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ESPN: The Body Gallery

Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Issue

A certain Twitter feed was knee-deep in raunch three weeks ago. Over a period of several days, the feed posted a series of photos, all of naked or nearly naked women, along with leering messages.

“This nude photo of @SamanthaHoopes is the Friday afternoon treat you were waiting for,” read one. The text was followed by the happy-face-with-hearts-for-eyes emoji.

Another tweet was speechless as well as breathless, communicated only by emojis: water splashing, hearts-for-eyes, water splashing, hearts-for-eyes. Pictured was a bare woman lying in shallow, rocky water.

“.@NinaAgdal getting vajazzled is the hottest thing you’ll see this week,” read another, along with the fire emoji. If you’re not familiar with the word “vajazzled,” all you need to know is that Ms. Agdal was photographed propped up on a beach, facing the camera, legs parted; her genitalia were obscured by a skimpy application of sand and rhinestones.

Go take a shower now if you’d like, but there won’t be enough soap and hot water to wash away the creepiness of the campaign.

Why am I bringing this puerility to the sports pages of The Press Democrat? Because the source was the Twitter account of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Yes, America’s most legendary sports magazine is still in the soft-porn business, and by now has abandoned all pretense of selling swimsuits. Many of the women in the Twitter posts were wearing no clothes at all.

The SI swimsuit issue has always struck me as an anachronism. Certainly, I’m not the first to ask what in the world writhing beauty queens have to do with athletics.

Its defenders would tell me to lighten up. Why drag politics into a little harmless ogling? They might even point out that the swimsuit issue helped change portrayals of the female figure, employing women who looked more like healthy California beach babes than stick figures, or that Sports Illustrated was one of the first publications to recognize the models by printing their names.

Still, it has always made me a little queasy. For 52 weeks a year, SI does a pretty good job of bringing attention to female athletes.

The swimsuit issue serves as a sad counterpoint, reminding us that many of the magazine’s subscribers still see women primarily as a collection of tanned and oiled body parts. The name of the publication gives the old creepers cover.

I know, I probably sound like a church lady who has unwittingly wandered into an “adult toy” store, face flushing as I clutch my purse with two hands.

It’s not like that. If you’re an adult, and if the content is created without exploitation or abuse (big ifs in the industry we’re talking about), I fully support your right to click through the World Wide Web’s endless expanse of pornography. Really, knock yourself out. Whatever your boat — man, woman, big, petite, old, prime of life, professional, amateur, nurses, lumberjacks, sadists — the Internet can float it.

I just don’t get why Sports Illustrated, the magazine of Dan Jenkins and Frank Deford, Steve Rushin and S.L. Price, “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch” and “Totally Juiced: The Confessions of a Former MVP,” has to be in the game.

If you still think I’m a prude, let me happily direct your attention to ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue. The 2017 version dropped a week ago, and it’s everything the SI swimsuit should be.

I’m no great fan of ESPN and its crushing corporate tentacles, but since 2009 the brand has gotten this right.

The body issue has featured athletes as diverse as Colin Kaepernick, Hope Solo, Manny Pacquiao, Ronda Rousey, yachter Jimmy Spithill and roller derby skater Suzy Hotrod — all captured artfully in little more than the clothes they were born with.

The most obvious difference between the two publications is the mingling of men and women in the body issue.

Part of what bugs me about the Swimsuit Issue is that it seems to ignore the idea that some of Sports Illustrated’s readers might be women, or gay men.

Also, look at the range of physiques in the body issue.

Most of the subjects are modern-day Adonises and Aphrodites, it’s true. But the spreads have also included big men and women like NFL defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, shot putter Michelle Carter and sumo wrestler Byambajav Ulambayar. This year’s edition features sprinter Novlene Williams-Mills, who had a double mastectomy after a 2012 breast-cancer diagnosis, and mountaineer Kirstie Ennis, a former U.S. Marine sergeant who lost her leg in a helicopter crash. Gymnast Aly Raisman is gorgeous, but at 5-foot-2, she probably wouldn’t have a chance to grace the pages of that other magazine.

The swimsuit issue tells women that if they look a certain way, men will adore them. The body issue tells men and women that if they’re great at what they do, they can look as they please.

Is the body issue titillating? Hell, yes.

It’s a feast of cheesecake and beefcake. The shots are styled and lit in a way that maximizes the rippling muscles and supple curves of the posed, and most are utterly naked.

Good for ESPN. We watch sports largely because we’re amazed by the power, speed, agility and grace of the athletes, and those qualities are extensions of their bodies.

These people are born with physical gifts that are almost beyond our understanding, and they work through pain, fatigue and boredom to perfect what was superior to begin with. Their bodies should be celebrated.

And make no mistake, that’s what ESPN does. The models of the swimsuit issue look passive, vulnerable, seductive, ready to fulfill the needy fantasies of middle-aged dads. The models of the body issue look like athletes. They are captured in action poses.

They are running, leaping, climbing, dribbling and skating — or at least coiled in the moment before they spring.

They look strong, capable and beautiful. They are glorious expressions of the human form.

Get it, Sports Illustrated? If you really want to feature scantily clad hardbodies, some of us would much prefer a swimmer issue to the swimsuit issue. It’s difficult to admit someone else is doing it better, but you should be taking pages from ESPN’s body issue.

In other words, please, more ooh-la-la and less ewww.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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