPN: The Magazine is sending here? Because it seems to me that Fielder is a) not the least bit out of shape, body shaming tweets to the contrary, and b) even assuming for the sake of argument that he is, he’s the sort of “good fat” our society is much more tolerant of. The same goes for all of the bodies in the Body Issue: whether a gay body or a disabled body, every body in this year’s edition is undeniably attractive.
Fielder swings for the fences, displaying impressive lower-body development in the process.
2) As for point two, what’s the alternative? If it’s problematic that a “bad fat” body isn’t featured on the cover, what can be done to remedy that? How could such a “bad fat” body even appear there, if said individual isn’t involved in some capacity in athletics? Is every person involved in athletics ipso facto a “good fat” if heavier than average, since participation in sports implies a “health privilege” not available to those unable to attend a gym or afford athletic apparel?
Fielder discusses his appearance in the 2014 Body Issue.
3) Which brings us to point three: Why the Body Issue at all? The photography is, as always, top-notch in its technical execution, but there remains a curious “gendering” to the images in question (and no trans or intergendered person is featured at all–is this an error of omission or commission?). Fielder’s photos seem an exception to the rule, as the poses are oddly feminine (one half-suspects he’s wearing mascara)…but could that in turn be an implicit reference to the tendency of African-American men of significant stature to lampoon themselves in drag performances before white audiences? Moreover, isn’t displaying some bodies to the exclusion of others, not just here but everywhere in our consumer culture, a concern of the highest magnitude? And yet it continues to happen, over and over, and it’s even a process in which I and some other supposed “progressives” have been complicit–doffing our shirts at a moment’s notice and justifying it by thinking that we, like Fielder, are making some kind of bold statement about body image and self-esteem.
Fielder bares all.
4) But Fielder was making a bold statement, right? Waldron might be idealistic, but he’s correct that the cover means something, has some deeper significance…otherwise why would any of us write about this? The “body image mess” is just that; feelings of inequality abound, and no clear way forward has been articulated. I’ve written about wanting to be found attractive, as has fellow “Reviews and Commentary” columnist N.C. Harrison, but in both cases we’ve been left to conclude that someone does find us attractive. Fielder, it seems, has reached a similar conclusion. Are such conclusions, which reinforce the narcissistic tendencies present in every Facebook wall-gazing First World citizen, part of the problem, too?
ESPN profiles promising weightlifter Holley Mangold.
5) Finally, the question remains: could a large female athlete, such as Olympic weightlifter Holley Mangold (sister of NFL offensive lineman Nick), ever conceivably front a venture such as the Body Issue? Mangold’s received a great deal of media attention, including a positive write-up in The New York Times Magazine, and she’s assuredly “good fat,” if one wishes to employ such unlovely terminology. My hunch is that we’re many years away from such a moment, at least as regards these aesthetics-oriented “special editions” of male-oriented publications, for many of the same reasons I outlined in my discussion of CrossFit’s disparate deployment of male and female “action shots.” The crux of the matter is $$$: capitalism doesn’t just sell desires, it creates and shapes them, and the process of attitude-shifting and consciousness-raising outside the deluge of salestertainment that assails our senses is a slow and unsteady one. Furthermore, the cultural consensus about what constitutes a “good” appearance (and there are many possible such “good” bodies, as the Body Issue illustrates) is arrived at by way of distinction; discrimination and exclusion are how taste formation occurs, according to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. For some bodies to be marketable–as everything in a market society must be–others must not be.
Prince Fielder’s marketable body still has $100m due to it from the monster contract he signed with the Detroit Tigers in 2012, but perhaps he added a few more sawbucks to his bottom line with yet another magazine cover appearance. All things being equal, how many of us would have said no?
Photo credit–ESPN via ThinkProgress.org