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What Prince Fielder and ESPN the Magazine’s ‘Body Issue’ say about us

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For the past five years, ESPN the Magazine has published its Body Issue, part aspirational — its tagline is “bodies we want” — part celebratory catalog of athletic fortitude. And each year, the magazine seems to be met with a confused response from those who see the issue as little more than equal-opportunity cheesecake masquerading as high photography. It takes heat for either being objectifying or for perpetuating unrealistic body ideals in the same vein as the fashion glossies.

But this year, its sixth, the breakout star of the Body Issue is Prince Fielder, the chubby-cheeked first baseman for the Texas Rangers. Completely nude and clutching a baseball bat, Fielder, 5-feet-11-inches tall, made a distinct impression in contrast with images from Serge Ibaka or Larry Fitzgerald, who were more in line with da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. And thus, #HuskyTwitter, a paean to the more rotund among us, was born.

The body ideals set by fashion magazines via the models in their employ, set off with airbrushing and judiciously applied Photoshopping, come fully packaged with messages about wealth, class and gender. The elite still strive for a well-bred, meticulously curated air of patrician nobility: You should be slender, but not sinewy, toned but not overly muscular. If you’re a woman, evidence that you are in the possession of working sets of quadriceps or hamstrings should be kept at a minimum. Men should resemble polo players, not NFL linebackers.

ESPN’s Body Issue is decidedly more democratic. Its photographs are a visual testament to unforgiving training regimens, sacrifice, passion and commitment that isn’t always rewarded with multimillion-dollar contracts or endorsement deals. They illustrate the diversity of body types among those who call themselves athletes, from gymnasts who are tiny, explosive cannonballs of power to massively strong NFL offensive linemen. Not everyone need look like an Adonis to perform physical feats most of us would find impossible. It’s a celebration of the human body and its ability to continually bypass the limitations of our species; a PhD in wearing couture is not a prerequisite for inclusion.

Particularly with women, the Body Issue has the power to subvert ideas about the way we envision and define femininity, whether it be with boxer Danyelle Wolf’s admirably toned biceps or the wiry litheness of cliff diver Ginger Huber. It also challenges the dominant perceptions of athletes such as sailors, who need quick reflexes, flexibility and strength to power through a grueling haul like the Transpacific Yacht Race. The race also demands the crew sleep in shifts, as the boat never stops moving during the course of the 2,560-mile dash from California to Hawaii.

Certainly, we should be wary of over-idealizing sports when it comes to determining what humans should look like. Its communities are just as capable of breeding and fostering eating disorders and unhealthy body image problems — present in track and field, jockeying, wrestling, figure skating, gymnastics, triathlon and a host of other sports — usually perpetuated by overzealous coaches. But the Body Issue serves to disprove the notion that you must look a certain way to reach the apex of your sport. Remember when Jason Whitlock penned a column admonishing Serena Williams — get this — for being too fat? If your serve is more than 100 mph, what difference does it make whether you have a bikini bridge or a thigh gap?

ESPN the Magazine’s body issue hits newsstands July 11.