So, last year Kelly Slater went au natural for the 'ESPN 2010 Body Issue: Bodies we want'. It's a great image.
Included in ESPN's 'Bodies we want' this year, was Steph Gilmore:
Before you assume what I am thinking, you should know that I reckon both images are beautiful and indeed, on many levels (youthful, ageing, fit, athletic, desirable, healthy, aspirational, sexual) these are certainly bodies to want! I do, for sure.
But, of course, sometimes it is useful and interesting to think beyond the surface, beyond the desire and beauty...
While it is hard to access Kelly's shoot and interview from last year (it seems I have to pay to enter the ESPN archive, which is fine but not today), Steph's interview is up and available for now. You know what else is available? Her body stats (height and weight!) and some comments on which parts of her perfect young body are her favourites. These are the bits where the ESPN thing starts to fall apart for me. And yes, I am also disappointed with the way they shot Stephanie here. She is featured in this issue because of her success and capacity as an athlete. She is an active, powerful, strong and dynamic young woman, who moves through the water with power and speed. Yet despite this, they shoot her lying down on a beach lounger - reclining, still and awaiting something. Kelly's shot is much better - he's running to feature his toned and sinewy frame.
Of course, considering the exposed nature of surfing bodies, these kinds of shoots aren't that out of the blue. I mean, how often are women surfers photographed actually wearing clothes? That is not the problem though. Feeling good in a bikini is fine and should be encouraged and I don't mind admitting that I'm happiest when surfing in as little as possible. The problem is the way this gets turned into something marketable and sexualised. This was my main issue with Nike's all-girl surf film, 'Leave a Message'. The film presented strong and dynamic surfing, while retaining focus on the young women's bikini-clad bodies (in one case, also in thigh high stockings). Sorry, but that's not 'empowering', that's kind of shit. In this photo, Steph's achievements are stripped away and she is laid motionless on the beach. She looks hot, sure. But what's so sporty about that? Naked doesn't have to be soft-porn, people. Compare that to Slater's photo above and maybe you can see what I mean.
And let me make it clear that I'm not indicting Steph Gilmore as having done anything wrong. She has every right to participate in these photoshoots and to feel good about herself and her body. But the way companies and magazines try to sell this kind of thing as 'making the women who take part feel beautiful' wears a bit thin. Stab magazine (Boo! Hiss!) used the same kind of interview technique with Laura Enever when they convinced her to pose as a doe-eyed sex kitten a few issues ago. They asked her questions about whether the shoot had made her feel beautiful and, of course, she said yes. What else was she going to say anyway and would they have printed anything else? Stab made the whole thing seem okay by publicly showing that Enever was complicit and consensual in the process, removing space for claims of them having taken advantage of yet another teenage girl. And yes, this ESPN shoot is entirely different but there is an echo of the same thing in the interview here, for me anyway.
I know this kind of argument and discussion is far from new, and to be honest I'm even a little irritated at myself as I write because I really can't believe we are still having these conversations. But it's hard to ignore that sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same...