Interesting Week for Body Image in the Media

It’s no secret that the media–in general–has certain expectations when it comes to body image. Women feel the pressure of being thin, having perfect hair and makeup at all times (even while exercising–because God forbid we as women sweat and allow our mascara to run!), and of generally just looking a certain way. We all know it, and we all hate it, even as we try to conform. Men feel the pressure, too. There’s a pressure to have six-pack abs, to be muscular, to be masculine without being overtly so (*cough* manscaping *cough*). This week in the media brought so many of those pressures to light, and the reaction has been interesting, to say the least.

Prince Fielder ESPN The Body Issue Cover

Photo copyright ESPN

First, we have Prince Fielder’s ESPN The Body Issue cover. If you’ve been on social media at all this week, odds are you’ve seen the cover and the subsequent comments. While there have been positive comments, it seems as if the negative have been far more numerous. It’s disheartening, to say the least, that instead of reading the interview and respecting the fact that Fielder has strong arms and thick, muscular thighs, everyone’s focusing on the fact that he has a slight paunch.

You don’t have to look like an Under Armour mannequin to be an athlete. A lot of people probably think I’m not athletic or don’t even try to work out or whatever, but I do. Just because you’re big doesn’t mean you can’t be an athlete. And just because you work out doesn’t mean you’re going to have a 12-pack. I work out to make sure I can do my job to the best of my ability. Other than that, I’m not going up there trying to be a fitness model. – Prince Fielder, ESPN The Magazine, The Body Issue

To me, Fielder looks strong, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a Texas Rangers fan (I mean, the guy’s on the DL after having had season-ending neck surgery, and my team’s not exactly in the pennant race at the moment). On one hand, I guess it’s…I don’t even know the word, refreshing is the closest I can get…to see a man being fat shamed for once, because up until recently that’s solely been the domain of women. Refreshing really isn’t the right word, though, when more and more boys are developing eating disorders and I see my male friends on Facebook constantly talking about whatever diet they’re on or how they’re fat. Just like I want to shake my female friends, I want to shake my male friends–down that path lies madness. Believe me.

Like I said, the negative comments have been disheartening. On one hand, it’s easy to be perplexed–wouldn’t we, as Americans, LIKE to see a very successful athlete who looks more like an average American than Michael Phelps does? Wouldn’t we be glad to see that, hey, a more “normalized” body could be successful and athletic and play a game for a living? Apparently not, and unfortunately I’m not surprised. We, as Americans, have a hard time looking in the mirror. We applaud thin female celebrities who post au natural selfies to Instagram, but I guarantee you that if Melissa McCarthy did that, she would be lambasted.

Which brings me to my next subject.

Earlier this week, John Legend released a new music video for his single “You & I (Nobody In the World).” Like most John Legend songs, it’s a tribute to the woman in his life.

If you haven’t seen the video yet, it features women of all different shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities, including a young girl with Down Syndrome, and the song is basically saying, “Hey, you don’t have to try on fifty different outfits and have perfect makeup and hair because I think you’re gorgeous just the way you are.” It’s being praised all across the interwebs for being empowering and feminist and touching, and Buzzfeed claims it will make you feel all the feels. And it IS empowering and inspiring and touching because, yeah, we ARE all beautiful.

And then over the weekend Colbie Caillat’s new video, “Try,” started to pick up steam. In it, the queen of happy, California surfer chick folk pop tells women that we don’t have to try so hard, and implores us to take off our makeup and let down our hair. Like Legend’s video, it features women of different ages, sizes and ethnicities, in both full makeup and without. It, too, is well done and empowering and inspiring.

Caillat’s also being applauded in the media for making such a bold statement.

I have to ask, though: If Caillat looked more like me, or Melissa McCarthy, or any other “big” woman, would she receive so much applause? Yes, both Legend and Caillat feature a young plus-size woman in their videos (and I think both young women are beautiful, FWIW), along with some women who may not be considered traditionally beautiful. When you look at those women, though, they’re all pleasing to look at.

Therein lies the conundrum, or the thing that perplexes me. You have two music artists who are being applauded for showcasing all different kinds of women and sending the message that all women are beautiful, and then you have the backlash against Prince Fielder, who happens to be a large, athletic man.

If ESPN really wants to make a statement, they should feature Holley Mangold in next year’s The Body Issue (if you don’t know who Holley Mangold is, she’s an Olympic weight lifter who happens to be incredibly strong and athletic despite not being the skinny archetype we think of when it comes to female athletes). Unfortunately, I have a feeling the backlash would be even greater, because even though we like to think we appreciate and applaud diversity of body types, we obviously don’t.