On Modesty, Asthetics, Body-Shaming and ESPN’s Body Issue(s)

For those who aren’t on social media, ESPN Magazine’s annual “Body Issue” came out recently. The issue features an assortment of athletes all posing nude. This year’s furor has been over married athletes Laird Hamilton (surfer and stand-up paddle boarder) and Gabrielle Reese (beach volleyball player). But less well known is Amanda Bingson, hammer-thrower from the USA.

I don’t subscribe to the magazine and I rarely even realize this issue is coming out and while I saw the pic of Laird and Gabby, I wouldn’t have given the whole thing a second thought if a facebook friend (who happens to be a Beachbody coach) hadn’t posted the pic of Amanda Bingson with the caption, “Ummm…She could put some clothes on. Even a bathing suit would do. But, love the message. Love that fitness doesn’t come in one size!” (I’m not linking to the pics in question, one can google them to find them.)

This friend had no idea that the pic came from this magazine or that all the athlete’s featured in it are posed nude. Not in suggestive or provocative poses but poses that showcase their sport as best they can (Bingson’s pic shows her mid-wind-up for the throw). She simply saw it in her feed and shared with that comment. Immediately people advised her the context of the shot. I even mentioned Laird and Gabby’s pic because if you were going suggest sexy, theirs would be the pic you choose. Bingson’s pic, to me is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s David, it is mid-action. There is a beauty to it, the beauty of the human form. It becomes, for me, an argument of asthetics.

My friend argued that they should put all the athletes in swimsuits which she says takes guts. Point taken, but the fit and muscular bodies of Hamilton and Reese, even swimsuited, would offend some sensibilities. Equally offensive could be considered the body of Bingson which, to an untrained eye, would come off as “fat.”

Bingson’s commentary is that athletes come in all shapes and sizes, which Olympic watchers can attest to. Comparing the bodies of Kerri Walsh (a beach volleyball player) and Missy Franklin (a swimmer) shows two subtly different bodies of top notch athletes. That’s nothing when comparing either Franklin or Walsh to athletes like Jordyn Wieber (gymnast) or Sarah Robles and Holley Mangold (weightlifters). Even within sports like track and field you have athletes like Bingson next to Lolo Jones (hurdles) or Jessica Ennis-Hill (heptathalon). And that’s just the women.

My Beach-Body coach friend did not attack Bingson from the angle of body-shaming as that’s not her jam personally and even if it was, would be bad for her business (she is open about her own weight and body-image struggles). She attacked from modesty. Her version of modesty is “bathing suit is okay, nudity is not.” And in my experience modesty is highly debatable.

For some, nothing short of a burka is modest no matter the person’s behavior or attitudes, for others, modesty is more a state of mind. I have often heard a quote about a nun being nude and modesty. I’ve seen people with a lot of cloth, manage to look super suggestively and some with much less not appear to be selling sex at all.

And then there comes in the issue of asthetics. I have no doubt my facebook friend is and would be very offended by nudity in renowned art. Renoir’s nudes and Michelangelo’s David would both offend her sensibilities where even someone like me who wouldn’t mind a dress code for the beach for all-goers sees them as beautiful. Where my friend sees the beauty of all body-types, she doesn’t necessarily want to see them artistically rendered whether in photographs like Bingson’s nor a sculpture from the Italian renaissance.

And asthetics, of course, bleeds into body-shaming. Because what is pleasing to one’s eye, is not necessarily pleasing to another. One commenter on my friend’s post called her out on whether she would have made the same comment on Gabby and Laird’s pic. She basically said, everyone should be in bathing suits. Regardless, I’m sure plenty of people who said how great Gabby and Laird look at their (close to mine, not really advanced!) ages, were disgusted by Bingson’s body. They’d want clothes on Bingson simply because of body type OR not want her featured at all.

As a Catholic who has come to embrace my own version of  modesty (yes I wear pants, but I’m not always happy with the length of shorts I find and prefer a rash guard and board shorts at the beach), I find myself in the unique position of embracing pictures like Bingson as the beauty of the human body, not pornography, but asthetically. I also find people who find her picture offensive  because of modesty standards or who are body shaming highly irritating. I think this goes back to Genesis:

God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

–Genesis 1:27

Bingson’s body was created in God’s image, as all of ours are. And while she is displaying it, it is in such a way to celebrate the abilities of what God has allowed our bodies to do, she is not exploiting her sexuality in any way. Yes, she has breasts, buttocks and a vulva, as do all women; even if they are covered up by multiple layers of clothing. What is showcased is the totality of her body and it’s ability for athletic greatness despite not being 98% muscle mass or trim and thin.

And people who would dare body-shame her? They are part of the problem. They are the reason other not-size two women are flaunting their bodies in barely there underwear in youtube videos with the express desire of exploiting their sexuality.

Those who are offended by modesty standards. Scroll by it. She is not trying to offend you. Don’t pick up the magazine. Some people don’t like nudity at all. That’s fine. You don’t have to look at her the same way you do not have to look at Renoir paintings. Just keep in mind, if you are re-posting it to social media to be critical…you’re promoting an image you consider to be immodest.

One day, I hope we can all embrace the bodies we were given that a beautiful and created in God’s image and do not feel the need to exploit them. And that we can celebrate the amazing things God has allowed our varied bodies to do. And that others can see the beauty God endowed.

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