Each year, ESPN releases an issue of their magazine that focusses on the physical form of different athletes. The athletes are photographed executing a typical movement from their sport completely naked.
Clearly, different physiques are better suited to different sports. Heavier bodies are great for football, taller ones for basketball, lighter frames for running and so forth. The concept behind this issue is to highlight that our perceptions of what “athletic” means are quite diverse.
But is the ESPN Body Issue helpful? Does it send a positive message, particularly in this age where body image issues can trigger many different illnesses?
The ESPN Body Issue for 2016 highlights 19 athletes. There are swimmers, footballers, basketballers, divers, beach volleyballers and others. The images are quite stunning. The photo of beach volleyball player April Ross in mid-air is quite stunning.
But here’s the thing – of all the athletes featured, only one is not super lean. The others are all likely running close to single-digit body fat levels. Now, I understand that athletes are, because of the chosen career, in great shape. And that the point of the ESPN Body Issue is to celebrate the human body and what it can do.
Look across the animal kingdom. Sure, there are animals that are faster, have greater endurance and are stronger. But can you find a single species that can do what humans do? Our diverse strengths are one of the great differences between us and the rest of the aminal kingdom.
However, the number of people who can achieve this level of peak physical condition is relatively small.
The upcoming Games of the XXXI Olympiad, to be held in Rio in just under a month will boast just over 10,000 athletes. Let’s say that for each participant there were 1000 elite athletes competing for their spot.
That means around 10,000,000 people were exemplars of human beings at the peak of the human condition.
The current population of the planet is around 7.4 billion people.
That means about 1.35% of the human population has reached the kind of strength and fitness displayed in the ESPN Body Issue.
Even if we double this, to allow for non-Olympic sports such as the various non-soccer football codes and other sports, it means that perhaps one in 50 people reach the kind of condition the ESPN Body Issue shows off.
I’ve found the images in the ESPN Body Issue to be quite stunning and a great celebration of what the human body can achieve aesthetically. But it’s important to see it in that light – which is what ESPN wants to achieve – and not as an aspirational goal many of us lack the resources and opportunity to achieve.